The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

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The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes
by DuBose Heyward

1939

Illustrated by Marjorie Flack

Along with the Easter egg hunt and the dyeing of the eggs, an annual reading of The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes is a special way to mark the holiday. Children take comfort in traditions.

The story concerns a little brown country bunny who has a husband (never mentioned again) and 21 baby bunnies. She teaches her children self-sufficiency: two-by-two, they make the beds and wash the clothes and create pictures to adorn their home. When it comes time for the Grandfather Bunny at the Palace of Easter Eggs to select a new Easter Bunny, he recognizes the country bunny’s kindness, swiftness, and wisdom, all evident in her role as mother, and she is picked over the big white bunnies from fine houses or the long-legged jack rabbits.DSC01453

DuBose Heyward wrote this book, his only foray into children’s literature, for his 9 year old daughter, Jenifer. He died the following year. He is better-known (though largely unsung) for Porgy and Bess. In 1925, he wrote the novel Porgy, about a crippled African-American beggar (based on a real character who got around in a goat cart) in Charleston’s Catfish Row. Subsequently adapted as a highly successful play, Porgy became the first major Broadway production with an all black cast, this at a time when white actors in black-face were the norm. Several years later, George Gershwin wrote the music for what was to be the first great American folk opera, in collaboration with his brother, Ira, and DuBose Heyward. Heyward was largely responsible for the libretto and lyrics, including the song Summertime.

Heyward embodied an unlikely combination of contradictions. He was descended from a once-prosperous distinguished Southern family, yet he was a social progressive. He was a high school drop-out, yet he was an important figure in the revival of Southern literature in the 1920’s and 1930’s. His white roots were firmly in the segregated south, yet his novels gave voice to a waterfront African-American culture. With this background, it is worth rereading The Country Bunny to see how he quietly makes the case against discrimination.DSC01454

Marjorie Flack was a writer/illustrator who was responsible for The Story About Ping and the Angus books. For The Country Bunny, she drew hundreds of wholesome-looking rabbits, and managed to make even sweeping the floor and mending the clothes look like fun.

Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill

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Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill by Maud Hart Lovelace

1942

Illustrated by Lois Lenski

 

There are many children’s series that command fearsome allegiance, but the fans are often fickle and the adulation often transient.  The Betsy-Tacy books are a phenomenon apart, as they inspire, in some, a lifelong devotion.  Many girls discover this series in their early childhood and continue to reread the volumes not only as adolescents but as grown women.  Most authors of series assume their readers are frozen in developmental time and hope they don’t grow up between the first and last volumes.  Maud Hart Lovelace approached her audience differently, and assumed her readers would mature at about the same pace as her characters.  In the first four volumes, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib are five to twelve years old and the writing is pitched accordingly.  As the girls become teenagers and then young women, the books are written with an increasingly sophisticated audience in mind.  The centenary of the author’s birth saw a Betsy-Tacy convention as well as the launching of a Betsy-Tacy Society and a Maud Hart Lovelace Society.  Few children’s book authors have commanded this kind of devoted attention.

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Maud Hart Lovelace drew liberally from her own life.  She grew up in Mankato, Minnesota and her books are an accurate chronicle of turn-of-the-century small town America.  Betsy-Tacy, the first book in the series, introduces us to Betsy and her two neighborhood friends.  Betsy is the storyteller, the inventor of activities, the budding author.  Tacy is the bashful one with her red ringlets and freckles, one of eleven siblings in an Irish Catholic family.  Tib is the diminutive blond who lives in a Germanic household with a front staircase as well as a back, the realist who calls a spade a spade.  In simple, straightforward prose, Lovelace chronicles the simple joys and occasional trials of their lives.  The pace is that of children.  Chapters recount a birthday party of the old-fashioned variety, a picnic up the hill, a piano box playhouse, an imaginary trip to Milwaukee acted out in the buggy shed.  Lovelace is attentive to the seasons in the way children are – the soft dust of the road on their bare feet in the summer, the smell of autumn leaves in a bonfire, the milkman delivering from a wagon on runners in the snow.

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Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill includes the added richness of a foreign culture set down in rural Minnesota.  During a picnic, Betsy and her friends happen upon Naifi, a lively Syrian girl who is out herding her goat.  With black braids, earrings, a long skirt and longer pantaloons, she could not be more exotic.  Her lunch is a chunk of cheese and round flat bread, her grandfather smokes a narghile,  her grandmother pounds lamb for kibbee, her father writes Arabic from right to left.  She lives in Little Syria, a ramshackle community of unassimilated immigrants who fled their country because of religious persecution.  Now in Minnesota, they encounter prejudice of a different kind.  Betsy, Tacy, and Tib come to Naifi’s aid when she is set upon by a nasty mob of boys taunting her with “Dago! Dago!”  Lovelace does not belabor this zenophobia, neither does she whitewash it.

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The first four Betsy-Tacy books were illustrated by Lois Lenski, the creator of the Mister Small books.  The black and white line drawings have just the right nostalgic appeal.

Snowflake Bentley

DSC02480Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin

1998

Illustrated by Mary Azarian

What a richer place is the world because of those eccentric seekers who pursue a passion with single-mindedness of purpose.  Such a one was Wilson Bentley.  He was raised on a farm in the snowbelt of Vermont, an area that receives as much snow in a year as the Amazon does rain.  His fascination with snow began as a child and continued until his death at age 66 after a six hour walk home in a blizzard.  At 15, his dear mother gave him an old microscope through which he could visualize individual snow crystals.  Two years later, for a sum equivalent to the family herd of ten cows, his skeptical father purchased a bellows camera and compound microscope.  After months of heartbreaking trial and error, he became the first to photograph an individual snowflake (this at the age of 19).  Though self-taught and initially the butt of ridicule, he eventually became an acknowledged expert, publishing articles in Scientific American and National Geographic, writing the entry on snow for the Encyclopedia Britannica, and gathering his images into a volume, Snow Crystals, which is still admired today.  At the time of his death, he left a legacy of 5,381 photographs of snowflakes.

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Bentley’s life story is an inspiration to children in a way that many larger-than-life biographies are not.  With simple observation and passionate dedication, he made pioneering discoveries, including the remarkable realization, made when he was only in his teens, that each snowflake, in all its wondrous geometrical intricacy, is unique. In Snowflake Bentley, Jacqueline Briggs Martin tells his story with a moving lyrical voice.  The elegiac tone seems apt for one who devoted his life to capturing the beauty of the most ephemeral of natural wonders.

In an interview conducted towards the end of his life, Bentley recalled a singular snowflake.  “”But we had one storm last winter which brought me perhaps the most interesting snow crystal I have ever seen: a wonderful little splinter of ice, incredibly fragile.  That was a tragedy!….In spite of my carefulness, the crystal was broken in transferring it to my slide.’  His voice actually shook with emotion.  ‘It makes me almost cry, even now,’ he said, as if he were speaking of the death of a friend.”

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Mary Azarian was awarded a Caldecott Medal for her woodcut illustrations.  Their bold black lines and rich hand-tinted water colors perfectly complement the simple rusticity of Bentley’s rural Vermont life.  Azarian has illustrated over 40 books, many with nostalgic images inspired by her own life on a Vermont farm.

Aside:  In the days

            when farmers worked with ox and sled

             and cut the dark with lantern light,

             there lived a boy who loved snow

             more than anything else in the world.

The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia

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The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia by Esther Hautzig

1968

In 1939, under the terms of a secret non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, Poland was invaded by Germany from the west and the Soviet Union from the east.   During the two years of Russian occupation (which lasted until Germany declared war on the Soviet Union in 1941), hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported to work as slave laborers in Soviet gulags.  The Endless Steppe is the autobiographical story of a 10 year old girl who was among the deportees.

9780064405775_p0_v1_s600The Rudomins were a cultivated and prosperous family who lived in Vilna, a vibrant town of Jewish culture and scholarship.  In June 1941, Russian soldiers arrived at the family home and arrested Esther, her parents, and her paternal grandparents.  Frightened, outraged, disbelieving, and bewildered, they were loaded onto trucks and then cattle cars.  In a heart wrenching scene, the grandfather was separated from the others and herded on  to a different train.  Six weeks later, the family disembarked at a mining camp in Siberia, where they lived in a crowded room with 22 other people and no furniture.  Their life in a labor camp ended in the fall, when Polish deportees were granted amnesty and permitted to move into the nearby village of Rubtovsk.   Combating lice, heat, bitter cold, hunger, and the all-too-real threat of starvation (during the harsh winter of 1941, 25% of gulag inmates starved to death), the family struggled to survive.

The-Endless-SteppeAgainst this backdrop of dehumanizing privation, Esther spent five years of her young life.  Bright, headstrong, and spirited, she created a childhood complete with friends and school.  Her parents went without food so that Esther could have the four rubles needed for a Jack Benny movie at the village theatre.  Her petite grandmother, who wore her silk dress and Garbo hat even while shoveling gypsum at the mine, shared Esther’s exuberance the day the two of them were first allowed to go to the baracholka or open-air market to barter a lacy pink slip for roasted sunflower seeds.  Her mother sacrificed a month’s supply of precious potatoes so that Esther could have a 12th year birthday party.  Lacking a notebook, Esther was forced to write her schoolwork between the lines of old newspapers, but she nonetheless discovered Pushkin, Turgenev, Mark Twain, and Jack London.  She developed a love for the Siberian landscape, the unbroken expanse of the treeless steppe, and when they were repatriated in 1946, she was reluctant to leave.

The painful irony was that Esther and her family were the fortunate ones.  Within several weeks of their deportation, the Germans overran Vilna.  The Jewish population was rounded up for incarceration in a ghetto, deportation to concentration camps, or mass murder.  When Esther returned to Poland after the war, she found that only three members of her large extended family in Vilna had survived.

The Selkie Girl

DSC01445The Selkie Girl by Susan Cooper

1986

Illustrated by Warwick Hutton

In the legends of the seafaring peoples of northern Scotland and Ireland, the seal is a shapeshifter.  According to Orkney legend, selkies are fallen angels: those who fall on land become fairies and those who fall on the sea become seals, and so they must remain until Judgement Day.  Once every seven years (or, according to some, once a year), the seal can be transformed into human form and walk on land.  The male selkie seeks out lonely unsatisfied women who welcome his amorous advances.  The female selkie becomes an unwilling captive bride and pines for the sea.

1522905The Selkie Girl tells the Orkney legend of the female seal, lyrically written by the English author, Susan Cooper.  Donallan is a fisherman who lives in an island croft (farmhouse), alone save for his dog, Angus, and his cat, Cat.  He falls in love with a beautiful selkie and steals her sealskin so that she cannot resume her animal form.  They marry and have children, but she is forever staring sadly out to sea.  The youngest child, unaware of its significance, tells his mother the whereabouts of the sealskin his father has kept carefully hidden.  The selkie takes leave of her two youngest children (her three oldest are at work in the fields) and slips into the sea.  As a seal, she provides Donallan with safe passage during storms, and once a year she becomes a woman and visits her husband and children.

The poignancy of the story is unusual among children’s books, but it is not overdone.  The selkie explains, “I have five children in the sea and five on the land.  And that is a hard case to be in.”  Her daughter responds simply.  “You must go to them.  It’s their turn….  I’ll look after James.”

DSC01447Susan Cooper imbues a sad timelessness to the tale with the simplicity of her language.  Warwick Hutton achieves a matching tone with his quiet watercolors.  His figures are static, yet never lifeless: each picture has the appearance of a posed set piece, arranged by the hands of fate.  The Selkie Girl is one in a series of three Celtic tales, the others being The Silver Cow and Tam Lin.

Aside:  In the mythology of the Amazon River basin, it is the pink Amazon River dolphin who is the shapeshifter.  At night, he emerges from the water as a handsome Don Juan, dressed stylishly in white, and seduces beautiful girls at the village dance.  As dawn approaches, the encantado slips away to his enchanted river world, sometimes with his lover in tow.

 

Pinocchio

DSC01979Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

1883

Illustrated by Iassen Ghiuselev

It was by either a stroke of luck or genius (and more likely the former) that Carlo Collodi created Pinocchio’s nose.  Long after the Blue Fairy has faded from memory, the nose remains, and this is the image that gives Pinocchio staying power.

Pinocchio entered the popular canon in the U.S. through Walt Disney, but it is a different experience to read the original.  Carlo Collodi (pen name for Carlo Lorenzini) wrote the tale to be serialized in a children’s newspaper, Giornale per i Bambini, and the 36 chapters are the perfect length for bedtime reading over the course of a month.  There have been many editions featuring many illustrators and translators over the 125+ years since it was published (in 1883).  Choose carefully.  One of the few artists who does justice to the intelligence of the tale is the Bulgarian, Iassen Ghiuselev, whose eye captures both the humanity and the surreality of the story.

DSC01980The revelation when reading Pinocchio is how rich and sophisticated it is, and also how chaotic and haphazard.  The imagery is bizarre and allegorical.  Consider the four black rabbits bearing a small black coffin into Pinocchio’s sick room, or the poodle in ornate livery who attends the Lovely Girl with Blue Hair.  Think of the transformation of the self-indulgent boys in Play Land into jackasses, beginning with the long ears.  DSC01977Recall the memorable pair of incorrigible ruffians, the lame Fox and the blind Cat, who convince Pinocchio that burying his five gold coins in the Field of Wonders will result in incomparable wealth from a money tree.  Visualize poor old Geppetto within the belly of the Terrible Shark sitting at a candle-lit table eating tiny, live fishes.  There is a darkness here (how different from Alice in Wonderland).

Pinocchio achieves moral transformation, but he stumbles repeatedly along the way.  With each calamity, he renews his resolve (to go to school, to tell the truth, to help his father) only to break his resolution with the next temptation.  Despite his thoughtlessness and superficiality, Geppetto, the Blue Fairy, and the Talking Cricket never give up on him.  He is endlessly likable.  Pinocchio may be foolish, exuberant, gullible, light-hearted, and altogether human in his errors, but he is never mean-spirited.DSC01978

Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain

DSC00004Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain by Edward Ardizzone

1936

Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone

This is the book that will introduce children to “Davy Jones’s locker”, the euphemism for drowning that they will reencounter in Treasure Island and Moby Dick.  Standing on the bridge of the sinking ship, the captain says to the frightened Tim, “Come, stop crying and be a brave boy.  We are bound for Davy Jones’s locker and tears won’t help us now.”  Used by sailors since the 18th century, the derivation of the phrase remains uncertain.  The locker refers to a seaman’s chest, but the identity of Davy Jones is a mystery.

Little Tim (modeled on the author’s 5 year old son) lives with his parents in a house by the sea and longs to be a sailor.  He hides himself as a stowaway on a coastal steamer and quickly becomes the favorite crew member on board.  A violent storm dashes the ship upon a rock, and Little Tim and the Captain await their watery death.  In the nick of time, a lifeboat appears out of the waves and effects a heroic rescue.  Tim makes his way back to his parents, bringing the captain home with him.little tim and the brave sea captain

The endearing Tim is a capable and courageous lad who lives a remarkably independent life.  Never once on his maritime adventure does he mention his loving parents.  When he arrives back at home, he finds his parents waiting patiently, delighted to see him (never any recriminations from these two), and quite willing to assent to future voyages with the captain – these are the kind of permissive parents for whom all children long.

Edward Ardizzone, born in Indochina, was a French national of Italian and Scottish parentage.  Despite his multinational heritage, he was quintessentially English and his atmospheric drawings capture the coastal town of Ipswitch where he spent his childhood.  Adept at swiftly rendered pen and ink and watercolor sketches, his work is gentle, delicate, and lively.  He had a real sense for the sea and conveyed both the rolling whitecaps of a storm and the quiet lap of wavelets in a harbor.  His practice of interspersing text with his soft-edged drawings, his use of speech balloons, and his humorous details (note the floating wooden box and broken mast labeled FLOTSAM and JETSAM) all give his stories an exciting forward momentum.little tim and the brave sea captain

Though a self-taught artist, Ardizzone became a much-beloved illustrator who received the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1956, its inaugural year.  He illustrated over 200 books, by such authors as Eleanor Estes, Edith Nesbit, Charles Dickens, and Graham Greene.  But he is particularly remembered for his Little Tim books, written in an earnest, yet light, deadpan style, filled with adventure and warmth.  There are eleven Tim books, written over the course of some 40 years.  Maurice Sendak, an Ardizonne admirer, was especially fond of Tim and Charlotte.

Daughter of the Mountains

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Daughter of the Mountains by Louise Rankin

1948

Illustrated by Kurt Wiese

 

Since her earliest memories, Momo has longed for a red-gold Lhasa terrier, a breed she had seen at the Kargayu monastery where it was favored by the head lama.  She lives high up in the mountains along the Great Trade Route between Tibet and India with her father, who carries the mail pouch over the Jelep La pass, and her mother, who runs a tea house for the mule caravans.  Momo’s wish is finally granted when a trader leaves a motherless puppy in her care.  But two years later, a muleteer steals her precious Pempa with plans to sell him to an English woman in India.  Momo runs down the mountain in pursuit, so launching an exciting series of encounters and adventures which ultimately land her in Calcutta.

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This is no Lassie of the Himalayas since the dog, despite being the impetus for Momo’s adventure, makes only a couple of brief appearances.  It is, rather, the tale of a resourceful girl with unwavering resolve, single-mindedness of purpose, good humor, and quiet courage in face of a novel and often intimidating world.  Momo makes a remarkable cultural odyssey, from a materially austere but spiritually rich world in the high Himalayas to the teeming city on the low plains of India with its olla podrida of language and religion.  Momo wears a dark woolen robe tied to create a pouch in which she carries her worldly possessions – a tea cup, some bread cakes, and a string of dried cheese beads.  In the market town of Rongli, she sees Hindu women in brightly colored saris, Indian traders in dhotis, hill men with banana leaf caps, and at the station platform in Siliguri Moslem women in burkahs and Sikhs with turbans.  In the bazaar, she sees her first oranges and bananas, fruits she had only heard described by caravan drivers in her mother’s tea shop.  She passes from the clear thin air of the high Himalayas to the rhododendrons and orchids of the lower slopes to the monkeys of the tropical forest to the heavy humidity of the Indian plains.

Louise Rankin, an American who moved to India with her husband in the 1930’s, was blessed with an observant eye.  The authenticity of her description of culture and terrain is matched by the verisimilitude of Kurt Wiese’s illustrations.  Short of getting on a plane, there is no better way to introduce children to a foreign culture than through a good book, and this is one of the best in the genre.

Goodnight Moon

 

 

 

goodnight moonGoodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

1947

Illustrated by Clement Hurd

The creative genius of Margaret Wise Brown is nowhere more apparent than in Goodnight Moon. This beloved book begins, “In the great green room/ There was a telephone/ And a red balloon/ And a picture of –/ The cow jumping over the moon”.  After listing the contents of the room, each item is tucked away for the night, “Goodnight room/ Goodnight moon/ Goodnight cow jumping over the moon”.  In the vibrant illustrations by Clement Hurd, we see a bunny rabbit in blue and white striped pajamas in his bed in the green room surrounded by the objects listed in the story.  The old lady appears knitting in the rocking chair and then disappears.  Two kittens play with a ball of yarn and curl up together.  The mittens and socks dry by the fire.  A mouse scampers across the floor and ends up on a windowsill staring at the moon.  The lights dim and the bunny falls asleep.

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A spare 130 words, the book is a marvel of writerly restraint.  It contains considerable rhyming (“And a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush/ And a quiet old lady who was whispering ‘hush’”), but Brown was no slave to poetic meter.  The result is a work of considerable sophistication with just enough dissonance and asymmetry to lend contrast to the soothing nursery rhyme cadences.

Margaret Wise Brown died at the age of 42.  While on a visit to France in 1952, she had a pulmonary embolus while recovering from surgery for an ovarian cyst.  In the settlement of her estate, the future royalties of Goodnight Moon were projected to be $500.  The beneficiary of these royalties was an 8 year old boy who lived in her neighborhood.  In fact, this book became one of the all time bestsellers of children’s literature.  It is a book that can be read hundreds of times as a bedtime ritual and never lose its freshness.

Aside:  On the wall of the green room is a framed painting which depicts a fishing rabbit.  This is an illustration from The Runaway Bunny, another book written by Brown and illustrated by Hurd.

 

 

 

Matilda

Matilda1 Matilda by Roald Dahl

1988

Illustrated by Quentin Blake

It would be unconscionable to let any child get through childhood without reading the Roald Dahl books.  James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, The Witches – they all have the unmistakable slapstick humor, the silliness and nonsense, that Dahl loved to write and children love to read.  The nasty authority figures are morally horrific and physically repugnant.  Take Aunt Sponge, for example, with “one of those white flabby faces that looked exactly as though it has been boiled”, or George’s Grandma with her “small puckered-up mouth like a dog’s bottom”.  The child heroes and heroines, who tend to be quiet, selfless, unassuming, and patient, devise ingenious schemes to thwart their torturers and they invariably succeed.  The bullies of the world are vanquished: there is no redemption for the wicked.  Dahl has had many detractors among adults, who have decried the gruesome violence and retribution, the tastelessness, of his books.  While critics and teachers are arguing about his subversive influence, his child fans are sneaking off to a corner to delight in yet another of his very funny books.DSC01470

Matilda was Dahl’s last major book, the culmination of a prolific writing career that spanned five decades, and it reflects the hand of a master.  The memorable Matilda is a tiny, brilliant girl who is reading Great Expectations and The Sound and the Fury at the age of four.  When she requests books of her parents, her vulgar father, a crooked second hand car dealer prone to wearing loud check suits, and her mother, a vapid peroxide blond who plays bingo every afternoon, direct her indignantly to the telly.  When she begins kindergarten, she encounters her ultimate nemesis, Miss Trunchbull, the sadistic headmistress.  Enraged by their beastliness and the injustice of it all, Matilda devises clever punishments for each of her tormentors.  She is a particularly noble heroine, since she achieves justice not only for herself but for her teacher, Miss Honey, who has been intimidated into submission.

DSC01466It is impossible to read Roald Dahl without envisioning the accompanying illustrations by Quentin Blake.  The pen and ink drawings appear to have been hastily scribbled: they have a scratchy, energetic, cartoonish quality, (Blake has attributed influence to Honore Daumier), that is perfectly paired with the zaniness of Dahl’s writing.  Blake has illustrated a number of writers, including his own books, but his lasting legacy will be his collaboration with Roald Dahl.

urlAside:  Avid Roald Dahl fans will enjoy his autobiographical duo, Boy and Going Solo.  In the former, he tells of dropping a dead mouse into the neighborhood candy shop’s Gobstopper jar to get back at the horrible Mrs. Pratchett.  He recalls the treat of newly invented Cadbury’s chocolate bars delivered to his boarding school for taste-testing, the genesis of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  The second book recounts his adventures with simbas and green mambas in Tanzania, and his dangerous missions as an RAF pilot in the early months of WWII.

9781417786084Aside:  It is worth listening to Jeremy Irons read James and the Giant Peach to hear his spectacular voices for the enormously fat Aunt Sponge (rendered with a moist lisp) and the tall and bony Aunt Spiker.  Unfortunately for the listener, they meet their end, crushed flat by the rolling peach, a third of the way through the book.