Island of the Blue Dolphins


Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell


Illustrated by Ted Lewin

Survival in the wilderness makes for an oddly compelling story. Robinson Crusoe, the original castaway, launched the genre. Written in 1719, Daniel Defoe recounts the tale of a shipwrecked Englishman who makes a life for himself, fortified by the Bible, a herd of goats, and his man Friday (never was a footprint in the sand so welcomed – as much by the reader as by Crusoe). A quarter millennium later, Jean Craighead George wrote Julie of the Wolves. An Inuit girl gets lost in the Alaskan tundra, and her survival is dependent upon her acceptance by a wolf pack. The two books reflect a sea change in attitudes towards human civilization and nature between the 18th and 20th centuries.


In Island of the Blue Dolphins, the 12 year old Karana is neither castaway nor lost. She is simply left behind, to live a solitary existence on the island that was always her home. A member of the Nicoleno tribe, her community is decimated by Aleut and Russian sea otter hunters who make her island their base. The surviving tribespeople are rescued by a ship sent from the mainland, but Karana swims ashore to save her younger brother and a storm forces the ship’s departure. After the boy’s death by wild dogs, Karana is alone. She builds a fortified home with a whale bone fence, hunts and gathers a diet of abalone, fish, and tubors, tames the alpha dog to be her companion, and makes peace with her solitude. After 18 years, a ship arrives and she leaves her island home. Scott O’Dell based his Newberry award-winning book on the true story of the Lost Woman of San Nicolas. In reality, her “rescue” in 1853 was followed by her death from dysentery after only a few weeks of life in Santa Barbara.

San Nicolas is one of eight Channel Islands that lie off the coast of southern California. Five of the islands comprise the Channel Islands National Park and each of them warrants a visit. The layers of human history (Indian middens, abandoned ranch buildings, tales of rum-running during Prohibition) are interwoven with remarkable wildlife. Visit Santa Rosa for its stand of Torrey Pines and its pygmy mammoths (no longer roaming), Anacapa for its miniature yellow coreopsis forests and surfing seals, Santa Cruz for its cathedral-like Painted Cave (the world’s longest sea cavern), Santa Barbara for its gale-force winds and brown pelican rookeries, and San Miguel for its beach with 100,000 noisy pinnipeds hauled up in the sun. San Nicolas, home to a desolate navy outpost, is accessible to only a few.







Madlenka by Peter Sis


Illustrated by Peter Sis

East of Tribeca and west of the Brooklyn Bridge, there is a city block ringed with apartment buildings, in one of which lives a young girl named Madlenka. She has a loose tooth, which news she is anxious to share with Mr. Gaston, the French baker. What follows are several pages of all things French, from his greeting (“Bonjours, Madeleine”) to patisserie cuisine (croissants, financiers, madeleines) to French icons (Tour Eiffel, Arc de Triomph, Puss ‘n Boots, the Little Prince, the original Madeleine). A square cut-out creates a window into the mysterious bakery from one side and out to Madlenka on the sidewalk from the other. She proceeds to circumnavigate the block announcing her news to Mr. Singh in his newsstand, Mr. Ciao the Italian ice cream vendor, Ms. Grimm the German opera diva, and more. We see elephants and turbans, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Pinocchio, and the Bremer Town Musicians and a Wagnerian Brunnhilde (double dots over the u). There is a density and complexity of visual information that defies a single perusal, beginning with Sis’s detailed cross-hatched rendition of the city block, drawn from a dizzying Escheresque perspective – it is at once a bird’s eye view of the buildings ringing a central garden and a pedestrian’s view of the facades as seen from the sidewalk. Another visual legerdemain is seen in a wolf’s mouth in which the white teeth are also the lit windows of an old-fashioned passenger train.DSC03454

Madlenka is a hymn to the richness of a New York City childhood and the cultural odyssey afforded by a walk around the block. Sis captures the joy and imagination of a child who is known and loved by her exotic immigrant neighbors – easy to do, perhaps, since the girl is based on his own daughter. This is one of Sis’s most accessible books and one that can be read repeatedly without wearing thin

DSC03456Peter Sis (rhymes with peace) penned several loftier books, among them Starry Messenger, which tells the story of Galileo, and The Tree of Life, a biography of Darwin. These are the kind of beautiful books that might be given by a sophisticated aunt to spark a young mind to tackle The Voyage of the Beagle or to develop a passion for astronomy. These are wonderful books for a long winter’s read in front of the fireplace with plenty of time to wonder at the intricate drawings and digress into the footnotes.

It makes sense that Sis should be drawn to non-conformists – visionaries who demonstrated rare courage in challenging conventional wisdom. Sis grew up in Czechoslovakia, as he describes in the graphic memoir, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Corrupted by rock and roll, he rebelled against the repression of the Communist state, and eventually defected to the United States. Initially a film-maker, Sis became a children’s book illustrator and writer, encouraged along the way by Maurice Sendak, but he has also created a NYC subway mural, a stage set for the Joffrey Ballet, and over 1,000 illustrations for the NY Times Book Review. For his myriad accomplishments, he received a MacArthur “genius” Award, one of only a handful of children’s writers or illustrators to be so honored.DSC03457

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe


The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis


Illustrated by Pauline Baynes

No one can dispute that the first half of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is marvelous. Four children land in the country manor of a Professor, sent by their parents from London during the war. While exploring, Lucy, the youngest, slips into a large wardrobe, pushes through the hanging fur coats, and finds herself in a snowy woods illuminated by a glowing lamp-post. She encounters a Faun scurrying along under an umbrella, joins him for tea in his cozy den, and learns of the evil White Witch whose magic has imprisoned the land in endless winter. Lucy’s brother, Edmund, prone to unpleasant teasing and general beastliness, is the next of the four to discover Narnia. The White Witch pulls up in her reindeer-drawn sleigh: he succumbs to the temptation of her enchanted Turkish Delight (a delightful touch) and becomes her minion.


So far, so good. The prose is effortless, the characterizations deft, the details imaginative, the adventure enthralling – a children’s book that approaches perfection. The problem comes with the first mention of the lion’s name. By now, all four children are in Narnia and the battle of good vs. evil has begun. “’They say Aslan is on the move,’” says the kind Mr. Beaver. Each of the four children experiences an ineffable feeling upon hearing the name (in the case of Edmund one of “mysterious horror”) and we sense a first false note. Our discomfort grows when we arrive at the bizarre sadistic sacrifice of the noble lion and the subsequent unrestrained joy of the girls when Aslan comes back to life. The weird mystical intensity seems out of place in a book that began with such good hearted and imaginative promise.

There is something insufferable about a reformed sinner. C.S. Lewis converted back to the Anglican Church at the age of 32 and he devoted his subsequent writing to Christian apologia. Although children are usually unaware of the Christian subtext in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (and the other six volumes of the Chronicles of Narnia), those who revisit these childhood favorites as adults often feel betrayed. There is something distasteful, even underhanded, about disguising Christian allegory as a fantasy adventure.


So it may be best to leave The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to children, who can enjoy the remarkable tale in a state of innocence. Paired with the natural prose are the perfect pen and ink drawings of Pauline Baynes. Her iconic illustrations capture the unforgettable imagery that defines the book in our memory – the lamp-post in the woods, the Faun with his umbrella, the White Witch in her sleigh.


The Owl and the Pussycat

61BzZrdo1KL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear


Illustrated by Jan Brett

“Amiable lunacy.” This was George Orwell’s perfect description of Edward Lear’s poetry. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Lear single-handedly invented the nonsense genre. He began with absurdist limericks, illustrated with his own simple, sometimes surreal, line drawings, and graduated to his longer story poems, of which The Owl and the Pussycat is the best known.

Along the way, Lear invented bizarre characters, imaginary lands, and made-up words. A great traveler himself, Lear sent his characters sailing off to the great Gromboolian plain or the hills of the Chankly Bore or the land where the bong-tree grows – place names that embody the exotic. Of his many neologisms, runcible appeared to be his favorite: he used it repeatedly, as in runcible cat, runcible raven, runcible wall, runcible hat, runcible goose. The owl and the pussycat use a runcible spoon to eat their mince and quince, a utensil that made its way into the dictionary as a pronged spoon (though Lear’s illustration shows it as a ladle).DSC03487

Lear suffered from melancholia, a tone that suffuses some of his poems, especially those that describe lost love, such as The Dong With a Luminous Nose or The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. But this is not the case for The Owl and the Pussycat, a lively voyage of courtship between an unlikely pair. Nor is it the case for another of the greats, The Jumblies, a journey poem to an earthly paradise and back. For richness of whimsy, fantasy, language, and rhythm in the nonsense realm, Lear had no equal.

Lear’s pen drawings may appear naïve, but he was actually an accomplished artist. He published a highly acclaimed folio of parrots when he was only 19 and later became known for his landscapes depicting distant lands. It was on the basis of his natural history and landscape paintings that Queen Victoria sought him out for drawing lessons. For contemporary illustrations, seek out the edition by Jan Brett. Her detailed colorful paintings are set in the Caribbean and are lush with tropical flowers and fish.DSC03488

Aside: Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live;

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,

And they went to sea in a Sieve.

The Railway Children


The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

Illustrated by C.E.Brock


For a Victorian era woman, Edith Nesbit led a highly unconventional life. She married only after she was seven months pregnant and thereafter tolerated a ménage a trois which included her former best friend. She herself had affairs with a number of others, including George Bernard Shaw. She cut her hair short, smoked openly, and co-founded with her husband the socialist Fabian Society. She was the breadwinner of a household that included her own children as well as those of her husband’s mistress who she raised as her own. Though not particularly fond of young ones, her literary success came with her books for children, beginning with The Story of the Treasure Seekers in 1899. For the next prolific decade, she published two or three or four books a year, many of them remarkable.

The Railway Children is one of her most heartfelt books, perhaps because it is her most autobiographical. The three children, Roberta, Peter, and Phyllis, are whisked out of their comfortable servanted life after the mysterious disappearance of their father and deposited in a country cottage existence of relative poverty (“’Jam or butter, dear – not jam and butter.’”) Their mother closets herself to write. The children, left to their own devices, center their lives on the railway line down below in the valley and its attendant station. They are befriended by Perks the Porter, the Station Master, and an old gentleman on the 9:15 up (the daily train to London which they christen the Green Dragon).

The children avert a series of disasters – they signal a train to warn of a potentially deadly landslide, they save a baby from a burning barge, they rescue a boy who has broken a leg inside a tunnel.   They provide shelter for a Russian émigré writer who has escaped from Siberia and is desperate to find his wife and children (a character based upon a friend of the author). Through their many adventures runs the suspenseful thread of the mystery of their father’s absence (an absence no doubt inspired by the contemporaneous Dreyfus affair).

In addition to her realistic fiction, of which The Railway Children is the most celebrated, Nesbit created a fantasy genre in which everyday children stumble upon a key to magical happenings, often with awkward consequences. The Psammead trilogy (Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet) and The Enchanted Castle paved the way for C.S. Lewis, Edgar Eager, and J.K. Rowling. None of her successors has matched her imaginative creation of the Psammead, an irritable sand fairy who begrudgingly grants wishes and who has the shape of a furry spider, ears like a bat, extremities of a monkey, and eyes on retractable horns like a snail.


Aside: “’I suppose I shall have to be married some day,’ said Peter, ‘but it will be an awful bother having her round all the time. I’d like to marry a lady who has trances, and only woke up once or twice a year.’”


The Little Engine That Could


The Little Engine That Could retold by Watty Piper

Illustrated by George and Doris Hauman


“I think I can” became such a standard in American vernacular that the phrase, along with the book title “The Little Engine That Could”, were actually trademarked by Platt and Munk.

Published in 1930 at the onset of the Great Depression, the book appeals to all but the most cynical because of its spirit of can-do optimism. A happy little train chugs along with a jolly load of good things (dolls, toys, stuffed animals, lollypops) for the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain. When her engine breaks down, the toys, led by an animated clown, flag down a succession of engines (all male) that refuse to help. Along comes a little blue engine who utters her trademarked phrase, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can,” and manages to pull the load over the mountain just in time to avoid disappointing the waiting children (“I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could.”) (Perhaps there is just a bit too much sugary goodness here.)


The original illustrations were by Lois Lenski, but new illustrations were commissioned from George and Doris Hauman in 1954 and these are the ones with which we are familiar. The little blue engine’s bright open face appears on her smokestack, the gold band on the top giving her something of a Nefertiti look (the engine design was also trademarked.) The toys from the train appear toylike and so does everything else – the trees, including one with a candy cane trunk, are set on little stands, the bottles of milk march along on elfin feet, the apples and oranges have happy faces, and there is an unlikely toylike windmill in the background. There is much to engage and delight.


And what of the author? Who would have a name like Watty Piper? No one, as it turns out. Despite putative biosketches that have appeared in some books, Watty Piper was the house pseudonym for Platt and Munk – used since the 1920’s for a series of beloved large-format anthologies with names like The Road to Storyland and Stories That Never Grow Old. When The Little Engine That Could first appeared, it acknowledged a predecessor called Pony Engine that was published in 1916. In fact, the story, complete with famous “I think I can” phrase, appeared as early as 1906 in a Sunday school tract of unattributed authorship, and there were many other versions that followed. In 1955, faced with a lawsuit, Platt and Munk offered a $1,000 reward to the person who could prove authorship and it is telling that the prize was divided between three claimants, certainly none of whom were the real McCoy. Not many stories have had as many writers claiming paternity as this one.





My Side of the Mountain


My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George


Illustrated by Jean Craighead George

My Side of the Mountain is the first of a trilogy, written over a 40 year period, that includes On the Far Side of the Mountain and Frightful’s Mountain. Young Sam Gribley, with the blessing of his parents, runs away from their home in New York City and settles on his great-grandfather’s abandoned farm in the Catskills, taking with him a penknife, ball of cord, ax, flint and steel, and $40. Over the course of a year, he learns the skills necessary to lead a self-sufficient life in the forest. He creates a snug home in the core of an old-growth hemlock tree. He fashions deerskin clothes from road kill or animals abandoned by hunters. He spends most of his time, as hunter gatherers invariably do, finding food for subsistence. His menu is remarkably varied – dogtooth violet bulb and dandelion greens salad, fresh water mussels, hickory nuts, crow eggs, baked cattail roots, turtles, trout, mushrooms, venison jerky, sassafras and pennyroyal tea, wild strawberries, and May apples. Seeing a peregrine falcon soaring above, Sam is inspired to become a falconer to ensure a consistent meat supply. He plucks a chick from its cliff-side scrape and, with guidance from library books in the closest town, sets out to train her. Frightful becomes a magnificent bird and an accomplished hunter, and Sam has soon added rabbit and pheasant to his standard diet as well as the loyal companionship of a wild raptor.DSC03064

The two subsequent books in the series have a bit more rise and fall in the way of plot, aided by the appearance of bone fide villains, two scurrilous bird poachers. But it is remarkable that a book in which the greatest suspense comes from the uncertainty of whether Frightful will continue to brood her eggs in the face of bridge repairs could be so captivating. Jean Craighead George has devoted her writing career to exploring the interface between humans and nature and she grapples with all its messy complexity. She writes about a real world in which predators kill prey, humans sometimes act with venal intent, political decisions have unanticipated destructive consequences. At the same time, people and wild animals have mutually dependent relationships of deep affection, children are able to effect positive change, and endangered species are brought back from the brink through environmental activism. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., in his forward to the third volume, cites My Side of the Mountain as the formative book leading to his fascination with falconry and career as an environmental lawyer, and he is not alone in having found inspiration in this book while an impressionable child.

DSC03059Jean Craighead George was raised in a family of adventurous naturalists and she knew her material firsthand. Her entomologist father taught his three children how to survive in the wilderness and all three became accomplished falconers as adolescents. Her books, and especially her illustrations, provide a how-to manual for any child who wants to follow in Sam’s footsteps. Some years after launching her Sam Gribley series, George spent a summer studying wolves in the tundra of Barrow, Alaska, and she was inspired to write her second noteworthy trilogy, beginning with the Newberry Medal winning Julie of the Wolves.DSC03060

The Tomb of the Boy King


The Tomb of the Boy King
by John Frank


Illustrated by Tom Pohrt

There are really three stories here. There is the story of King Tutankhamen, who assumed the throne at the age of 9, and died mysteriously a decade later. A loose sliver of bone within the skull lead to speculation of foul play and court intrigue, an exciting modus exitus.DSC01451

Then there is the story of the discovery of his tomb by the British archeologist, Howard Carter, in 1922. Of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, King Tutankhamen’s was the only one not significantly plundered by grave robbers. Over 5,000 objects were found, including the life-size golden mask that has become the iconic image of ancient Egypt. The astonishing treasure was housed in the Cairo Museum, where it quietly languished until 1972 when the first of several traveling world tours was launched. Millions of visitors waited in long lines to view the riches at the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum – the first blockbuster museum show.DSC01452

And third, there is the superstition of the ancient mummy’s curse that protected the grave against marauders. The death of Carter’s golden canary by a cobra was to foreshadow the death of his wealthy friend and backer, Lord Carnarvon, during the course of the excavation, a death that was accompanied by a triad of eerie coincidences.

John Frank tells the three intertwining stories in verse form, with the DSC01450allusions to the mummy’s curse providing an undercurrent of mysterious suspense. Tom Pohrt’s pen and watercolor illustrations have a sepia toned palette reminiscent of old photographs from the era. He includes borders with hieroglyphics or artifacts, thus overlaying the culture of the pharaohs on that of 1920’s Egypt. There are comparatively few non-fiction children’s books that bear repeated out-loud reading, and this is one of them.

Aside: For a lighter take on the King Tut story, try “We Want Our Mummy”, a 1939 movie made when the Three Stooges were at the peak of their zany form. Playing three detectives hired to find the kidnapped Professor Tuttle and the mummy of King Rutentuten (pronounced rootin’ tootin’), the three hail a cab in New York and end up in the desert sands of Egypt, $2,198.55 lighter. After a few “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk”s and some classic dialogue:

     (Moe: I got an idea. We’ll make a mummy out of you.

     Curly: I can’t be a mummy. I’m a daddy.

     Larry: OK, so you’ll be a daddy mummy),

the Three Stooges discover not only the mummy of the midget king but also that of his wife, Queen Hotsy Totsy.


My Father’s Dragon


My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett


Illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett

 Consider the diversity of dragons in children’s literature. At one end of the spectrum is the fire-breathing princess-snatching type favored by St. George. Think of Smaug, Bilbo Baggins’ nemesis in The Hobbit. Then there is the warrior dragon fighting the dark forces, exemplified by Saphira (a rare she-dragon), raised from a hatchling by Eragon, the Dragon Rider, created by the boy wunderkind, Christopher Paolini. At the other end is The Reluctant Dragon, a pacific poet created by Kenneth Grahame, who strikes a bargain with St. George to stage a mock battle that will appease their fans. Somewhere in between are the dragons, a plague of them, created by the inimitable E. Nesbit in The Deliverers of Their Country (a story in the collected The Book of Dragons) – dragons that create a nuisance, beginning with the tiny one that lands in Effie’s eye, and that are ultimately dispatched through the matter-of-fact ingenuity of children.DSC02789

The dragon in Ruth Stiles Gannett’s trilogy resembles a balloon in a Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade. Adorned with blue and yellow stripes, golden wings, and red accents, he has the appearance of a friendly blimp, as drawn by Ruth Chrisman Gannett (the author’s stepmother). My Father’s Dragon begins with 9 year old Elmer Elevator befriending an old alley cat. Upon hearing that Elmer longs to fly, the cat tells him of a baby dragon being held captive on Wild Island. Elmer assembles a curious assortment of odds and ends (including chewing gum, pink lollipops, rubber bands, magnifying glasses, multi-colored hair ribbons, and 25 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches) and stows away on a ship bound for Tangerina. Making his way to Wild Island, he encounters wild boars, tigers, a rhinoceros, a lion, a gorilla. The most entertaining is a mouse that transposes his consonants, as in “’I must smell tumduddy. I mean, I must tell somebody.’” Elmer’s assorted possessions provide the various diversions needed to distract the beasts, most famously when he attaches a pink lollipop to the tail of each crocodile with a rubber band, thereby prompting them to create a lollipop-sucking crocodile bridge across the river. Freeing the baby dragon from captivity, the two float away, thus fulfilling Elmer’s dream of flight.DSC02791

The book is disarmingly simple. It has an airy freshness and naivete that is instantly appealing. Gannett, four years out of Vassar, wrote the book effortlessly over a two week period in between odd jobs.DSC02792 Her stepmother, an established artist, provided illustrations and encouraged publication. The two continued their collaboration with Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland.

Make Way For Ducklings

DSC02800Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey


Illustrated by Robert McCloskey

Shortly before Robert McCloskey’s death in 2003, Make Way For Ducklings was made the official children’s book of Massachusetts, prompted by students in a third grade class. Hard to imagine a more appropriate award, for McCloskey was a master at evoking the essence of place. What Make Way For Ducklings was for Boston, Time of Wonder was for coastal Maine and Homer Price was for Centerburg, Ohio. The eight books that he wrote and illustrated were each a celebration of one of these three settings, each of which he knew well. His books were also a quiet celebration of America – apple pie, blueberry picking, donut machines, harmonicas, a certain unpretentious can-do spirit, common-sense competence, and innocent understated humor.

Make Way For Ducklings stars Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, a pair of ducks who settle on an island in the Charles River, free of foxes, turtles, and boys on bicycles. After their eight ducklings hatch out, Mr. DSC02804Mallard goes off exploring while Mrs. Mallard teaches her offspring to swim, dive, and follow in a straight line. When it is time for their rendez-vous, Mrs. Mallard proudly leads her brood in a single file procession through the streets of Beacon Hill and through the gates of the Boston Public Garden. They are helped along the way by Michael the policeman and Clancy from headquarters who stop traffic to allow their safe passage. There is something fascinating about the ordered geometry of birds, be it the V-shaped pattern of migrating geese, the wind-facing seagulls on an island rookery, or the following behavior of imprinted chicks. It is the image of the proud Mrs. Mallard and her trail of spirited ducklings – delighting the boy in the Corner Book Shop, amazing the street sweeper on Charles Street, bringing traffic to a halt on Beacon Street – that is the lasting one.Make-Way-for-Ducklings-1950

Make Way For Ducklings is one of the most enduring and beloved of picture books – both the story and the illustrations are imbued with honesty and quiet humor. To perfect his drawing technique,DSC02801 McCloskey brought a dozen or more ducklings home to his West Village apartment and lived with them long enough to make hundreds of sketches. In the book, every twitch of the tail, every preening of the breast feathers, every flap and waddle seem true. The humans, in contrast, are comical caricatures. As an artist, McCloskey was talented and meticulous – he was the first to receive two Caldecott Medals (for Make Way For Ducklings and Time of Wonder) and he was also awarded three Caldecott Honors, a remarkable achievement.