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.

The Incredible Journey

DSC02765The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford


Illustrated by Carl Burger

 Everyone knows the story. A trio of animals, two dogs and a cat, cross 250 miles of Canadian woods to be reunited with their owner family. They pass in and out of the lives of a medley of wilderness residents – an Ojibway clan at a wild rice harvest, a hardscrabble Finnish immigrant family, an eccentric hermit, a kind-hearted elderly couple – all of whom offer momentary respite from the hardships of the journey. They encounter, to ill effect, a series of wild animals – a bear cub and mother, a lynx, a porcupine. Sustained by their mutual loyalty and the unwavering determination of their leader, they succeed. We know there will be a happy ending, but the book has emotional force. While Luath and Tao are having their joyous reunions, there is not a dry eye when young Peter presumes his dear Bodger to be dead, though we know the dog is not far behind.

 DSC02766Sheila Burnford was a keen observer, and this is the reason for reading the book rather than leaving the plot line to the two movies that have popularized the story. She brought the eyes of a newcomer to the Canadian wilderness (she was a transplant from post-war England) and her detailed descriptions of the Indian summer woods mark the passage of time and create a depth of natural setting unusual in a children’s book. She was also a sensitive observer of animals and she had an uncanny ability to capture the distinctive behaviors, characters, and interrelationships of her three protagonists – the Siamese cat, the young Labrador retriever, and the old white English bull terrrier. Old Bodger – irrepressible, good-humored, clownish, ingratiating – was Burnford’s obvious favorite. She describes his nautical rolling gait and gargoylish grin with the sure touch of one who knew this animal well. All three animals were based on pets that she had owned.

 UnknownBurnford brings this same sixth sense for animals to Bel Ria, a little known gem of a book. It was not written for children, but then neither was The Incredible Journey. It concerns a spirited little performing dog who travels the open roads of France with a monkey, a horse, a donkey, and a Gypsy couple. When the Gypsy caravan is strafed by a German stuka during the 1940 Allied retreat, the surviving dog and monkey attach themselves to an English corporal who had been aided by the Gypsy woman when he was wounded. He manages to smuggle them aboard the Lancastria during the chaotic evacuation, and together they survive the sinking of the ship (4,000 others were not so fortunate) and eight hours in the oil-coated Atlantic until they are rescued by a British destroyer. The dog, as Ria, becomes the charge of the brusk sick berth attendant and then, as Bel, the pampered pet of an imperious semi-invalid spinster, both of whom are transformed by his passage through their lives. Burnford is extraordinary in creating the scenes of war – the dusty streams of refugees fleeing the German invasion of the Loire Valley, the plight of drowning men necessarily abandoned by the convoy crossing the Atlantic, the terror of crazed animals running amok during the Plymouth blitz (she was a volunteer ambulance driver at the time). She is equally extraordinary in portraying the nuanced complexity of a small dog swept up by war.

The Cats in Krasinski Square


The Cats in Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse


 Illustrated by Wendy Watson

 How to present the Holocaust to children? For those who are too young for Anne Frank or Primo Levi, a gentle approach is provided by The Cats in Krasinski Square, a book that sets just the right tone. It tells of one small moment of successful defiance and quietly heralds the human courage, friendship, and dignity that survived in the face of unfathomable brutality.

 The book was inspired by I Remember Nothing More, a remarkable memoir by Adina Blady Szwajger. A medical student at the time of the walling off of the Warsaw Ghetto, she devoted herself to her young charges in the Warsaw Children’s Hospital until 1943 when the final deportations of Jews to the concentration camps were nearing completion. She escaped the Ghetto and began working as a courier for the Jewish Resistance. She was one of the fortunate few to survive the war.

 The Cats in Krasinski Square features a young girl who has escaped the Ghetto and is able to pass as an Aryan outside the Wall. She lives with her older sister, a member of the Resistance, and she befriends the cats who have been rendered homeless by the war. When she learns that a plan to smuggle food into the Ghetto is threatened by the Gestapo, she gathers up the stray cats into wicker baskets. As the train carrying the food couriers pulls into the station and the German soldiers let loose their snarling dogs, the cats are released and pandemonium ensues. That night the food makes its way into the Ghetto and the girl passes a loaf of bread through a hole in the Wall into the grateful arms of her friend Michal. Meanwhile, in Krasinski Square, a carousel swirls to gay music and children laugh with delight. Szwajger described watching the carousel as the fighting of the Ghetto Uprising raged and the houses (her own, among them) went up in flames on the other side of the Wall. The merry riders were seemingly insensible to the human tragedy playing out nearby.DSC03536

 Karen Hesse is a sensitive writer who has garnered both a Newberry Medal and a MacArthur Award for her books for children. With an economy of words and a poetic prose style, she has taken on complex moments in history and given them a human face. Her subjects have included the grinding poverty of the Dust Bowl, the forced relocation of the Aleuts after the Japanese invasion, and the Ku Klux Klan in New England. Never sentimental or sensationalistic, she creates a strong sense of historical place and the response of individuals to burdens imposed by the vagaries of historical circumstance.

 In The Cats in Krasinski Square she is aided by Wendy Watson, a visual artist of comparable sensitivity. With softly blurred illustrations in muted yet luminous golden and ruddy tones, she portrays essence of cat along with essence of war-torn Warsaw. In the climactic train station scene, she provides just enough comic relief to allow the reader to feel triumphant exhilaration as a clever young girl with ingenuity outfoxes the Nazi soldiers.DSC03535

Paddy’s Christmas


Paddy’s Christmas by Helen Monsell


Illustrated by Kurt Wiese

 While Mother, Father, Aunt, and Uncle Bear are sleeping in the cave for the winter, Paddy is out playing in the woods. Tumbling down a hill, he comes to rest at a log cabin and through the windows he witnesses the celebration of Christmas. He rushes back to the cave and asks excitedly, “What is Christmas? … It’s pretty, it’s lots of fun, and it makes you feel good from the inside out.” Uncle, Aunt, and Mother Bear each reluctantly visits the cabin in turn and returns with an interpretation – decorating with holly and mistletoe and singing songs, receiving presents, and giving gifts. Paddy finds that decorating the cave is pretty and playing with his gifts is fun, but only when he gives presents to his family does he feel fulfilled.


 Many spirit-of-Christmas books are saccharine, preachy, and oddly enervating, but not this one. Paddy is frolicsome and pesky, while the adult bears want nothing more than to be left in peace so they can go back to sleep – which they do repeatedly. Self-sufficient and independent, the little bear gathers the running cedar and decorates the cave, he juggles the pine cones which his aunt has given him, and he collects the gifts (a stick for his father, nuts for his uncle, red feathers for his aunt, and a stiff grass broom for his mother) all by himself. He has an invigorating curiosity and resourcefulness that are infectious. Read this book and you’ll feel like going outside to scavenge in the woods for holiday ornaments too.


 Anyone who has seen The Story About Ping or The Five Chinese Brothers will recognize Kurt Wiese’s illustrations. German-born, Wiese moved to China in his early twenties to try his hand at business. With the advent of WWI, he was captured by the Japanese, turned over to the British, and detained as a prisoner of war in Australia. This was a fortuitous incarceration, since the unique fauna of down-under inspired an interest in sketching. After a detour to Brazil, Wiese settled in rural New Jersey where he embarked on a remarkably prolific career (well over 300 books) as a children’s book illustrator. His bears in Paddy’s Christmas are filled with the cheerful vitality that characterizes his work.






Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates



Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge


Illustrated by Cyrus Leroy Baldridge

For a book that few people in the 21st century have actually read, Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates is surprisingly well-known. Mention the title and indistinct recollections of wooden shoes, an exhilarating race, and the boy with his finger in the dyke will surface. The book was an immediate success when it was published in 1865 and the story continues to inspire tourism in Holland a century and a half later. All of which is a testament to the excitement of the tale.

 Hans and Gretel Brinker, virtuous children who remain plucky in the face of hardship, live with their parents in a humble cottage on the banks of a frozen canal. Their father suffered a head injury while working on the dykes a decade earlier which left him witless. Locked within his inaccessible memory are the whereabouts of their 1,000 guilder savings and the secret of a mysterious watch entrusted to his care. While the children struggle to obtain help for their father from the gruff Dr. Boekman, their spirits are buoyed by their anticipation of the upcoming race, the prize for which will be silver skates. The plot is unabashedly melodramatic and the cast of supporting characters unabashedly stereotypic: the nasty, bitter Carl Schummel who gets his comeuppance in the end, the fat, good-natured, prone-to-napping Jacob Poot, the generous burgomaster’s daughter, Hilda van Gleck, the empty-headed coquettish Katrinka Flack, the English Benjamin Dobbs who provides an opportunity for comic relief (otherwise rare) when others speak to him in heavily accented English (“Penchamin, I no likes be called Tutch – dat ish no goot. I bees a Hollander.”) All of which is appealing to children.DSC01181

 What is less appealing is the encyclopedia of trivia about Holland, ranging from the carvings on Dutch pipes to catalogues of museum contents. Mary Mapes Dodge wanted to present an instructional travelogue, a somewhat audacious goal, given that she had never been to Holland. The book is flawed by an irrelevant subplot which accompanies a group of boys on a 100 mile sightseeing tour. But while some of the descriptions are insufferably dry (e.g., bits of obscure Dutch history, descriptions of gallery paintings), Dodge manages to pack a remarkable amount of information into the pages, all of which paints a detailed portrait of mid-nineteenth century Dutch life. As our world warms, images of ice skating Hollanders, once such a defining symbol of Dutch culture, are becoming a thing of the past, and it is worth having a text that captures a vanishing way of life.

 The Dutch are somewhat disparaging of Dodge, the self-styled cultural historian, particularly when it comes to the boy with his finger in the dyke. The fictional story of “the hero of Haarlem” appeared in various guises in France, England, and the U.S. during the 1850’s, but it was Hans Brinker that transformed the boy into a popular icon as well as the personification of “the pluckiest little country on earth”.