The Pushcart War

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

1964

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The book is unconventional in format (it is a mock historical document, set in the future, complete with footnotes, newspaper articles, and transcribed conversations) and unusual in its juxtaposition of humor with serious social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.

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

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Rikki-Tikki-Tavi
by Rudyard Kipling

1894

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.

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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.

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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.

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(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

1963

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.”

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.