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

Monday, September 7, 2015

On Vacation…

Next New Post will be Monday, September 14th

Make That Wednesday, September 16th...

Monday, August 31, 2015

Whether or Not It Happened Doesn't Mean It Isn't True

Mary and Conrad Buff's The Apple and the Arrow: The Legend of William Tell

To say that American children are unfamiliar with Swiss history is an understatement of considerable magnitude, and to say that American children are unfamiliar with American history only slightly less so. 

Americans, with a few notable exceptions, have little use for history. Yes, it is taught in school, and 8th graders in many states must take a mandatory test on the U.S. Constitution in order to maticulate to high school. But, after only a few moments of conversation with a high-school freshman it becomes clear that retention is an issue.

Maybe it's because we are such a young country in comparison to the rest of the world.  Or maybe that fact that most of us, as descendants of immigrants, were raised on the mantra of a bigger, better future, a future that would have been impossible to imagine in our countries of origin, with their rigid class structures or traditional educational institutions.  Whatever the reasons, we Americans possess a very limited knowledge of who we were and where we came from. We share very few truly unifying stories, stories that bind us as a people and celebrate our shared heritage.  

The Swiss, on the other hand, have a number of unifying stories, the most famous of all, and perhaps the only one even remotely familiar to the non-Swiss, is the legend of William Tell.

The bare bones version of the story is that in the 13th century, William Tell was the greatest bowman in the canton (state) of Uri.  At the time Germany, Austria and Switzerland (the land that would become those countries) were ruled by Austria. Then, an Austrian king named Albrecht came to the throne, and he was harsh and cruel. He sent bailiffs into the country, and one that was particularly vile was the bailiff Gessler, who built a great stone castle at Altdorf, with a prison where he threw anyone he even suspected of championing independence.

Men from the three Swiss cantons came together and determined to revolt on New Year's Day.  They did not want bloodshed, but they were determined to rid their land of the bailiffs.  William Tell was one of those men.

But before the revolt happened, William ran afoul of Gessler, when he refused to bow down to a hat, placed on top of a pole in a town square, that represented Austria. Gessler, furious, said both Tell and his son were to be killed, but, intrigued by Tell's reputation with a crossbow, told him that both he and his son would be spared if he shot an arrow through an apple placed atop of his son's head.  Tell did, but then told Gessler that had his son died, he would have used his other arrow to kill him.

Enraged, Gessler had Tell arrested, but Tell escaped, in several versions he kills Gessler, and then returns to his family to take part in the successful uprising on New Year's Day.

This story, told from the point of view of Walter, Tell's oldest son, is the basis for today's review.

Book #32: The Apple and the Arrow (1951) by Mary and Conrad Buff. Illustrated by Conrad Buff. 80 pages.

Walter Tell loves and admires his father, William Tell, and longs of the day when he too will be a great bowman. The Tells are a close and loving family, true to their faith and brave in the face of adversity. Walter has a little brother, Rudi, who feels about Walter the way Walter feels about their father.

Walter's mother, Hedwig, is the one who tells her oldest son about his father's involvement in the quest for independence from Austria. When William and his son draw the ire of Gessler, and the most famous arrow in history splits the apple cleanly in two, the ensuing events unfold as experienced by Walter.  Tell's eventual reunion with his family and the successful expulsion of the detested bailiffs from Uri end the book on a happy note, and a wonderful concluding paragraph by Mary Buff.

Today it does not matter whether the story of William Tell really happened or is a legend handed down. For the story of a brave man's revolt against tyranny is always true-as true for us now as it was in the far-off days of The Apple and the Arrow.

This is a excellent read-aloud for the intermediate grades.  The writing is straightforward, and at times poetic, and the illustrations are beautifully done. Given the subject matter, I would not begin to read this book to students until after giving a brief summary of the places and events of the book. Show them where Switzerland is located on a globe or map. Explain what the Alps are, and a few words on herding wouldn't be a bad idea either. Then go ahead and enjoy the book.

The Apple and the Arrow at

Mary and Conrad Buff collaborated on fourteen children's books over a thirty-year period.  Conrad (1886 - 1975) illustrated all of the stories, and Mary (1890 - 1970) was the primary writer. The idea for The Apple and the Arrow came about when Swiss-born Conrad, after 30 years in America, decided to return home for a visit with his aging parents to his boyhood home, the village of Speicher, near Lake Constance.

The Buffs were several times nominated for both the Caldecott and Newbery Medals, the first for Dash and Dart (1943), and the others The Big Tree (1946), The Apple and the Arrow (1952), and for Magic Maize (1954).

Mary and Conrad Buff Papers at The University of Minnesota Libraries

Conrad Buff website.


Monday, August 24, 2015

There is Such a Creature as the Perfect Book

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge and a Shoe-Box of Memories

Picture books engender strong memories, often strong emotions. We all have our list of favorites, books that were read to us, or books that we read to others; to our students, to our children, to our grandchildren. If we were fortunate, we associate those books with a loved one, a parent or grandparent, an older sibling who loved us enough to take the time to sit down and read with us, to exclaim over a story or slowly trace their finger across the words so we could follow along (or pretend to). My mother read to the five of us every night, and I did the same for my own children. The human connection, the bond created, by reading aloud can never be equaled by any electronic devise, no matter how sophisticated or state-of-the-art (which changes from week to week anyway).

So come bedtime, do something daring and toss the iPhone, the iPad, the Wii and everything else that beeps, bings, tweets, and updates.  The cute kitten pictures on Facebook can wait, as will the endless videos of People Behaving Badly on YouTube; they'll live in cyberspace forever (an incredibly depressing thought).

Focus on something that is truly important.


Read to your child.

That is author Mem Fox's rallying cry.  Read to your child.  Not sure how?  No one ever read to you, so you're uncertain about reading to your own children? Not a problem. Mem Fox wrote a book just for you, called Reading Magic: How your child can learn to read before school-and other read aloud miracles (2001).  Here's the link for Amazon.

Mem Fox has a wonderful  website.  Check it out; it's worth your time. You can learn all about her there.

Mem Fox has written many wonderful books over the years, but she has only written one perfect book, and that perfect book is Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. 

Book #31: Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge (1984) by Mem Fox. Illustrated by Julie Vivas. 28 glorious pages.

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is a small boy, who isn't very old either. He lives in a house with his mother and father that is next-door to an old people's home. In addition to being small, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is a friendly boy and likes to ask questions, and he knows every single one of the people who live there.

He knows Mrs. Jordan, and Mr. Hosking, and Mr. Trippett and Miss Mitchell and Mr. Drysdale, who had a voice like a giant. 

But his most favorite of all the people is Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper, because she had four names just like him.

                       He called her Miss Nancy and told her all his secrets.

One day, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge hears his mother and father talking about Miss Nancy, calling her a poor old thing. When he asks why she is a poor old thing, they answer that Miss Nancy has lost her memory. After all, she is 96 years old.

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge wants to know what a memory is, so he begins asking the other people at the home.  He is told that a memory is something warm, something from long ago, something that makes you cary, something that makes you laugh, and finally, from Mr. Drysdale who had a voice like a giant, that a memory is something as precious as gold.

Armed with his new knowledge, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge went home to look for memories for Miss Nancy because she had lost her own.

He gathered objects that he thought would match the definitions he'd been given, and placed them in a shoebox: seashells, a puppet on strings, a medal from his grandfather, his football, and two fresh warm eggs from the henhouse.

Then he called on Miss Nancy, and handed her each thing, one by one.

And Miss Nancy started to remember.  She told Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge about tiny blue speckled eggs she had found in her aunt's garden, or going to the beach by tram long ago in her burton-up boots, of the big brother she had loved who had gone off to war and never returned, of the puppet she had once played with and made her little sister laugh.

Then, she bounced the football with Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, a small boy who wasn't very old either, and she remembered the day that she met him and all of the secrets that he told her. And the two smiled at each other, because Miss Nancy's memory had been found again.

This is a perfect book.

There is not one, single extraneous word or even slightly out of rhythm phrase. The beauty of the friendship between the small boy and the old woman is captured in one simple sentence, "He called her Miss Nancy and told her all his secrets."

And the illustrations are wonderful. When Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge  is with adults, he is conspicuously small in comparison, but when he is on his quest for Miss Nancy, he fills the page, visually equal to the task.

And Vivas' elders are fully realized individuals, easily distinguishable from each other. These people have lived lives, and still have a great deal to offer, thank you very much.

I love intergenerational stories, particularly friendships between the very old and the very young, two groups that are constantly marginalized by society.

Get this book. Read it. First to yourselves, and then to someone you love.

If you're at a school, Sunday, September 13th, is National Grandparent Day. Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge makes for a great read-aloud.

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge at

Mem Fox website.

Interview with Julie Vivas.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Scenery May Change, but the Characters Remains the Same.

Dorrie the Little Witch Returns a Childhood Favor for Author Patricia Coombs

Patricia Coombs lived in five different places before the age of four: Los Angeles, Hawaii, San Francisco, Boston and New York City. Patricia's father, an operations manager for Shell Oil, was a corporation man and moved whenever and wherever the corporation decreed.

From New York, it was on to Saint Louis during the heart of the Depression, then Chicago, and then just as the war broke out, to a huge seven bedroom house in Daytona Beach, Florida, where Coombs graduated high school, one of a class of fifty.

Coombs had an older brother and sister, but the age gap was large. Her brother was eight years older than she, and her sister was ten years older, and wed early. Coombs childhood was more that of an only child, and her way of coping with the multiple moves was reading.  Unfortunately, her mother had a phobia about germs, and was convinced that library books were virtual hotbeds of infections.  

Coombs read anything and everything that she could get her hands on, and was particularly fond of the series books by Lucy Fitch Perkins, not just the stories, but the detailed line drawings serving as illustrations. These series books gave Coombs a sense of security through all the moves, a continuity lacking with her own family.

Resisting her parent's attempts to marry her off to a suitor of suitable economic class by sending her to an appropriate college, Coombs studied art and literature, eventually earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Washington.  There she met and married C. Jim Fox when they both worked part-time at Boeing.  The G.I Bill and various jobs supported the pair through homes in the East Village, Minnesota, and Connecticut.  

It was after her two daughters were born and nursing her father back to health that Coombs took up writing and illustrating again. Encouraged by the author and her neighbor Noel Gerson and the writer Roswell G. Ham, Jr., Coombs sent her first manuscript, Dorrie's Magic, off to an agent, who sold it to Lathrop, and released it for publication in 1962. Nineteen more Dorrie books were to follow, as well as several stand-alones.  Coombs also illustrated several books written by another authors.

Coombs claimed that she never successfully learned to draw legs.  When she was casting about for ideas, she focused on the stories that she told her children when they were little, stories full of witches, ghosts and goblins.  Coombs took those stories and used them as the basis for Dorrie.  Always fascinated by witches herself, Coombs also wanted her stories to have a timeless look, and not become dated by the changes of fashion.  Stories about witches in traditional garb did the trick, and those long black gowns and stockings kept her from every having to draw a pair of legs.

Book #30:  Dorrie and the Fortune Teller (1973) by Patricia Coombs, illustrated by Patricia Coombs. 43 pages.

All the Dorrie books share the same beginning:

This is Dorrie. She is a witch. A little witch. Her hat is always on crooked and her socks never match.  Dorrie lives in Witchville with her black cat Gink, and her mother, the Big Witch, and Cook.

For weeks, the witches and wizards of Witchville had been trying to raise enough money to buy their meadow and the Town Tower they currently rented from the Wizard Floog.  If they couldn't raise the money, Floog said that her would turn the two into a Tar And Cigar Factory.

Dorrie wants to help, but she is just a little witch and her mother says that she and her constant companion Gink will just be in the way.

Earlier that morning, Dorrie, looking out her bedroom window, spies white posters nailed on the trees and fence. She runs down to get one. The posters are for Madame Zee, a famous fortune teller.  She shows her mother the poster. Her mother is convinced that Madame Zee, who has a reputation for being kind and generous, will be able to help them by reading the future, and flies off on her broom to tell the other witches in town.

Dorrie, per her mother's direction, takes Gink and visits the houses of some local witches and warlocks and tells them of Madame Zee's arrival. In the woods, she spots a strange looking wagon and a grey horse grazing nearby.  Dorrie goes up to investigate, but is chases away by an angry witch who tells her to GET OUT!

Dorrie runs home, and discovers that she has lost her hat. Her mother says she can't wait for her, and leaves for town and Madame Zee.  Dorrie goes back to the wagon and finds her hat, but she also discovers a strange looking object, similar to a telescope, that reads on its side Madame Zee's Treasure Detector.  Dorrie looks through the lens, and sees a treasure chest, buried underneath the Tower.

She goes into town and tells her mother what she saw, but her mother, as parents so often do, fail to believe her.  Dorrie then sees Madame Zee telling everyone the same fortune, that Witchville was about to experience a terrible earthquake and that everyone must get out of town immediately.

Dorrie decides that since none believes her, the only course of action is to dig up the treasure chest herself. When she goes to the basement, she discovers Wizard Floog stuck in the coal chute.  Dorrie promises to help him but he must also help her. Floog agrees and Dorrie cuts him mostly free with a pair of tin snips. They dig out the treasure chest, confront Madame Zee, and pursue her as she tries to escape.

Big Witch grabs Madame Zee, who everyone now recognizes as an impostor, and demands to know the location of the real Madame Zee, who was trapped in a chest in the wagon all along.  The fake Madame Zee then escapes, but no one really cares.  The Tower and meadow is safe, and Madame Zee says that they all have Dorrie to thank, because she was the only one who saw what was happening, which is always better than seeing what my happen.

Dorrie and the Fortune Teller at

Dorrie and the Fortune Teller is written in a straightforward manner with a vocabulary that is understandable for the younger grades. There is no whimsey or humor in the telling, more of a sense of "getting the job done."

The illustrations, on the other hand, are incredible. All the influence of those line drawings Coombs so admired in her childhood are evident in full-force here. The writing is pedestrian, but a child (or adult) could spend considerable time and pleasure taking in all of the details in these wonderful illustrations, which do contain considerable whimsey.

Aside from parents aghast at the thought of their innocent children being cruelly exposed to the Black Arts by way of a children's book, these books are worth a read for everyone just on the basis of the illustrations alone.

Unfortunately, all of the Dorrie books are out of print, but several of them are available through print-on-demand.  Information about this, as well as more information on the Dorrie series can be accessed at   the Dorrie the Little Witch website, maintained by Dorrie Sacksteder.

Patricia Coombs was born in 1926 in Los Angeles, California. She currently spends most of her time in London, England.

Patricia Coombs holdings at the University of Minnesota libraries.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Looks Like Historical Fiction, Sounds Like Historical Fiction, but Not Really Historical Fiction.

Leon Garfield and the England That Never Quite Was.

Leon Garfield had his own vision of the England of days gone by, and that is the England you will find in his stories.

It's a fascinating place.

Garfield's exclusion of excessive and accurate historical detail was deliberate.  The man did his research, above and beyond, that is not the issue.

But Garfield wasn't interested in writing a historical tome that left no detail, however minor, unearthed. He wrote historical fiction, and he did his best to present his characters with the knowledge that the character would likely possess of his own times, and often times, what that character may have known, and based their actions upon, would have been wrong or only partially right.

Pretty much how you and I live right now.

In today's review, we have an example of a young man operating on a premise based on a misconception.

Sound familiar?

Book #29: Footsteps (1980) by Leon Garfield. 196 pages.

In the 18th century country town of Woodbury, some miles from London, twelve-year-old William Jones lies in his bed and listens. Night after night, from the bedroom directly below, his ailing father paces the floor, mumbling to himself in a voice too low for his son to hear. William loves and respects his father, but knows that he is a disappointment to him, with his consistently dirty fingernails and general thickheadedness.

The family, William's mother and two sisters, are worried, and circumstances do not improve with the arrival of William's Uncle Turner, his mother's brother, a big, blustering bully and blowhard who packs away enormous amounts of food and ale and constantly criticizes William, who he considers soft.

William's father made a fortune in coffee, and the family is well-off, a fact of considerable bearing in Uncle Turner's continued presence.  William does his best to avoid him, but as he has something of a temper himself, flare-ups are inevitable.

One night, the footsteps stop.  William, certain that his father has died, makes his way to the bedroom, only to find his father fully dressed and standing.  The elder Jones glares at his son, then softens, and asks William to help him to his chair by the fire.  He asks his son what he's heard, and William replies that he hears his footsteps, night after night.  His father swears him to silence on the matter, and then gives William his gold watch, telling him to be careful how he winds it, and then succumbs to a fit a coughing.  He tells his son that a man named Alfred Diamond was his friend and partner, and that he, William's father, created him. He tells William that his father is nothing but a scoundrel and a thief.

William returns to his room, furious at his father's revelation and feeling decided that the man he so admired was not who he believed him to be.  When he gets up the next morning, he feels better, and decides to tell his father that he forgives him, and that there is no more need to walk the floor every night.  But he is too late.  His father is dead.

A few days later after the funeral, William gets into a fight with his Uncle Turner, who accuses William of stealing his father's watch and not showing proper respect. William is furious at the accusation, and the fact that he perceives his mother and sisters as agreeing with his uncle. Later that night, he runs away, determined to go to London, find Alfred Diamond, reveal what he knows, and prove to his family that his father was not the saint everyone thinks.

He catches a coach and is disappointed when his arrives in London, for it is to him crowded, noisy, and full of foul orders. He makes his way to a man his father mentioned, a Mr. K'Nee, an attorney, at Foxes Court.  In the cramped building, the elevator - or a contraption like it - is operated by a Mr. Seed, who is a dwarf about 40 years of age.

When Mr. K'Nee tells him to go back home and forget all about the matter.  Reference is made to a treasure, possibly ten thousand pounds, that might have been hidden by William's father, but K'Nee is quick to disabuse the notion, is somewhat unconvincingly. Boys and fools, says Mr. K'Nee, always dream of treasure. William, frustrated at his lack of assistance, goes home with Mr. Seed, but not before a Mr. Jenkins, Nr. K'Nee's clerk, who has been eavesdropping on the conversation, tells William to meet him later at a certain tavern, because he has information William might find helpful.

What follows is a series of mishaps, double dealings and narrow escapes from calamity.  Mr. Jenkins introduces William to a Mr. Robinson, who both talk over his head but allow William to pay the bill.  The two men tell William that Alfred Diamond is dead, but his son, John Diamond lives.  They can take William to him the next night. But that night, William is attacked by a band of street boys, the same boys who attacked Mr. Seed's house the day before.  William manages to escape, without his money, and meets up with Jenkins and Robinson.  Jenkins appears uncomfortable and leaves, and Mr. Robinson is revealed to be none other than John Diamond.  Diamond hates William, because of the actions of his father, and calls out the same gag of street boys to attack him. William runs, suffering no illusions that he will continue to live if any of the catch him.

Just when it appears that William is cornered with no chance of escape, he is roughly pulled into a building but someone who holds his hand over his mouth to keep him quiet. After the last sounds of the gang of boys fade away, William is released.  Turning, he sees that his rescuer is one of the boys from the gang called Shot-in-the-Head, who William had two days previous allowed to escape when he was cornered after attacking Mr. Seed's house.

Shot-in-the-Head lives on the rooftop of a building, where he stores all the treasures he procures on his daily snick-and-lurk expeditions. Shot-in-the-Head likes shiny things, a his hidy-hole is crammed with watches, jewelry and the like. He tells William that he can stay as long as he wants, and the two become friends. Shot-in-the-Hole is fascinated by William's tale of coming to London, and has William recount it every night before the two fall asleep.

William would have stayed there forever but for the discovery of a small slip of paper hidden in his fathers watch.  It was an address.  Convinced that the treasure is hidden there, William and Shot-in-the-Head leaves the rooftop sanctuary,  and are confronted by the gang of boys.  William creates a diversion, allowing Shot-in-the-Head to escape, but then William is confronted by Diamond, who nearly kicks him to death but is prevented from finishing the job by the arrival of help.

Later, recovering at Mr. Seed's rooms, William tells him the whole story, and Mr Seed, who calls William a fool with variations, agrees to take him to the address. The morning they leave, an envelope is shoved under the front door.  Signed Anonymous, the missive goes this way and that to disclaim any actions undertaken by an unnamed other.  Seed thinks it's from Jenkins, but they are in a hurry and think nothing more of it.

Arriving at the address, they are surprised to find Mr. K'Nee and an old gentleman playing cards.  The old gentleman is Alfred Diamond, who is not dead, but was definitely cheated by Jones senior.  He bears him no ill will, but there is no treasure, although it is revealed that William is in fact the owner of Mr. Seed's building.  Alfred Diamond is not well because of his break with his son, who is consumed with getting revenge.  The letter is mentioned, causing great alarm.  Both K'Nee and Diamond believe that the younger Diamond intends to harm William's family.  William believes it too, and they rush out by coach to make their way to Woodbury.

Arriving, they discover William's house ablaze.  John Diamond, who started the fire, is trapped inside.  Operating purely on instinct, William runs in and saves him.  Both are injured in the process, John the most severely.

But Williams's family is safe, and the fire had the effect of reuniting Diamond father and son.  William's mother finally kicks Uncle Turner out for good, and all is well, with one exception.

William is worried about his friend's, Shot-in-the-Head, fate.  He needn't have worried.  Shot0in-the -Head escaped his attackers, and after holing up to heal, has made his way to William in Woodbury.  Cleaned up and properly fed for the first time in his life, Shot-in--the-Head now lives permanently with the Jones family.

And every night, the boys talk and plan of the day the two of them will retrieve Shot-in-the-Head's treasure trove from the rooftops of London. Boys and fools, indeed, but this treasure is different.  This treasure is real.

This book was a grand adventure from the first page to the last.  Garfield's writing is wonderful and his characters are all true to who they are; William is a twelve-year-old boy, not a mini-adult with a preternatural understanding of the big picture. He displays a twelve-year-old's normal preoccupation with himself, and views all happenings as somehow related to his own actions. In short, he's the center of the universe, which is understandable in a twelve-year-old, and suffers only the occasional glimmer of awareness that, well, maybe not.

For example, in the scene after the fire, William spots a boy from Woodbury, one of his schoolmates.

…I waited for him to ask me where I'd been and was ready with a full version of my amazing experiences to flatten him.  He never asked.  Instead, he insisted on telling me about everything I'd missed at school … It never occurred to him that my news was a good deal more interesting than his...

Garfield's descriptions are full of vivid imagery that captures not only the visual but also the emotional, the essence of a place or person.

Describing William's first view of London:

I looked up.  the sky, which, in Hertford, had been of a clear, wintry blue was now yellow, as if it was much older and none too well.  Even the sun had a bloodshot look and seemed to be in danger of going out.

When William asked for directions:

He told me to keep a civil tongue in my head and sent me off down a great street where all the world seemed to be rushing along one way, as if the street had been tipped and they were all swirling down into a drain.

And after a night with Jenkins and Robinson, consuming sherry after sherry:

…The pain was terrible.  Mr. Seed grinned and assured me that, in an hour or so, the worst effects of my drinking too much would have worn off; whereas now I might feel as if I had been run over by a coach and six, I might confidently look forward to feeling that it had only been a coach and a pair.

A sense of humor is a good thing.

Garfield said that he enjoyed writing stories set in the 18th century because of the age's sharp definition between childhood and adulthood.  One day you're at home, going to school, and the next you're sent away to a stranger's house to apprentice for seven years, with an entirely new set of expectations.  That William will eventually turn out well is implied through his selfless actions in saving both John Diamond and Shot-in-the-Head, whose real name is Seth.  The scenes between William and Seth are my favorite scenes of the entire book.  Everyone should have a friend like Shot-in-the-Head.

If you're looking for a good real-aloud for intermediate grades, this is an excellent candidate.  Quick moving, great story, memorable characters, fantastic writing and a happy ending. I would put it right up there with Fleischman's By the Great Horn Spoon!

Footsteps won the Whitbread Literary Award in 1980.

Footsteps at

Garfield once explained in an article for Horn Book, "One does not write for children.  One writes so that children can understand."

Garfield's books are not sweetness and light, his protaganists are far from fearless and noble. His 18th century England smacks of Dickens, a city teeming with pickpockets, cut-throats and n'er do wells at every corner, with a healthy number of Stevensonian characters thrown in the mix. Garfield was, in fact, the author who completed Dicken's unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Leon Garfield (1921-1996) was born in the seaside town of Brighton in Sussex and died in London England.  He says that he always knew that he wanted to write, but took art classes prior to the outbreak of World War Two.  Garfield joined the British Army Medical Corps and served in Germany and Belgium.  He met his wife, the writer Vivian Alcock, during the war. Vivian studied his artwork and suggested that he pursue his dream of writing.  Garfield worked as a medical technician for twenty-three years before his writing career took off. He said that Vivian's support was the key, and remarked afterwards that he finally realized that all the time she was supporting him, she could have been writing her own books.  It wasn't until Garfield's career began to slow downing the eighties that Vivian took up her own writing full-time.

Garfield wrote for both children and adults, and published over sixty books during his lifetime.  In addition to Footsteps, some of his more notable works include Jack Holborn (1964), The Apprentices (1976-1978), The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris (1971), as well as adaptations of Shakespeare, the Bible, and various mythologies.

Garfield won a number of awards, including the Carnegie Medal, and was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award.

Leon Garfield Collection Catalogue at Seven Stories: National Centre for Children's Books

New York Times book review of The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Monday, August 3, 2015

Nature is the Scene Stealer in this New Hampshire Tale

Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's Miss Hickory is Not Your Ordinary Doll

I avoid books about dolls, and I avoid books about dolls for a very good reason.

Dolls are creepy.  

Baby dolls, Barbie dolls, G.I. Joe dolls, it doesn't matter.  Plastic or porcelain, hand painted or homemade, their little button eyes take in every detail of our pitiful human lives and store it away for future use against us. Don't buy their inanimate line; there's no such thing as an inanimate object. Just ask anyone who owns a set of keys or a pair of soupspoons. They walk.

And don't even get me started on ventriloquist dummies; those suckers are the ringleaders of our eventual overthrow. 

No greater visionary than Rod Serling was fully aware of this, and tried to warn us within the parameters of the time with the resources available.  The Twilight Zone gave us two heads-up: "Living Doll" Talking Tina wiping out tough guy Telly Savalas, and in "The Dummy" Cliff Robertson learns an unpleasant lesson of tables turned.  Even the vastly inferior Night Gallery pulled itself out of the pits of network marketing driven dreck and produced "The Doll", which was so hideous that I still remember my first look at her face over forty years later. Nightmare city.

I tend to avoid doll books.

So, it was with some trepidation that I selected Miss Hickory for this week's review - we all need to face our fears, don't we? - but I am very glad that I did. I expected to have to plow through it, and that was the case for the first few pages, but after that, the book positively sailed, all the way to its unexpected but perfect conclusion.

Book #28: Miss Hickory (1946) by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett. 123 pages.

Miss Hickory is a doll.

Not a store-bought doll, but a handmade doll, a country doll, with the body of an apple-wood twig and a hickory nut for a head.

When the story opens, it's just the beginning of autumn, and Miss Hickory is content as can be living in a corn-cob house underneath a lilac bush at the Old Place, a New Hampshire farm owned by Great-granny Brown and her granddaughter, Ann.  The corn-cob house had been built for Miss Hickory by Tim, a boy who lived the next farm over.

Miss Hickory assumes that once winter approaches, she and her corncob house will again be moved into the warm kitchen windowsill in the house, and be visited everyday by Ann.

But this year is different. Miss Hickory's friend Crow visits her at home and informs her that the family has moved to Boston for the winter. Crow is aware that Miss Hickory was once part of a tree and had great respect for her ancestry. Plus, like all crows, he enjoys a good gossip.

Miss Hickory at first refuses to believe it, but once the truth sets in, she asks Crow how she is to get through the harsh New England winter. Crow tells her that she will have to move.

Miss Hickory refuses to even entertain the thought of moving, and Crow calls her hardheaded and flies off. Miss Hickory knows she is hardheaded, but the thought of having to move makes her break down and cry.

The next day Miss hickory goes out to find berries for canning, and encounters her friend Mr. T. Willard Brown, a barn cat and hunter of some renown. He confirms Crow's bad news, and further informs her that Chipmunk, that spoiled creature, has moved into her corncob house and expects to stay for the winter.  Miss Hickory is unsure what to do, but Crow comes by later that same day and informs her that he's found a new home for her, an abandoned robin's nest in an old apple tree. Miss Hickory thanks him, and Crow again flies off, to the South for the winter, his parting words to Miss Hickory being keep your sap running!

Miss Hickory soon adapts, fortifying her nest, making new clothes from the woodland plants, and getting herself and her home ready for winter. She meets and becomes something like a friend to Squirrel, who himself lives in the bottom of the tree hosting Miss Hickory's new home. She scolds Squirrel not to be lazy, to gather food for the winter, and he does.  But underneath their friendship is Squirrel's fascination with Miss Hickory's head - it is a juicy looking hickory nut - and Miss Hickory's uneasy knowledge of that fascination. 

Miss Hickory has further adventures, helping the browbeaten hen-pheasants join together and form a Ladies Aid Society to support themselves over the long winter. T. Willard-Brown invites her to come by the barn and see take a dose of medicine, but she declines. Cow's also recently given birth to twins, who were as different as sisters could be from each other. Barn-Heifer was sweet and home-loving, while Wild-Heifer would often run away from the stifling farmyard, often dragging post and rope behind her.

During one of her escapes, Wild-Heifer befriends Fawn, who was orphaned when her mother Doe was shot. The two become inseparable.

At Christmas, Miss Hickory is invited to the barn again, this time by Squirrel,  for the celebration that takes place at midnight on Christmas Eve. He tells her that on that night, all animals, large or small, wild or tame, of Earth or with God, go to the barn to see a miracle, and no one is afraid of animals larger than themselves. 

Miss Hickory dismisses Squirrel's story, Squirrel calls her hardheaded, and he leaves, feeling insulted.  Miss Hickory later thinks upon Squirrel's accusation, and realizes that it's true; her hard head made it difficult for her mind to grasp new ideas. She resolves to visit the barn the next morning, to see what all the fuss is about, but when she is awoken that night by a loud sweet chiming, she gets up and makes her way over. Miss hickory sees Fawn walking side-by-side with Doe, Squirrel walking with his mother, and a host of exotic animals, including peacocks and camels, enter the barn. Squirrel spots her and tells her to hurry, but Miss Hickory is too late, everyone inside was able to see the miracle at midnight except her; she was too far away to make it in time.

Miss Hickory feels sad and confused. She tells herself that she should have listened to Squirrel, and not been so hardheaded.

Later in the winter Miss Hickory meets Groundhog, is reunited with Crow, and helps Bullfrog out of an icy situation. Returning home, she discovers that Robin has returned and reclaimed his nest. Miss Hickory doesn't panic, she simply decides that it's time to find a new home. She realizes that she hasn't seen Squirrel for months, and reasons that he must have moved.  Miss Hickory decides to move into Squirrel's old home. 

At first glance, Squirrel's house appears empty. Then, a pile of what Miss Hickory thought were gray rags begin to move.  It's Squirrel, and he's starving, because he ate all of his winter store of nuts months ago and has had nothing to eat since. Miss Hickory starts to chastise him for his gluttony, then stops, but it's too late.  Squirrel has grabbed her hickory nut head off of her apple-wood twig body and tossed it into his mouth. As Squirrel chews, Miss Hickory reviews her life, deploring her hardheadedness but acknowledging that overall it was a pleasant life filled with food, friends and nature, and wishes that she had lived a little less selfishly.

Her head now gone, Miss Hickory makes her way of Squirrel's home. Squirrel is horrified with shock at  seeing  his friend's headless body walk out his door. As a result, he reforms repents eating Miss Hickory's head, and becomes a good squirrel forever after.

Miss Hickory, her sap now freely running, feeling incredibly happy, makes her way to the base of the old apple tree and begins to climb, passing her old robin's nest, and climbing higher, to a spot where the sun would be stronger, the winds higher and the rains like a shower bath. Her body felt knobby, as if she were budding.  Leaving all of her past life below, she pushed herself into a wide upper  fork in the tree, and rested.

In May, Ann and Great-granny Brown return. Ann is unhappy to find the corn-cob house destroyed and Miss Hickory gone. Tim, walking by, tells her that she's too old to be upset over a doll, but it doesn't matter, Ann is still upset. Tim, listening to the distant caw of Crow, whistles back, and tells Ann that Crow is telling him something important, and the two should follow the sound of his cawing. Eventually, Crow leads them to an old apple tree, a McIntosh planted by Tim's grandfather, that hasn't been pruned or grafted in years. The tree, barren for years, was now thick with blooms.

Crow caws again, but the two can't see him anymore, so Tim climbs up the tree in an attempt to locate the old bird. Finally, Tim sees him sitting just above a high blooming branch that was pinker than pink and pointed towards the mountain.  He calls down to Ann to climb up and look, and she does.

Tim points to the branch and explains that it's a scion, but he doesn't know who put it there.  The branch has two arms, a waist and two legs, garlanded in pink blooms. Tim explains that a scion is a new graft, put in an old tree to start it blooming and bearing again.  Ann thought that the scion looked like Miss Hickory, but didn't voice the thought aloud. 

Crow gave a final caw then flew away, and a happy Miss Hickory dreamed of the day that she would give to Ann, who recognized her, a big red apple.

Miss Hickory is essentially a book about nature, based on Bailey's years of experience of living on her own  farm, Hillcrest, in Temple, New Hampshire. Finding herself at one point stranded in Florida and desparatley homesick, Bailey decided to write a story based on her own Miss Hickory, a childhood doll fashioned by her grandmother from a pioneer design.

There is no driving plot behind Miss Hickory, no mystery to be solved or treasure to be found, no good versus evil showdown or duplicitious dealings to uncover and reveal. The nature writing, descriptions of the woodlands, the changes wrought by the seasons on plant and animal is accurate, detailed without being weighty, and imbued with an underlying sense of gratitude, an emotion sorely lacking in present day society.

Miss Hickory herself is a pistol, a woman quite capable of taking care of herself, thank you very much, and full of sharply worded advice for those less capable, a population that encompasses everyone else she knows with the sole exception of Crow.

Sharp words or not, Miss Hickory has something in common with young readers. She too is a small being forced to navigate through the Land of Big, a journey that they know from firsthand experience  is fraught with danger and uncertainty. Luckily, Miss Hickory has her friends, but even with her friends caution is necessary; Squirrel just can't help himself from stealing disquieting glances at her hickory nut head.

That covetousness on the part of Squirrel leads to the only problematic passage in the story.  Squirrel, overcome by hunger, snatches Miss Hickory's head from her body and proceeds to chow down, while Bailey recounts Miss Hickory's last thoughts for posterity. There are some among us who find that visual image disturbing, as well as the following scene of Miss Hickory's headless body striding out the opening of Squirrel's house. Bailey's description of Squirrel's reaction to the sight, "…gave him such a shock that he chattered to himself for days and when he decided that he had only dreamed the ghost-walking of his friend, he reformed."

Something to think about when you're selecting read-alouds for the classroom.

I've made the point before (and will again, many times) that the book belongs to the author and the story belongs to the reader.  Carolyn Sherwin Bailey celebrates rebirth in Miss Hickory, the ongoing rebirth of the natural world through the seasons, and the personal rebirth of the individual through the Christian vision. The reader can choose that version of the story, or they can choose their own. Either way, Miss Hickory is a book to be shared.

Miss Hickory was the winner of the 1947 Newbery Medal Award.

Miss Hickory at

Carolyn Sherwin Bailey was born in Hoosick Falls, NY in October 1875, the daughter of scientist Charles Henry and Teacher and writer Emma Frances Bailey. In 1936, at the age of 61, she married Eben Clayton Hill, a radiologist.

Bailey earned her undergraduate degree from Teacher's College, Columbia University in 1896, studied at the newly established (1907) Montessori School in Rome and the New York School of Social Work.  She worked as a teacher, principal, social worker at the Warren Goddard House in NYC, author and editor of children's books.

Bailey wrote over seventy books in the course of her career, the majority books, story collections, and historical fiction and non-fiction for children, but also books on social work, the Montessori method, child psychology, and the art of storytelling.

Bailey died in December of 1961.

Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's books free at Project Gutenberg.

Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's audiobooks free at LibriVox.

Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's collection at Southern Connecticut State University libraries.

Ruth Chrisman Gannett's illustrations were one of the primary reasons I decided to review Miss Hickory.  From the first sight of Miss Hickory's celebration her new outfit of a moss blouse, a leaf skirt and a blossom garland on the cover to our final view of her as a fully flowering branch on the old apple tree, each illustration offers a wealth of detail and succeeds in conveying not only the action of the scene but the emotional state of the subject, be it Miss Hickory, Squirrel, Crow or Bull Frog.

As far as my favorite illustration, it's a tie between the two page procession of the animals on Christmas Eve to the single page depiction of Ann, Tim and Crow climbing the old apple tree at the end of the book. They're all wonderful.

Ruth Chrisman Gannett was born in 1896 in Santa Ana, California and died in 1979 in West Cornwell, Connecticut. In 1931 she married author and literary critic Lewis Stiles Gannett, whose daughter was Ruth Stiles Gannett, author of My Father's Dragon and other books that were illustrated by her stepmother.

After teaching art in California public schools, Gannett moved to New York City, where she worked for Vanity Fair and illustrated children's books.  She was the illustrator of My Mother is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Becky Reyher, a 1946 Caldecott Medal Honor Book.

Ruth Chrisman Gannett papers at the University of Minnesota libraries.

My Father's Dragon text and illustrations at the University of Pennsylvania libraries.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Was that Thirty Degrees Below Zero?

A Resourceful Moose Adopts a Northern Town in Phil Stong's  Honk the Moose.

A while back, I wrote about writers and illustrators so closely associated that it was impossible to think of one without the other, some examples being Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, or John Bellairs and Edward Gorey.

Phil Stong and Kurt Wiese are another combination that fit that bill, and Honk the Moose is an excellent example of their perfect combination of story and illustration.

This week's review, the delightful Honk the Moose.

Book #27: Honk the Moose (1935) by Philip Stong, illustrated by Kurt Wiese. 80 pages.

It's one of the coldest winters on record in Birora, a small town situated in the rolling hills of the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. Two ten-year-old boys, best friends Waino and Ivar, are returning from an unsuccessful hunting trip, hickory skis on their shoulders, air rifles in their hands.

The boys stop in Ivar's father's livery stable, to warm themselves in his father's office. Ivar Ketonen senior boards all the horses and donkeys from the iron mines as well as the horses from the lumber camps, and acts as their doctor.  Both of the boy's parents are immigrants from Finland, as is most of the  population in Birora.

The two boys sit by the stove and begin to wax their skis with harness oil, while imagining a hunting trip with a different outcome from the days, one that involved shooting a moose. At that very moment, they hear a strange noise from the stable, a very sad sound of haawwnnkk-hawnk-hawnk-haawwnnkk.

Both boys are scared, but Ivar reminds himself that he is a Suomi, a brave Finlander, just like the Finnish hero Vainamoinen. He switches on the light and goes forth, and Waino, following behind him, suggests that it might be a moose.

It is a moose.

A very tired, very hungry, very skinny moose, who has somehow managed to wander into the livery stable and was now eating the hay Ivar's father had bought for the horses.

The boys beat a judicious retreat to the office and lock the door. Ivar declares that he should go and shoot the moose, but tenderhearted Waino disagrees; the moose isn't hurting anybody. Ivar begins to get mad, mad that they are stranded in his father's office, and mad that the moose is eating the expensive hay. Eating quite a lot of the expensive hay. Gathering his courage once again, he leaves the office, Waino trailing in his wake, and informs the moose that he needs to leave right now. The moose is very big, but no longer sad, the hay is doing the trick. His reply to Ivar's demand is to turn his huge head slightly and go hawnk . The boys are back in the office with the door locked and bolted before the final k.

Eventually, Ivar's father returns, and the boys stumble over each other to explain that there is a moose in the stable. He laughs, tells them it is only a horse, and the three of them exit the office towards the stable. Seconds later, the boys are swept back into the office, Mr. Ketonen is there also, and states that there is a moose in the stable.

The boys know this.

While Mr. Ketonen and the boys discuss what is to be done, the moose collapses in the stable and goes to sleep, his belly now full to bursting. Ivar's father tries to prod him awake, but the moose sleeps on. By now, Ivar is starting to feel sorry for the moose, but his father, alarmed at the cost of hay and worried that the moose might be dangerous, tells his son and Waino to go get the policeman.

The boys go, reluctantly, and find Mr. Ryan, the policeman, in the mayor's office over the fire station. There is some confusion, Mr. Ryan thinks the moose the boys are referring to is just a big man, "moose" being Minnesota slang for the same.

At the stable, Mr. Ryan is surprised to find a real, very live, very big moose asleep in the stable. The moose was dreaming about People, he is a young moose, just recently fully grown, and honked at the People once or twice in his dream.

Mr. Ketonen and Mr. Ryan discuss what's to be done, and there is some half-hearted talk of shooting the moose, a course of action that is now clearly unpopular with everyone. Ivar's father conceded that the moose, Honk, can have his hay, but what will the horses think?

The mayor is sent for, a Mr. Nels Olavsson, and more discussion as to Honk's fate takes place. The boys hear the mayor tell Mr. Ryan that Honk will be disposed of once he wakes up, so they take turns bouncing up and down on him as hard as then can, hoping to wake him up and get him to go away before the adults dispose of him.  Honk utters a few faint hawnks in response to their efforts and continues to sleep.

Finally, Ivar senior says that he will take care of the moose until he leaves, but under no circumstances will he allow Honk to be shot. The mayor says that it's not necessary for Ivar to do it all himself, and calls a meeting of the town council, Mr. Lunn, Mr. Hulburd, and Mr. Hoaglund.  They decide that the town will pay Mr. Ketonen for his hay, but that Mr. Ryan must stay the night in the stable. If Honk makes a fuss, Mr. Ryan must shoot him.  If he leaves on his own, then everything will be all right.

Sometime that night, Honk left.

But he came back the next day, returning to the same stall in the stable and eating more of Mr. Ketonen's hay. Honk allowed the little things - the boys - to pet him.  He was becoming very fond of the little things, and that affection was returned.

The adults were another matter.  The mayor told Mr. Ketonen to lock his stable doors so that Honk could not get in again, and said that the town would not pay for any more hay. Mr. Ketonen did so, but the boys felt sorry for Honk, so they smuggled hay out to him to eat by the town bandstand. Honk was happy, until the boys tried to leave. Honk wanted them to stay, and voiced his displeasure with a series of loud HAWNKS!

The boys finally sneak away, but it's no use; Honk follows them, and the whole town is witness.  The mayor tells Ivar senior to put Honk in a stall, it appears the town was going to have a moose whether it wanted one or not.

Eventually, everyone gets use to Honk, who enjoyed wandering about the town, occasionally helping himself to the storekeepers' baskets of produce on the sidewalk, until they wised up and pulled everything inside when they saw Honk coming.

But in the spring, Honk left, returning to the woods beyond Birora, where tender grass was now plentiful. That winter was also mild, so the boys became resigned to the fact that Honk would not be returning.

Then one winter's day, returning from a wonderful day of fort building, the boys saw a group of adults standing at the entrance to the stable. Curious, they drew closer, and as they did, they heard the welcome sound of HAWNK!

Honk had come home.

This delightful book is based on the true story of a moose that made itself at home one winter in the town of Biwabik, Minnesota.  During his brief tenure as a teacher and basketball coach at Biwabik High School, Phil Stong heard the story and decided that it would make a great children's book.

He was right.

Stong's book is a time capsule of immigrant life in northern Minnesota.  Just like the real-life Biwabik, the fictional Birora, Minnesota is a mining town populated primarily by families of Finnish and Swedish descent.

The conversations in the book reflect the mindset of the people at the time, and Stong infuses the story with a great deal of humor and obvious affection for the characters. The reader knows from the beginning that despite all of the conversation, there will be no shooting of any sort taking place. Ivar senior, despite his size, is a softie at heart, and even the policeman Mr. Ryan dislikes the idea of arresting anyone, unless they absolutely and truly deserve it.

In the very first paragraph, Stong writes, "Ivar was pretty certain that he had shot a rabbit with his thousand-shooting air gun but the rabbit was pretty sure he hadn't." Shortly thereafter, his friend Waino says that he was glad they didn't shoot a deer, since deer are pretty nice and they don't hurt anybody.

Not exactly a bloodthirsty crew.

The illustrations by Wiese are priceless, perfect for the story, mostly black and white but a few full page with colors.  The expressions on Honk's face make it perfectly clear to the reader who's actually in charge, and just like the boys, the reader will celebrate when the big moose returns to the Birora stable the following year.

A great read aloud, plus a solid starting point for a discussion on immigration and wildlife conservation.

Honk the Moose was a 1936 Newbery Medal Honor Book.

Honk the Moose at Trellis Publishing, Inc.

Moose sounds on YouTube

The true story behind Honk the Moose  at Minnesota Public Radio.

Phil Stong (1899-1957) was born in Iowa and died in Connecticut. He began as a teacher and a journalist, working in different locations in the Midwest, including his alma mater Drake University, and then solely as a journalist in New York City for the Associated Press, the North American Paper Alliance, and others. In 1925, he married Virginia Swain, a reporter and writer.

In 1931, he began writing fiction as a full-time profession. Stong wrote for both children and adults, with several of his works adapted for motion pictures. Of his twenty-some adult works, the most popular was State Fair (1932), which was adapted three times as a film and once as a Broadway musical.

Stong also has the distinction of compiling one of the first anthologies of science-fiction, many of its selections culled from the pulps, originally titled The Other Worlds (1941), later released with the subtitle 25 Modern Stories of Mystery and Imagination.

Of his nineteen books for children, fifteen were illustrated by Wiese.

Phil Stong Manuscripts at the University of Iowa Libraries.

Kurt Wiese (1887-1974) was born in Minden, Germany, emigrated to the United States in 1927 and died at Frenchtown, New Jersey in 1974.

Wiese knew early on that he wanted to be an artist, but lacked family support. Instead, he learned the export trade and worked and traveled in China from 1909 until the outbreak of war in 1914. Captured by the Japanese, turned over to the British, Wiese was sent to a prison camp in Trial Bay, Australia.

During his five years at the prison camp, Wiese passed his time conducting a class in Chinese and drawing.  Returning to Germany via Africa in 1919, he decided to draw full-time after selling his entire production to a publisher.  Following the economic disaster in post-war Germany, Wiese emigrated to Brazil, traveling through the jungles, native peoples, and revolution.  He continued drawing, and in 1927 emigrated again to New York City.  In 1929, Wiese illustrated Bambi by Felix Salten, drawing twenty-five illustrations in five days and establishing his reputation. In 1930, he married Gertrude Hansen and they settled in a farm in Frenchtown, NJ.

Wiese, solely self-taught, illustrated over four hundred children's books, and wrote and illustrated about twenty of his own. Pick an author active during Wiese's forty-five year career, and he more than likely illustrated at least one of their books. The list includes Felix Salten, Marjorie Flack, Marguerite Henry, Walter Rollin Brooks, and many, many more.

Wiese received the Caldecott Honor Book award for You Can Write Chinese (1946) and Fish in the Air (1948).

Kurt Wiese at the Michener Art Museum.

Kurt Wiese Papers at the University of Southern Mississippi.