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”.



Boats by Byron Barton


Illustrated by Byron Barton


 For the very young child, the real world is wondrous enough. A garbage truck on its weekly rounds, with all the attendant activity of the garbage men wheeling the trash cans, the whir and clang and scrunch, the slap on the side and the swinging up on the running board – what could be a more exciting start to a day?

 For the very young child, everything is novel. It will be some time before a growing child becomes jaded with the quotidian and prefers the fire-breathing dragon over a cud-chewing cow, a sword-wielding knight over a policeman directing traffic. Young children want to know name and function – and Byron Barton is an astute writer/illustrator who provides just this information. Boats, Planes, Trucks, Trains – he covers these as well as many other everyday things in the everyday world. DSC03457-5

 For a novice parent, it is often difficult to distinguish among the many picture board books written for the very young. But children can tell the difference, and Barton’s books, for whatever reason, become the favorites of many a toddler. He is absolutely straightforward. “A fireboat rushes to put out a fire. A ferryboat carries people and cars.” No gimmicks, no wry humor – just plain talk conveying basic information. Each page contains a six or eight word declarative sentence in the most unadorned of language. The text is illustrated by flat art – thick black outlines, bright contrasting colors, bold geometric shapes. The people resemble Playmobile characters.DSC03456-5

 The test of a picture book is repeated readings. Barton’s books never become annoying, as so many do. There is a Zen-like pleasure that comes from the simplicity of the spare text and unembellished art. There is space for embellishment by the child and parent, space for running commentary, room for imaginative flow. In the midst of the chaos and cacophony that are a feature of modern life, Barton’s little books provide a welcome quiet spot.DSC03455-5



Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH


Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O’Brien


Illustrated by Zena Bernstein

 The story begins in an old-fashioned Beatrix Potter kind of way with a family of field mice living on Mr. Fitzgibbon’s farm. Mrs. Frisby, recently widowed, is anxious for her frail son, Timothy, who is delirious with fever. The family must move to their summer lodging before Mr. Fitzgibbons ploughs their field and upturns their home, but the chill spring air during the move might by more than Timothy can survive. Mrs. Frisby eventually seeks the advice of Nicodemus, the wise rat, and here the book takes a strange turn.DSC02784

In the story-within-a-story centerpiece of the book, Nicodemus recounts a fantastical tale. Caught up in a sweep of a farmer’s market, the young Nicodemus was taken to NIMH (based upon the real National Institute of Mental Health) where he became a research subject in an experiment designed by the neurologist, Dr. Schultz. Nicodemus was one of a group of rats and mice who received DNA and steroid injections to boost their learning ability and slow their rate of aging. Taking advantage of their newfound knowledge (which included the ability to read the directions for opening their cage doors), they made their escape from NIMH, overwintered on an estate with a sizable library, happened upon a toy tinker’s truck which contained miniature tools and engines, and settled on Mr. Fitzgibbon’s farm where they constructed an elaborate burrow complete with electric lights, a working elevator, and a radio. Over time, Nicodemus developed moral qualms about a rat’s life of thievery, and a plan evolved to create a utopian Shangri-La of self-sufficiency in a remote valley.DSC02781

The rats offer to help Mrs. Frisby move her home to safety, thus ensuring the salvation of Timothy. She, in turn, overhears Mr. Fitzgibbons talking about an impending visit of exterminators (it turns out that Dr. Schultz has gotten wind of their whereabouts), thus alerting the colony just in time for them to make their escape. There is plenty of excitement along the way, including the ever-present danger posed by Dragon the cat.

The book is unique in its combination of standard talking animal fare and futuristic super-rat fantasy. It is not only an arresting story, but also one that stimulates thought-provoking questions about intelligence, longevity, animal experimentation, genetic engineering, and ethics. It was in part for the book’s moral complexity that it was awarded a Newberry Medal.

The Pushcart War

productimage-picture-the-pushcart-war-448_png_200x612_q85 The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill


Illustrated by Ronni Solbert

The Pushcart War turns out to be surprisingly memorable – the image of the pea shooters persists long after the book is closed, along with a comforting sense of something quietly important having been accomplished. David and Goliath stories are understandably satisfying to children, and there are many that have been written. This is a highly unusual one.

The Pushcart War of 1976 begins with the Daffodil massacre in which the pushcart of Morris the Florist is flattened by a Mammoth Moving truck and the unfortunate flower peddler is launched headfirst into a pickle barrel. In response to this act of blatant aggression on the part of the trucking companies, the pushcart peddlers go on the offensive, led by Maxie Hammerman (the Pushcart King) and General Anna (vender of apples and oranges). Their secret weapon, invented by the son of a Hispanic peddler named Carlos, is a yellow rubber straw loaded with a dried pea with a pin stuck through. During the Pea Shooter Campaign, the peddlers bring the trucks to a standstill, 18,991 flat tires to their credit. When Frank the Flower is arrested and the peddlers are forced to desist, the children of Manhattan quickly take up the battle in their stead. Through the unintentional complicity of a cleaning woman who practices her shorthand on an overheard conversation between The Three (as the owners of the three trucking companies are known), Maxie Hammerman is warned that he is targeted for kidnapping. In a delightful scene, The Three are tricked into a poker game at which the Police Commissioner is present (he is on the side of the pushcarts), and Maxie ends up winning $60,000 and an Italian bullet proof car. And on it goes, until the two sides make their peace.DSC02478

The book is unconventional in format (it is a mock historical document, set in the future, complete with footnotes, newspaper articles, and transcribed conversations) and unusual in its juxtaposition of humor with serious social themes (political corruption, working class oppression, citizenry revolt). Most unique is the use of adult characters (and many of them), none of whom take center stage. Most books for children feature child or animal protagonists, but in this story the few named children have walk-on parts at best. It turns out to make not a whit of difference to the children reading the book, many of whom become devoted fans.

The Little House

TLHThe Little House by Virginia Lee Burton 1942 Illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton

Virginia Lee Burton was first and foremost an artist. In creating her seven books for children, she first painted the illustrations (a painstaking process that sometimes took years) and then wrote the text. Her books have an unmistakable style that was uniquely hers, a style that was a radical departure from other picture books of her time.DSC01063

The story of The Little House was inspired by Burton’s own home. When she and her new husband settled in Folly Cove, Massachusetts, they relocated their turn-of-the-century wooden house from a position along Route 127 to a nearby hill covered with daisies and apple trees. In the book, the Little House (one of a series of unassuming inanimate heroines that included a steam shovel, a snow plow, and a cable car) begins her life in an idyllic pastoral setting, surrounded by nature and home to a happy family. Time passes, the world changes, and the Little House is enveloped by a city. Boarded up, broken-windowed, and abandoned, the Little House is discovered by the great great granddaughter of the man who built her and is moved back to the country, once again on a hill with apple trees.DSC01064

Burton grappled with weighty issues – the importance of a life in harmony with nature, the dehumanizing force of modern urbanization, the relentless march of progress – and this book has a certain gravitas. She documents the passage of time in the natural world by showing the rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, the seasons of the year. In the arena of technologic progress, she shows the transition from horse and buggy to automobile, from trolley car to subway, from tenement building to skyscraper. She captures the accompanying change in the human psyche that the movement from country to city effects. Simply by drawing her rushing city dwellers on a slant, she captures the chaotic speed that accompanies modern urban life. The end of the story reflects Burton’s warm and exuberant personality and her intrinsic optimism. The Little House quietly perseveres and ultimately triumphs.DSC01066

Although Burton received the 1943 Caldecott Medal for The Little House, her earlier Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel remains her most popular work. Katy and the Big Snow is a terrific book to read upon each winter’s first snow storm, and Maybelle the Cable Car is the perfect book to pack for a visit to San Francisco.


by Rudyard Kipling


Illustrated by Lambert Davis

 Rikki-tikki-tavi is a valiant little mongoose who is washed away from his family in a flood and rescued by a young English boy. He finds the inhabitants of the bungalow garden cowed by Nag and Nagaina, the great black cobra and his wicked wife. Although inexperienced as a serpent slayer, he knows his role in the world. He first attacks a deadly krait, thus saving Teddy’s life, and then takes on Nag, thus saving Teddy’s parents. In his final battle, he vanquishes his most dangerous foe, the vengeful Nagaina, with a combination of brazen courage and psychological cleverness, knowing that she will risk all to save her last egg from destruction.

Rikki-tikki is matter-of-fact about his exploits and has nothing but angry disdain for foolish Darzee, the tailorbird, who sings his triumphant praises with imbecilic enthusiasm. Nor does he understand the gratitude of Teddy’s parents for acts which he considers all in a day’s work for any honorable mongoose. He is not motivated by love or loyalty to humans, nor by the prospect of culinary rewards, but simply by his instinctual need to rid his world of snakes. Rikki-tikki is his own mongoose and is never diminished by subservience to man.

il_570xN.550707554_n0u8The same cannot be said for all of the animals in the other stories that make up The Jungle Book and the Second Jungle Book. Eight of the 15 tales concern Mowgli, the man-cub raised by wolves, who is stalked by Shere Khan the Bengal Tiger, and mentored by Akela the Wolf, Bagheera the Panther, Baloo the Bear, and Kaa the Python. Ultimately Mowgli exerts his human supremacy over the animals of the jungle and we are reminded of an unfortunate pattern in Kipling’s works.


Kipling was born in Bombay, son of a professor of architectural sculpture. At the age of five, he and his three year old sister were deposited as boarders with a couple in England so they could be educated on home soil – for Rudyard, victim of the brutality of the missus, it was a miserable experience. At 16, he returned to India and spent the next seven years launching his writing career. And then he left, to spend his adult life in the U.S., England, and South Africa. The 12 formative years in India left an indelible mark which informed most of his writing. As a chronicler of British India, he had no peer.


Kipling was a broadly talented author who achieved glory as a writer for both adults and children, of both short stories and novels, and of both poetry and prose. Immensely popular in his time, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907 at the age of 42, the youngest recipient ever. Like many writers, he was subsequently vilified for reflecting in his writing the qualities of his times that were later found unsavory – in his case, the arrogance, racism, and militarism of British colonialism. His innovative works for children have endured – The Jungle Books, the Just-So Stories (addressed in an Arabian Nights kind of way to “O My Best Beloved”), and the ever-brilliant Kim.


(The illustrations are by Lambert Davis, Aldren Watson, Edward Detmold, Paul Jouve, and Rudyard Kipling.)

Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era

il_570xN.506850165_3lwpRascal: A Memoir of a Better Era by Sterling North


Illustrated by John Schoenherr

Sterling North entitled his autobiographical tale of childhood Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era, and the protagonist is not so much the eleven year old boy or even the raccoon, but rather a wondrous way of life. For children who live tightly scheduled lives in this day and age, it is surprising and exhilarating to witness the freedom afforded the young Sterling in a small Wisconsin town in 1918. Having lost his mother at the age of seven, he lives alone with his father, a fond but absent minded scholarly dreamer who goes off for weeks at a time on trips involving misguided farm transactions, leaving his son to fend for himself. Of necessity, Sterling is a self-sufficient and resourceful boy. He earns money by selling produce from his victory garden, hawking Saturday Evening Posts, or trapping muskrats (until he swears off harming animals). He accumulates a menagerie, including Wowser the St. Bernard,  Poe-the-Crow, and a family of skunks. He singlehandedly builds an 18 foot canoe in the living room, and spends whole days out in the woods, exploring or fishing, on his own.JudyS_RascalInTree

When he brings a raccoon kit home from one of his rambles in the woods, Rascal immediately becomes an integral member of thisJudyS_RascalInCanoe eccentric household. He sleeps in Sterling’s bed, sits in a highchair at the dining table, and steals sugar cubes from the sugar bowl. Over the course of the year, the two share the adventures of life, whether it be a two week camping trip in the north woods or a blueberry pie eating contest at the fair. Skillfully interwoven into their story is the backdrop of WWI (Sterling’s older brother is fighting in France), the nostalgic flavor of small town Wisconsin, and a paeon to the natural world.

Though Rascal has become a fairly well known classic in the U.S., the raccoon achieved celebrity status in Japan, spawning Rascal stores filled with theme paraphernalia, Nintendo video games, rascal_1899_1571415and an unfortunate craze for imported raccoons as family pets. This resulted from a year-long TV serialization of the book, created in part by Hayao Miyazaki. Although Araiguma Rascal was never translated into English, children can substitute Miyazaki’s anime masterpiece, My Neighbor Totoro, whose eponymous character bears some resemblance to Rascal. After the pablum of Hollywood cartoons, the beautiful hand drawn animation, plot originality, and moral complexity of Miyazaki’s many films (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Castle in the Sky, among them) are an exquisite revelation.

Aside: “He had learned to stand in the closely woven wire basket with his feet wide apart and his hands firmly gripping the front rim, his small button of a nose pointed straight into the wind, and his ring tail streaming back like the plume of a hunting dog that has come to a point.”