Saturday, August 6, 2016

To Make a Family, It is Really Not so Difficult, n'est pas? 

Natalie Savage Carlson and The Family Under the Bridge

The sun is blazing, the temperature outside is in the nineties and climbing, and even the most die-hard of sun lovers are waving the white flag skyward in desperation.

Time for a Christmas story!

Not that The Family Under the Bridge, Natalie Savage Carlson's 1959 Newbery Honor Book is, per se, a Christmas story, but the month is December, the setting is Paris, and the time is somewhere in the decade of the 1950s.

Book #39:  The Family Under the Bridge (1958) by Natalie Savage Carlson; illustrated by Garth Williams. 97 pages.

With the return of the cold weather, the old hobo Armand, returns to his winter spot under the bridge tunnel of a branch of the Seine in Paris, only to discover that it's already occupied by the  three young Calcet children, Suzy, Paul, Evelyne, and their little dog, Jojo.

The children's father has died, leaving the family homeless. Determined to keep her family together, their mother, Madame Calcet, leaves her children under the bridge during the day while she works at her job, where she hopes to save enough money to eventually afford a rented room of their own.

Armand wants nothing to do with the children - starlings is what he calls them, and nothing but trouble - but the children see through his feigned gruffness and before you know it, he becomes their unofficial Grandpapa. Madame Calcet is less than thrilled with this development, she is prideful and views Armand as an undesirable, but the children love him.

While the mother is at work, Armand takes the children on walking tours of Paris, including a visit to his friend Father Christmas (a fellow hobo friend temporarily employed) at the upscale department store the Louvre.  When Father Christmas asked them for their Christmas wish, their reply is a real house. When he tells them that he cannot fit a real house on his donkey, the children become despondent.

Armand, alarmed at the children's unhappiness, tries to cheer them up, and they end up singing Christmas carols on the street while Armand passes the hat. Later that night, when the mother discovers that he let the children beg, Armand leaves in anger.

The next morning, worried about the children, he returns to the bridge, only to learn that the children have been spotted by two society ladies who want to "save" them. Armand takes the children to another friend, Mireli, a gypsy who, with her clan, are temporarily camped in a courtyard in the middle of Paris behind a a section of buildings being demolished.

The children and Armand are warmly welcomed, and Armand goes back that evening to get Madame Calcet. Upon arriving at the camp, she is horrified that her children are among gypsies, who she calls thieves and wanderers. Armand admonished her, asking her why she thinks that she is better than the gypsies. Madame replies that she is honest. Armand grants her that, but challenges her as to whether or not she is kinder or more generous. She has no answer.

On Christmas Eve, the family attends a party given by the Notre Dame congregation for the street people, and one of the gypsy men, Nikki, drives them there in his car. Armand has not been to a mass in years, but he finds himself asking God to find  roof for his homeless family.

One day soon after, a policeman comes into the gypsy camp looking for Nikki. The gypsies immediately pack up camp and depart, but they leave a tent and some food for the Calcets. Paul wanted to go with them, and when they are unable to find him afterwards, they fear that he has, in fact, joined the gypsies.

Paul returns a little while later. He hadn't joined the gypsies, he had gone to the Halles, the huge food market, trying to get a job to help his family, but the men had all laughed at him because he was so little. Armand then decides that he will get a job and help the family himself.

The policeman returns, and they discover that he didn't want to arrest Nikki, but instead, return his stolen wallet with his weekly wages and a winning lottery ticket inside. Armand tells the policeman that he's gone, and the policeman leaves with the wallet.

A newly spruced up and trimmed Armand then finds a job that, in addition to a salary, provides a four room house for the family to live. He wasn't a hobo anymore. He was a workingman of Paris.

The Family Under the Bridge at

Carlson's writing style is wonderful. With a few lines of dialogue and just the right amount of description, she creates believable characters and realistic settings. Her descriptions of the streets, shops and marketplaces of Paris immediately draw in the reader, and she smoothly integrates several historical points in along the way.

The difficulties with this book for the modern reader are several. The first is the modern child's almost complete lack of knowledge of geography. They don't know where Paris is, they don't know where France is, and they've kinda sorta heard of Europe, like, isn't that a country in South America?
(I am drawing from real life here, and yes, it is depressing).

The second is the lack of historical knowledge. Adults reading this book are cognizant - please, God, please! - of the fact that they are reading about post WWII Europe. Today's child - no.

The third difficulty is the different set of social sensibilities and social awareness between the mid-20th century and today. Reading in the context of the time is a learned skill, and no child possesses this skill. For a child to appreciate this story, an adult needs to lay a considerable amount of foundation. In my opinion, this story is worth the effort, and here is why.

The story is a family story, about a family sticking together, about a family redefining itself after the death of a father, and about a family that isn't defined by blood relations. We have no control over the family into which we were born, but we do have the ability to create the family we need and want. This is something a child needs to know, and this is why they should have this story.

Madame Calcet's actions by today's standards would be considered criminal, herself an unfit mother, and her children taken away. I don't know that it was so different then. Discussion point. Were her actions justified? What were her alternatives?

I don't know if kids today even know the words hobo or tramp. I see hobo, I think Emmet Kelly or the desperate men and boys that rode the rails during the Great Depression. Carlson's Armand is a contented hobo, living the life he choses to live. Today's kids are unlikely to view homelessness as a happy lifestyle choice. Gypsies are another unknown, and Carlson's sympathetic portrayal is still rife with references to dusky faces and beady eyes. Additional conversation will be necessary, but it's worth the effort.

I have never read anything by Natalie Savage Carlson before. My first impression after reading several chapters was that English was not her first language. The sentence structure at times, the cadence, seemed distinctly French. I was wrong, but not completely out of the ballpark.

Natalie Savage was born in 1906 in Kernstown, Virginia. Her mother, a gifted storyteller herself, was French-Canadian. Natalie's first published children's book, The Talking Cat and Other Stories of French Canada (1952), was based on her mother's tales.

Natalie had three older half-sisters and two sisters. The family moved to a farm, Shady Grove, along the Potomac River in Maryland when Natalie was very young.

At the age of four, she was sent to the Visitation Convent boarding school along with her older sisters. After three years, she returned home. Later, the family moved to Long Beach, California.

From 1927 to 1929, Savage worked as a writer for the Long Beach Morning Sun.  In 1929, she married Daniel Carlson, a naval officer, and the couple and their children lived in a number of locations: Hawaii, Mexico, Canada, & France. They also traveled extensively.

According to her biography on the de Grummond Collection website of the University of Southern Mississippi, Carlson, who wrote over thirty books for children starting in 1952, said that she writes about people of different races and nationalities because of her French-Canadian relatives who visited her family when she was young. She found the differences fascinating, and felt that by presenting different cultures to children through her books she was promoting understanding, sympathy, and tolerance.

Some of Carlson's other popular titles include the Happy Orpheline series and the Spooky the Cat series.

In 1966, Carlson was the U.S. nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen International Children's Book Award.  She died in 1997.

Natalie Savage Carlson Papers at USM de Grummond Collection.

Garth Williams may be best known as the illustrator of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, and well as Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books.

Garth was born in New York City in 1912, educated in England, and was a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London. In 1936, he won the British Prix de Rome for sculpture.

He died in Mexico in 1996.

Garth Williams' obituary in the New York Times.

Garth Williams Illustrator page on Facebook.

Question: Does anyone recognize a children's book, maybe circa 1960s, about two young brothers who left their family farm during the Dust Bowl to ride the rails? At some point, the younger brother was killed in an accident, but that's all that I remember.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Day the Storks Returned to Shora

Meindert DeJong's The Wheel on the School

Meindert DeJong was not into self-promotion.

I already love the man.

Other than the two brief entries that I found in two separate volumes of Something About the Author, one of which was a short obituary (he died in 1991), I came up empty.

According to SATA, outside of his books, the only additional information available were The Horn Book's publication of his Newbery and Hans Christian Andersen awards acceptance speeches, and one article on how to write for children for Author and Journalist.

In DeJong's words, "... before he [the author] can perform that duty of art, he has to listen for and to only one challenge: he has to listen to the cry of creativity. But he has to listen to it alone."

Good luck with that in 2016.

Authors today seem to be under a constant pressure to be out there, to have a strong media presence, a platform, to be accessible and open and approachable and on and on and on, world without end. That leaves me to wonder, how in the world do they ever get any writing done?  I remember reading an article about Alex Haley, how, when he wanted to write he would book a passage on a commercial freighter effectively isolating himself from life's distractions for weeks at a time. Since the end result was Roots, I'd say it was a good call on Mr. Haley's part.

Lucky for us, DeJong also saved his energy for what counted, and today's post is the evidence.

Book #38:  The Wheel on the School (1954) by Meindert DeJong; illustrated by Maurice Sendak. 298 pages.

Shora is a fishing village in Holland. It has some houses, and a church, and a tower, and is situated tight against a dike on the shore of the North Sea.

This is Holland of a century ago, with wooden shoes and white caps and wide-legged breeches.

There are no trees in Shora, save one well-guarded cherry tree in the backyard of a legless man named Janus, who spends his days guarding its fruit against birds and children. And because there are no trees, and because there are no wheels on any of the roofs where they could build their nests, there are no storks in Shora.

Lina, the only girl in a school of six children, wants the storks to come to Shora. Her aunt who lives in Nes has told her all about them. Lina writes a story about storks and with the teacher's permission, shares it with her classmates Jella, Eelka, Auka, and the brothers Pier and Dirk.

The children, with their teacher's encouragement, decide to bring the storks back to Shora. But with no trees, the only other way to attract them is to mount wheels on the rooftops for their nests. The problem is that there is not a spare wheel to be had in the town, so each child is sent out to look for one, especially in places they will be least likely to find one.

In the course of their search, the children all become better acquainted with the people who live in and around their small fishing village, who eventually band together to help them on their quest.

There is Grandmother Sibble III, the oldest woman in the village and the only one who remembers a time when there were storks in Shora; Janus, the fisherman who lost his legs and who strikes terror into every child's heart until he becomes their friend and supporter, the tin man, with his large family and less than stellar sales; and old Douwa, who was nearly a hundred years old and who took long walks along the dike every day.

Once Lina and Douwa recover and old wheel from the wreckage of the man's old fishing boat, only narrowly escaping drowning in the process, it then falls to the fathers to mount the wheel on the roof of the schoolhouse. They do so during the course of a weeklong storm that prevents them from being out in their fishing boats, under Janus's stern direction.

The children, and all of the town by now, are thrilled to see the wheel mounted, but worried that the storm will prevent any storks from arriving and watch the skies for any signs of the magnificent birds. In the meantime, Lina's little sister and her friend manage to get themselves locked in the tower, but the entire village except the fathers, now that the storm is over they are back out at sea for weeks at a time, turns out in search and the tiny tots are found, but not before they spot two storks "standing out in the sea".

It turns out that the storks have been trapped in a sandbar, and it's a race against time to rescue them before the flood tide starts. But rescued they are, and after being warmed by a fire, the pair are carried to the wheel on top of the school, where, after some consideration as to its suitability, they make their nest.

The storks have returned to Shora.

This was a book I fell into easily and read straight through until the end. DeJong has a  straightforward style and the ability to infuse the characters in his story with distinguishable personalities with an economy of words.

The story's not an uncommon one in children's literature; not the storks, but the coming together of people for a common goal and the inevitable consequence of better understanding and appreciation of those around us when we just take the time to actually engage with another human being.

It's a good story, and a timely one.

The setting is the world of DeJong's childhood, a world that was gone even when the book was first published in 1954. But childhood memories are some of the most powerful memories we possess, and you feel, after reading the book, that somehow Shora is still a place that exists, maybe just a little bit out of reach, but with some effort still a realistic, not a romanticized, destination. A place where people would have been content keeping themselves to themselves, but were shown the error of their ways by a little girl's wish, a wish so, "... impossibly impossible that it just had to be. "

Wheel would make a great read-aloud and serve as a golden opportunity to explain why Holland and the Netherlands are not synonymous.

The Wheel on the School was the 1955 Newbery Medal Winner.

The Wheel on the School at

Meindert DeJong was born in 1906 in Wierum, Netherlands and died in 1991 in Allegan, Michigan. In addition to the Newbery Medal for The Wheel on the School, he also was the recipient of the international Hans Christian Andersen Award, normally given to the world's best single book of fiction for children, for his overall works for children in 1962, and in 1969 he won the National Book Award in Children's Literature for Journey From Peppermint Street.

DeJong only began writing at the age of thirty-two, and his first book, The Big Goose and the Little White Duck, was published in 1938. During WWII, he was stationed in China with the U.S. Army Air Corp.

DeJong retired from writing in 1986.

Brief biography of Meindert DeJong from the New Netherland Institute.

Maurice Sendak is for another post another day.  If you haven't already, read My Brother's Book.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Dick King-Smith and the Lives of Everyday People 

Crows, Corn and a Boy Called Spider in Spider Sparrow

Dick King-Smith is the author of The Sheep-Pig, which I have yet to read. The Sheep-Pig was the basis for the film Babe, which I have yet to see.  The Sheep-Pig was first published in1983 in Great Britain, and two years later it was released in the United States with the title Babe, The Gallant Pig. In 1984, King-Smith won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, a one time in a lifetime award for The Sheep-Pig.

This is an impressive accomplishment for a man who only began writing in his fifties, following his careers as a farmer and then as a teacher.

It's that farming background that comes through loud and clear in today's review for Spider Sparrow.

Book #37:  Spider Sparrow (1998) by Dick King-Smith, illustrated by Peter Bailey. 163 pages. 

Spider Sparrow's proper name is John Joseph Sparrow. Abandoned at birth, he is discovered, wrapped in an old woolen shawl, in an empty pen meant for sheep by the shepherd Tom Sparrow. Inside the folds of the shawl is a note, "PLEASE SAVE THIS LAMB". 

Tom and his wife, Kathie, have no children of their own, and with the assistance of Tom's employer, the farm-owner Major Yorke, they adopt the baby. 

It quickly becomes obvious that the child is "different".  Long, thin and sickly as an infant, he is still unable at the age of two to walk or talk. Instead, he moves on all fours, using his very long arms and legs, scurrying about like a spider, hence the nickname. And while he cannot talk, or seem to understand most of what is said to him, he possesses an uncanny ability to mimic the sounds of birds and animals, who respond to him as if he were one of their own.

Eventually, Spider masters a few phrases, his favorite being "Good un!".  His parents finally admit to each other that Spider isn't like other children.  In the language of the time, the boy is "simple", and everyone in the village knows it. In the words of the farm's manager, Percy, in discussion with Tom:

...all the village knows by now. Some'll be kind about it and some'll be cruel and some won't care - that's human nature for you. But I'll tell you one thing, Tom. Your Spider is a lucky little boy.

When Tom asks Percy just how Spider is lucky, Percy replied that the boy's got Tom and his wife for parents, and that he's happy.

By the time Spider is school age he can walk, but it's a splayed flat-footed gait, very slow, with his arms dangling before him.  He's the subject of mockery by a certain group of village boys, and one day they chase him and attack him when he falls to the ground. After that, Spider is only comfortable in his home or wandering the farm.  When he is denied entrance to the village school, his parents are secretly relieved that he won't be subject to the strain of dealing with others.

Spider continues to grow into a tall, thin teenager, but he is never strong, and always slow.  Happy to stay in his house and the farm, he is given the occasional job by Percy, who is impressed by the boy's ability with animals.

Most farm work is beyond him, but Spider excels at crowstarving, chasing away crows and other birds that try to feed on newly planted fields. Out on the farm, he's alone with the animals and at his happiest.

Spider's role at the farm expands with the advent of World War II, when many of the young men are called for military service. Percy's son is killed in action, and Major Yorke's is taken captive.

Aside from the lack of men, live goes on as before in the countryside, until one day a German plane crash lands near the farm, and the pilot is taken prisoner. But even after that event, life goes back to its old patterns of animal care and crops.

When Spider is sixteen, he catches a terrible cold and the doctor is called in. The doctor tells Kathie that Spider will be fine, but then afterwards takes Tom aside to warn him that Spider has a weak heart, and to be prepared. Shortly after, when Spider goes for a walk but doesn't return, Tom looks for him, and finds him in a shelter used during planting season. After sixteen years, Spider's heart finally gave out, but even in death, he was smiling.

Spider was happy.

Spider is the type of book I love to read but find less and less available. It's a quiet book, with nothing much really happening, where the focus is on people, and the natural rhythm of their lives.  In that it reminds me of Alcott's Little Women, a book I will read and reread just to spend time with Jo and Beth and Amy and Meg. I don't care what they're doing; I just want to see how they are.

Spider is set in a rural English village, beginning in the years following the Great War, a war that affected a good many of its inhabitants, and ending somewhere in the midst of World War II.  In his depiction of the time, place and people, King-Smith avoids any sentimentality; there is not some much as a whiff of nostalgia for some golden, simpler time which in reality only exists in revisionist memories.

People can be kind, but they can also be cruel. Life and death are a matter of course on a farm. Animals die. People die. We mourn, but life goes on. We do the best that we can.

Spider could walk, slowly, and talk almost not at all, but he was loved, and he was happy, and that is what truly mattered.

Dick King-Smith was a prolific writer, with something in the neighborhood of 125 books to his credit. The majority of the books focused on animal characters. Several of these books were adapted for film and television, most notably Babe.

King-Smith was born Ronald Gordon King-Smith in England in 1922 and died in 2011. He came from a well-to-do family that owned and operated a number of paper mills, and served in Italy in World War II. In 1943 he married Myrle, a childhood friend, while they were both in the service and they remained married until her death in 2000.

The Guardian ran an obituary on King-Smith when he died, and I'm providing the link here.  It pretty much sums up everything I've read on the man, and does a wonderful job.

I read another book by King-Smith titled The Catlady.  At some point I'll write a review, but if you get the chance to read it, do so. It's worth your time.

Dick King-Smith website.

Peter Bailey was born in India and grew up in London.  Read his biography at the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency.  Included is an online portfolio. Glorious!

Peter Bailey maintains a blog at Peter Bailey Illustrations.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Groundbreaking Blue Willow by Doris Gates.

It's Janey Larkin's Turn.

The best laid plans...

Back in May of this year, I wrote a post on Julia Sauer's Fog Magic, that included some background information regarding the ongoing controversy of the time that pitted proponents of realistic fiction against advocates of imaginative fiction as far as which of the two was the "best" type of literature for children. 

On the realistic side, Doris Gates' Blue Willow was frequently cited as a groundbreaking work.   Gates, who had worked as a librarian in schools for  California's migrant population, won the 1941 Newbery Honor award for her book.

Several weeks ago I finally read Blue Willow (in one night) and did some research on the author, Doris Gates.  My recommendation is that you stop reading this post right now, go out, buy the book, read it, and order multiple copies for your library. Once those copies come in, booktalk it to every class, third grade and higher, and then give it to each teacher to read.

It's that good.

This book reads as if it were written yesterday, an amazing feat considering it was first published in 1940.  The only giveaway that it wasn't was a single reference to a fellow migrant worker as a Negro as opposed to black or African-American.  That's it.

I had intended to write the review the following day, but circumstances arose that delayed its composition until today. In the meantime, I managed to misplace both the book and my notes, so some of the information that I'd hoped to share will have to wait for another day. 

Book #36: Blue Willow (1940) by Doris Gates. 176 pages. Illustrated by Paul Lantz.

Ten-year-old Janey Larkin has only the faintest memory of life on the family's Texas ranch, and of her mother, who died when Janey was very young.  The one thing, only thing, she does have is a blue willow plate, a plate that has been in her mother's family for generations.  It is her most cherished possession, and a symbol of Janey's deepest wish, to have a permanent home of her own.

But it's the 1930s, and the loss of the family ranch due to a combination of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl has left Janey and her parents - her father remarried - to make their living as migrant farm workers up and down the West coast.  The family is close knit but not demonstrative, and Janey is required to read from their only book, the family Bible, every day to improve her reading.

The story opens with their arrival at an abandoned shack in the the San Joaquin Valley, where Mr. Larkin will work bringing in the cotton crop for the owner, Mr. Anderson. There is a Mexican family across the way, the Romeros, and Janey, after some initial resistance, becomes best friends with one of the daughters, Lupe.  The Romeros have lived in the same place for over a year, and Lupe attends the regular school in town.  Janey, who has never stayed anywhere more than a few months, attends the camp school for the children of the migrant workers.  Unlike many of the children, Janey has never worked in the fields herself; Mr. Larkin will not allow it.

Despite herself, Janey finds herself becoming more and more attached to the place and the people, and has to keep reminding herself that they could be moving on any day.  She visits a country fair, her first, with the Romeros, and her father places second in a cotton picking contest that gives the family a much needed infusion of cash.

The one fly in the ointment is the ranch's overseer,  a shifty character named Bounce Reyburn, who demands a monthly rent for the shack and only reluctantly supplies Mr. Larkin with a receipt.

The contest cash goes for some much needed necessities; tires for their car and a new coat for Janey.  When Mrs. Larkin becomes ill, there is no money for a doctor, and Bounce refuses to allow the family to stay unless he is paid.  Janey, knowing that her mother must rest to get well, offers Bounce her one possession, the blue willow plate.  He takes the plate, but it's only a temporary solution.  There's no more work for Mr. Larkin, and the family needs to move on.  Janey, desperate for a final look at her blue willow plate, makes her way to the ranch owner's house.

The ranch owner, Mr. Anderson, knows nothing about any blue willow plate, but soon coaxes the entire story from Janey.  Furious, he fires Bounce and offers Mr. Larkin Bounce's old job, an offer he quickly accepts.

Janey Larkin has come home.

This book is so good on so many levels, it's difficult to know where to start.  Janey is a thoroughly believable little girl as are her parents. Was it a fairytale ending? Of course it was, but sometimes, if rarely, fairytales do come true.  Gates doesn't sugarcoat the extreme poverty or the precariousness of the migrant worker's life, and she also avoids making Janey and her family symbols as opposed to real flesh and blood individuals. The Romeros are never stereotyped Mexican as was common in children's stories back then, and even Bounce, a true s.o.b., is given his due as being good with cattle but clueless about people.  Excellent writing, excellent story. Read it and see for yourself.

Blue Willow at

Doris Gates was well acquainted with the lives of migrant workers. Born in Mountain View, California in 1901, she was the daughter of a physician who made frequent house calls to the surrounding rural population.  The family later owned a prune ranch where Gates had direct contact with migrant workers and their lifestyles.

A California resident for most of her life, Gates worked as the director of library work with children for the Fresno Free County Library fro 1930 - 1940.  A reduction in her hours gave her the opportunity to pursue her writing, and her first book, Sarah's Idea, was published in 1938, followed by Blue Willow in 1940.  All in all, Gates published over twenty-five books, including several textbooks and a number of books on Greek mythology. She died in 1987 in Carmel, California.

Here is where I wish I had my notes.  Somewhere in them is a paragraph taken from an interview with Gates about her childhood, the instance that she realized that there would be many, many things that she couldn't do because she was a girl, things that only men could do.

This did not sit well with Gates, as a child or an adult, and something of that frustration is evident in a paragraph in Blue Willow.  Mr. Anderson, the ranch owner, had just offered Mr. Larkin Bounce's old job. Seventy-five dollars a month, a house, and all the eggs and milk they could use.  Mr. Larkin said nothing, and Mr. Anderson repeated the offer.  Still silent, Mr. Larkin, still dazed,  held out his hand, and Janey, watching, wanted to scream out, to yell, to make sure Mr. Anderson understood that her father did want to job, but she didn't, and Gates wrote the following:

But Janey had learned during her strange life that there are times when only men are important, when even grown-up women didn't matter at all. And certainly not little girls. This was distinctly one of those times.


Doris Gates papers at the University of Oregon.

Brief biography of Doris Gates.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Ultimate Get Away From It All 

William Pene du Bois' The Twenty-One Balloons 

No matter how many bookmarks I buy - and I buy them by the pack - I can never get my hands on one when I need it.  So I am very grateful to the individual(s) at my local public library for providing a consistent supply of different booklist bookmarks, conveniently located next to the self-checkout stations.

This past week's bookmarks featured a booklist on Microhistory: A Social History of Just One Thing.  Some of the books I've read: Kurlansky's Salt: A World History, Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, Barry's The Great Influenza, and Krakauer's Into the Wild. All great reads, and I'd recommend every one of them.  Others on the list I've yet to read, including Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, by Simon Winchester. 

Winchester's book caught my eye because it happens to be the setting for Pene du Bois The Twenty-One Balloons. What are the odds of reading a children's book set in Krakatoa (or even the fact that one exists) and then that very same week picking up a bookmark referencing that very place? It's like buying a new car that's bright blue and all of a sudden noticing that every other car on the road is bright blue also. I'm sure there's a name for this phenomenon, or maybe not. I tend to over think.

Either way, the appearance of the word Krakatoa twice in the same week must be a portent (in the archaic sense), so here is today's review of William Pene du Bois' The Twenty-One Balloons.

Book #35: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois (1947), illustrated by the author.  180 pages.

Professor William Waterman Sherman has spent the past forty years teaching mathematics in a school for boys in San Francisco, California, and at the beginning of the story is feeling every minute of those years. With the freedom of retirement looming on the horizon, Professor Sherman begins to take the necessary steps to fulfill a long simmering ambition of sailing the world in a balloon for one solid year. Alone.

The man wants his privacy.

Ballooning has been all the craze in the thirty years since the end of the Civil War, and Professor Sherman has been an avid follower of the sport. He joined the local Explorer's Club in San Francisco. He studied, planned, tested and retested various designs, finally settling on a variation of the plans of the great French balloonists Giffard and Nadar, and their balloons the Clou. and the Geant.  Sherman gave his design to the Higgin's Balloon Factory, and named the final product the Globe.

On August 15th, with little fanfare other than a small article in the back pages of the newspaper, Sherman set off on what he hoped would be a year-long journey across the globe, traveling where ever the winds might carry him. Alas, it was not to be, for on the seventh day the balloon was damaged by an errant seagull and the professor found himself stranded on a tropical island of a very special kind.

Krakatoa, a volcanic island located in the Sunda Strait of Indonesia.

And he wasn't alone.

When Sherman came to, he was greeted by a gentleman in a white morning suit wearing a white cork bowler.  After offering the badly sunburnt professor a similar suit of clothing, along with a set of cufflinks made from four diamonds the size of lima beans, he introduces himself as Mr. H., and explains that unknown to the outside world, the island is inhabited by a group of specially selected families, all of whom support themselves through the periodic sale of diamonds to other countries.

Discovered by a shipwrecked sailor, the diamond mines - truly wondrous to behold - are immense, and capable of supporting the families in opulent style for the rest of their lives. Mr. H takes the professor back to his own mansion, and informs him that he will now need to think of himself as a permanent guest of the island, since the families cannot risk disclosure by allowing him to leave.

During the next few days, the professor learns more of the history of the inhabitants and their manner of living, focusing on exotic architecture, foods, a novel calendar and the unusual education of their children.  The professor also adapts physically to the periodic disruptions of the surface of the island, the result of underground volcanic activities.

When queried by Sherman as to an exit plan in the event of a volcanic eruption, the residents inform him of their plan.  Should an eruption threaten, they have constructed a huge raft, to be lifted skyward via balloons, that will carry them, along with a stock of diamonds, to other lands where they can resettle.  Not that they are particularly concerned; as they informed the professor, the volcano has been dormant for over 200 years, after all.

When Krakatoa erupts, everyone rushes to the balloon raft, and, after a harrowing near-failure to rise, escapes.  All save the professor have a parachute, so he is left to last on the raft, descending into the Atlantic Ocean, where he is eventually saved after being spotted by a passing freighter en route to New York City.

Back home, the professor is returned, with great fanfare, to San Francisco via the Presidential train, and, after being carried to the Explorer's Club and placed in a bed on stage, and recounts the above tale to a breathless audience. At the conclusion of his speech, the professor is asked about his future plans.  He replies that he intends to have another balloon built, a Globe the Second, a seagull resistant one, and spend a year floating around the world. And just how will he finance such an expedition?

With the sale of a single pair of cufflinks.

Balloons was a bit of a slow go at the beginning, but really picked up the pace once the professor took to the air.  I learned a great deal about ballooning, a topic on which I was totally ignorant, and of course that lead to a healthy dose of non-fiction reading up on the subject. Giffard and Nadar are real people, fascinating people, and they and their balloons were quite the sensation in their day.

The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 is well-documented, and resulted in the deaths of over 35,000 people. It was an event that was literally felt around the globe. For a brief history, go to this link at

21 Balloons turned out to be a fun read, and I can see older intermediate and middle-school kids enjoying the book. The author's writing style is more adult than geared for children - an example of an author who writes books that children can read versus an author who writes specifically for children. As far as the illustrations, they fit the tale, but I personally preferred his scenery versus his people, who came off as stiff and with slightly diabolical expressions. To each his own.

Like many older books, there are instances throughout the book that come off as dated/unfortunate. There is a scene involving a generic American Indian where the individual expresses himself in Hollywood Indian speak - easy enough to revise, and a reference to a Negro clown performing at the London Music Hall - again, easy to fix if the will/legalities are all in place. Penne du Bois died in1993. Hopefully whoever controls his estate would be open to the idea.

(I see that Amazon sells a 1986 edition of the book.  My version is older, so if anyone reading this has read this newer printing, I'd love to know if it includes any revisions.)

Link to The Twenty-One Balloons at

William Pene Sherman du Bois was born in 1916 in Nutley, NJ but spent most of his life in France. He served in the army during World War II, and also served as a correspondent for Yank magazine. After the war, he continued to write and illustrate his own books, as well as illustrate books for other authors such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Edward Lear, and Rumer Godden.  He was the first art director for The Paris Review starting in 1953.

In 1948, he won the Newbery Medal for The Twenty-One Balloons, and was twice a runner-up as an illustrator for the Caldecott Medal.

Penne du Bois wrote or illustrated over twenty-five books during his lifetime.  As always, whenever I review one book by an author, I end up adding more books by the same author to my list of books that I want to read/review. It's a long list. Several that look particularly interesting to me here are The Lion, Lazy Tommy Pumpkinhead  (part of an uncompleted series on the Seven Deadly Sins), Squirrel Hotel, and Gentleman Bear.

He died in 1993 at the age of 76 of a stroke in Nice, France.

Read his obituary in The New York Times

William Pene du Bois' papers at the New York Public Library.

William Pene du Bois' papers at the University of Minnesota Libraries.

Friday, October 30, 2015

A Full Moon, An Old Man, and a Dog

Tony Johnston's New England Ghost Story, The Ghost of Nicholas Greebe

A weathered New England farmhouse. A bleak winter’s night; a cold so deep and air so laden with moisture that your bones ache to their very marrow in protest, and not even the finest of down can offer relief. Under the pale, full moon, an old man lays dying, shuffling off his mortal coil at exactly the stroke of midnight.

In the morning, the grieving family hurries through the formalities of Christian burial, and the body of Nicholas Greebe is laid to rest under the thinnest of frozen soil.

But not for long.

New England + Supernatural to me always equals Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown. A wealth of scholarly articles have been written about that particular tale, almost all of which I quit reading somewhere before the end. (Disclaimer-the minute someone other than the author starts to wax eloquent regarding the true meaning of any book, short story, poem, etc., I'm out of the room. I'll find my own meaning; thank you very much.) I first read the story in high school, a rare required reading assignment in that I actually enjoyed it, and the story, with all its pervasive sense of ominous foreboding and other-worldliness, has stayed with me ever since. A perfect capture in words of a time, a place, and a people, focusing on the private backrooms as opposed to the public parlor.

I am not, for even a minute, claiming that The Ghost of Nicholas Greebe is the younger set's equivalent of Young Goodman Brown. What I am saying is that Tony Johnston's text, combined with S.D. Schindler's illustrations - wonderful, fantastic illustrations - capture perfectly the mood and setting for a New England tale of the paranormal. And since this is the season for spirits and shadows and bumps in the night, I present…

Book #34: The Ghost of Nicholas Greebe (1996) by Tony Johnston; illustrated by S.D. Schindler. 32 pages.

Yankee farmer Nicholas Greebe, born in the year 1692, dies in his own bed an old man, at the precise stroke of midnight, and is buried the following day, a bone-shivering, brutally cold and damp winter morning. The ground was so frozen that the deceased remains were just barely covered, and marked by a marble headstone with the face of an angel (who just happens to wear a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles).

A year to the day later, during a party at his house where the departed man is toasted by his remaining family, a small dog escapes through the front door and begins to dig at the grave of Nicolas Greebe. His efforts are rewarded with the old man's thighbone, which, through a series of circumstances, travels from it rural resting place to a place on a whaler that sets sail to Alaska from Boston.Nicholas, furious at the loss of his bone, appears as a ghostly specter to his family in the midst of a holiday gathering and declares:

                                                       From this night forth

                                                       I quest, I quest,

                                                       till all my bones
                                                        together rest.

All present run shrieking into the night, leaving the ghost of Nicolas Greebe in his house, along with his frightened widow.

Greebe proceeds to haunt the farm, and every year his specter appears in the parlor on the anniversary of the theft, repeating his determination to continue until his bones, once more, together rest.

These shenanigans continue for the next hundred years.

Meanwhile, his bone has been decorated with scrimshaw, survived a shipwreck, and been transformed into the handle of a satchel.  But not any satchel.  This satchel was purchased in far off Alaska, by a seaman who was a direct descendant of Greebe. Betrothed to a local girl, the seaman returns home to marry, on a night that is exactly one hundred years to the day that the bone was carried away by the family dog.

The family still has a dog, a dead ringer for the original canine, and this dog immediately goes to the satchel, and, while the family is busy celebrating, chews off the handle, carried it outside, and buries it in the grave of Nicholas Greebe.  His skeleton whole once again, the spectral Greebe appears before his startled descendants, declares his quest over, and is never seen again.

The same can be said for the face of the angel on his headstone. Visiting the sight of the old man's grave, visitors from that day forward saw a new, and unexplained carving where the angel had been. A small dog was now carved into the stone, and in his mouth, he held - a bone.

The End.

This is not a scary story, but it is a ghost story, and an excellent one for young audiences. Not all ghost stories are scary, after all. The illustrations of the colonial Massachusetts countryside and the wharf at Boston Harbor, the details of the clothing and Schindler's use of grey, brown and white as predominant colors creates a feeling of cold, damp and slightly antique. There is too much quirkiness in the expressions of the people for a reader to feel any type of apprehension, although if the text were used strictly for storytelling, the story could come off as significantly spookier. I read this aloud to my second and third graders and they thought it was just great.

So do I.

The Ghost of Nicholas Greebe at

Tony Johnston has published over 100 books, over a vast range of subjects, with audiences ranging from Pre-K to YA, written in English, Spanish, and English/Spanish, collaborating with illustrators such as Tomie dePaola, Walter Tripp, Margot Tomes, Lillian Hoban, Leo Politi, Mark Teague, James E. Ransome, Barry Moser, Wendell Minor, Tony DiTerlizzi, Melissa Sweet, and more.

Born in 1942 and named after Tom Mix's horse, she taught grade school and worked as a editor for a number of years before beginning her writing career in 1972. Some of her other books are Five Little Foxes and the Snow (1977), Conchas y caracoles (1979), The Vanishing Pumpkin (1983), The Quilt Story (1985), The Soup Bone (1990), and Day of the Dead (1997).

Johnston and her family lived in Mexico for fifteen years.  In 1999, she adopted the Del Rey School in King City, California, her goal being to provide an ongoing source of classroom and library books.

Biography of Tony Johnston at Penguin Books, Inc.

Tony Johnston's Papers at the University of California, Fresno.

S.D. Schindler  at

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Rebel with a Cause Wins the 1928 Newbery Medal


Dhan Gopal Mukerji's Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon

In 1947, the British Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act, establishing Indian and Pakistan as independent nations and marking the end of two hundred years of British rule. 

Dhan Gopal Mukerji, born into the Brahmin caste, didn't live to see his country free from Britain. But during his lifetime, Mukerji worked tirelessly not only for an independent India, but also as an ambassador of Indian culture and the Hindu religion through his writing and public appearances.  

Mukerji published a number of successful works, including poetry, plays, adults novels, and his autobiography Caste & Outcast, but his most famous book was a children's book, the subject of this review:

Book #33: Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon (1927) by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, illustrated by Boris Artzybasheff. 191 pages.

This is not a book to be read quickly, or to read while distracted.

Mukerji is an exceptional writer, and his imagery is among the best in children's literature. Here is his description of wild geese on their journey to Ceylon:

By the way, are not geese the most ungainly birds when they are not flying or swimming? On the water they resemble dreams floating on pools of sleep...

Gay-Neck is a carrier pigeon, raised and trained by the book's narrator, a boy of fifteen born into a Brahmin priest caste family in pre-WWI Calcutta.  The art of domesticating pigeons goes back thousands of years in India, and is widely practiced from the most humble of homes to the most majestic of palaces.

Gay-Neck's father was a tumbler and his mother a carrier. Gay-Neck's name is Chitra-griva, meaning "painted in may colors" and "neck", hence Gay-Neck, or more formally "Iridescence-throated".

The beginning of the book is dedicated to the art of raising pigeons and the nature of their training in developing their sense of direction. The narrator describes the actions of the pigeons in detail, but never anthropomorphically. It is a fascinating account but only part of the larger story.

Gay-Neck is a novel of India, of the Himalayas, the lamaseries, the religions and a philosophy of life very different from the one held by most of its Western readers. The narrator relates his adventures in the jungle and the mountains with his friend Radja, also a young Brahmin priest, and the old hunter Ghond. And, of course, Gay-Neck.

At one point, Gay-Neck has a close brush with death, but is later healed of fear by a lama at a lamasery.  When Gay-Neck's owner inquired as to how this was done, the lama explained:

...that no animal, nor any man, is attacked and killed by an enemy until the latter succeeds in frightening him.  I have sen even rabbits escape hounds and foxes when they keep themselves free of fear. Fear clouds one's wits and paralyses one's nerve. He who allows himself to be frightened lets himself be killed.

The lama went on to explain since he has been without fear for over twenty years, whatever he touches, in this case Gay-Neck, will also become utterly fearless.

There are several chapters where Gay-Neck tells his story in his own words, including his recounting of his friendship with a family of Swifts, whose legs are close to nonexistent and claws little more than hooks, but whose saliva, when it hardens, creates a nearly indestructible nest.

Finally, the day comes when Gay-Neck, trained as a carrier pigeon, along with Ghond, goes to war with the British army in the battlefields of France. Both survive, in their final reconnaissance it is a feral dog that saves them, but both are broken by the experience.

Returning to India, both Ghond and Gay-Neck need to be healed from fear and hate. Ghond travels to a lamasery near Singalila, with Gay-Neck and his owner soon following. After a final adventure with a wild buffalo that had been attacking a nearby village and killing people, the two are healed.

In conclusion, Mukerji writes:

Whatever we think and feel will color what we say or do.  He who fears, even unconsciously, or has his least little dream tainted with hate, will inevitably, sooner or later, translate these two qualities into his action.  Therefore, my brothers, live courage, breathe courage, and give courage. Think and feel love so that you will be able to pour out of yourselves peace and serenity as naturally as a flower gives forth fragrance.
Peace be unto all!

As I stated at the beginning of this review, this is not a book to be read quickly, or when distracted.  I tried to read this book twice before, and was unsuccessful for both those reasons. One of the pitfalls of being a children's librarian is that we read so many books in shorthand, i.e., not really reading the entire book, but surveying its contents with a mental checklist that takes in writing style, characters, age appropriateness, subject matter, acceptably moderate to unacceptably excessive use of a soapbox by an author in a given story, and so on and so forth. Great for considering additions to the collection, bad for truly experiencing the story and the language.

To truly appreciate Mukerji's tale, you have to slow down, sit down, and focus. When I did that, I was entranced.  Hopefully, you will share the same experience, and pass it on to your students.

Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon was awarded the 1928 Newbery Medal, the first Asian-American title to win the award.

Dhan Gopal Mukerji was born in 1890 in a village near Calcutta.  His family were members of a Brahmin priest class, and at the age of fourteen entered the priesthood, after two years of living as a beggar as a traditional prerequisite. 

Less than a year into the priesthood, Mukerji realized that it was not the right choice for him and subsequently left the priesthood to attend school, first at the University of Calcutta and then at the University of Tokyo, a move that may have been prompted by his growing involvement in groups supporting Indian independence, and his family's desire to keep him safe.

Mukerji spent several years at the University of California at Berkeley, where he became more involved in radical groups seeking social justice for society's marginalized populations, groups like the I.W.W., the Industrial Workers of the World, known as Wobblies. He then transferred to Stanford, earning a degree in 1914 and marrying fellow student Ethel Ray Dugan. They had one son.

Mukerji's last published work was Fierce Face - The Story of a Tiger published in 1936.  Mukerji died in 1936 in New York City, of suicide. He was forty-six years old.

Books by Dhan Gopal Mukerji at Project Gutenberg

Boris Artzybasheff at the Society of Illustrators