Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans


Illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans

The city of New York is home to a hidden trove of murals, prominent among which are those of the Carlyle Hotel, a particularly beautiful art deco landmark. Wander into the Café Carlyle, the cabaret that has been home to Bobby Short, Eartha Kitt, and Woody Allen, and admire the 1950’s pastoral airy cirque-themed walls by Marcel Vertes. For a quieter cocktail, try Bemelmans Bar with its whimsical scenes of Central Park, complete with an ice-skating elephant, roller-skating rabbit, and elegant giraffes, all with delightful hats or bow ties. Along one wall are twelve little girls in two straight lines: the eponymous muralist, who accepted accommodation in lieu of payment, was none other than the author/illustrator of the Madeline books.

Bemelmans Bar, NYC Murals by Ludwig Bemelmans

Bemelmans Bar, NYC Murals by Ludwig Bemelmans

Ludwig Bemelmans claimed, in his acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal (awarded for Madeline’s Rescue), “I have repeatedly said two things that no one takes seriously, and they are that I am not a writer but a painter, and secondly that I have no imagination.” No false humility here. At least for the former, he was right. Witness the bizarre and awkward meter of his rhyming couplet – “And soon after Dr. Cohn/ came, he rushed out to the phone.” Nonetheless, he succeeded in creating one of the most lasting characters in children’s literature, and a story as fresh today as when it first appeared in 1939.

img_1963What is it about Madeline? Start with the opening. “In an old house in Paris/ that was covered with vines/ lived twelve little girls in two straight lines./…..the smallest one was Madeline.” Madeline emerges from the anonymous dozen in a defiant stance, posed like a statue on a dressmaker’s chair (the dressmaker on her knees) – clearly an individual. She distinguishes herself by being spirited and mischievous and fearless and independent, one in a rich canon of plucky heroines (going back to Jo in Little Women and Anne in Anne of Green Gables). Yet there is the reassuring predictability that attaches to being paimg_1968rt of an identically dressed group, the comfort of daily identical routines, the safety provided by the watchful, albeit somewhat inept, care of Miss Clavel at a Paris boarding school, and the love conferred long-distance by a generous Papa.

But it is really the illustrations, deceptively simple watercolor and ink, that make the story sing. There is an energy, created by a diagonal upward slant, that makes for an exultant dynamism. Admire the hospital nun with a white winged cornette, surely the inspiration for the Sydney Opera House, who looks like she is about to levitate. Who could give greater sense of urgency to Miss Clavel as she flies, almost horizontal, to her charges in img_1970the night? There is a spirited joie de vivre that characterizes Bemelmans’ art, whether it be the iconic Parisian scenes that form the backdrop of the Madeline story or the humorous covers for the New Yorker or Town & Country. One has the sense of a life lived quickly and fully without slavery to detail. That Bemelmans once miscounted the dozen in his paintings or was not consistent with Madeline’s hair (which is variously blond, curly red, and black) adds to the charm.

Bemelmans wrote six Madeline books, of which Madeline and Madeline’s Rescue are the stars. There are others created by his grandson, but these do not compare with the originals.


The Hundred Dresses


The Hundred Dresses by Eleonor Estes


Illustrated by Louis Slobodkin

A literature written specifically for children did not begin to evolve until the 18th century, prior to which children used the Bible for their first primer. Most early children’s books were moralistic tracts written with the goal of instructing values and manners. Towards the end of the 20th century, a different instructional motivation in children’s books took hold in the multicultural social realism movement, with stories purposely written to promote tolerance or create an understanding of adoption, divorce, death, alcoholism, same sex parents, or the trauma of displacement caused by the arrival of a new baby. All books inform, but those written with the goal of instruction may serve an immediate need but rarely enter the pantheon.


An exception is The Hundred Dresses, still as moving and powerful today as when it was written by Eleonor Estes in 1944. Wanda Petronski is a motherless child who is tormented by her classmates because of her poverty, her Polish immigrant roots, and her fanciful claim of having 100 beautiful dresses in her closet. The story is told from the point of view of Maddie, secretly compassionate but lacking in courage, fearful that she herself may be ostracized if she remonstrates with her best friend, the popular Peggy. After Wanda’s family moves from the town, driven away by prejudice and teasing, her tormentors discover that the 100 dresses are beautifully painted designs that reflect an extraordinary talent.


Eleanor Estes presents a sensitive and unshirking portrayal of childhood cruelty. The book is subtly nuanced: through a final gift of generosity, Wanda offers forgiveness to Peggy and Maddie. Yet Maddie never apologizes, despite her professed intentions, and thus there is no comforting resolution for her, no absolution of her shame. She remains haunted by the painful image of Wanda standing alone in a sunny spot by the wall in the school yard, ostracized by the laughing circle of girls.DSC01477

There is something about Louis Slobodkin’s soft shaded lines, featureless faces, and white space that captures the terrible loneliness of a friendless child. The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Slobodkin was largely a sculptor until a chance vacation encounter with Eleanor Estes resulted in his trying his hand at book illustration. He collaborated with Estes on six of her books, including the Moffats trilogy with which she launched her highly successful writing career.



The Journey


The Journey by Sarah Stewart


Illustrated by David Small

A beautifully rendered collaboration by a writer/illustrator couple, The Journey transports us into the world of the Amish. The journey begins with the cover illustration; in a circle of lantern light, a bonneted girl with a thin suitcase says farewell to a stolid aproned woman, while a white-bearded moustache-less man holds the waiting horse and buggy at the door of the barn. The next four pages of illustrations show the departure from the farm, the swiftly moving horse and buggy passing through a grove of trees, the transfer to a Chicago-bound bus in the main street of a rural town as dawn breaks, and the arrival at a hotel in the bustling city complete with the El, pigeons, and gawking passersby – all this before the words begin.

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Sarah Stewart’s epistolary text consists of the seven brief diary entries that Hannah writes during her stay in Chicago. Wide-eyed with excitement and wonder, Hannah visits a skyscraper, aquarium, cathedral, art museum, hot dog stand. But this is not a travelogue of the windy city so much as a reflection about her simpler life back home. Through the subtly worded text and alternating illustrations of urban Chicago and rural Amish worlds, we find that Amish children are still educated in one-room schoolhouses, men and women (separately) worship in simple homes, the craft of quilt-making is a communal activity, and dinner consists of vegetables harvested from the garden and fish caught in the lake.

In David Small’s wonderfully intelligent and nuanced paintings, we see the contrasting worlds of the “Plain people” and the “English”. In a department store, a good-natured saleswoman (with spiked heels and bulge-defining dress) holds up a frilly polka-dot trifle for Hannah to consider while her mother and friend laugh in the background. On the following page, we see Hannah holding up the simple blue frock that the ever-competent Aunt Clara, barefoot, has made for her on a treadle sewing machine.   A visit to the Amish reminds us that in this twenty first century material world, a group of people has consciously chosen to live a simple life style modeled upon that of their forebears.

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Sarah Stewart and David Small have produced six children’s books jointly and theirs is a complementary marriage of talents. The Gardener (winner of a Caldecott Honor Award) is particularly worth exploring.

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Stuart Little

Star's Stuart Little Book

Stuart Little by E.B. White


Illustrated by Garth Williams

It seems hard to fathom, but Stuart Little was blacklisted by Anne Carroll Moore, arbiter of children’s literary taste for decades while head of the children’s room of the New York Public Library. Was it the “monstrous birth” that some decried upon its publication? There was something unseemly about a two inch mouse being born, fully formed, to Mrs. Frederick C. Little, enough so that in the film version made half a century later the diminutive character was fetched from an orphanage. Children, forever willing to suspend disbelief, had no trouble with the details of Stuart’s arrival and immediately embraced him, gray hat and little cane and all.

For what a character E.B.White created – the debonair, steadfast, adventurous romantic who recognizes Beauty in the form of Margalo, the rescued bird, and goes in quest of his holy grail when she flies north. There is excitement along the way – his accidental roll-up in the window shade, his knight-like protection of his friend from the predation of the feline Snowbell, his being dumped into a garbage truck and taken out to sea.

The most memorable is his adventure at the Conservatory Water in Central Park. Dressed in sailor suit and sailor hat, he captains the schooner Wasp to victory over boorishness in the form of the Lillian B. Womrath. Few who have read the story can walk by the model boat pond without remembering the race. White could write movingly about boats, with which he had a lifelong and complex relationship. In a late essay (The Sea and the Wind That Blows), when he was thinking of giving them up, he wrote, “A small sailing craft is not only beautiful, it is seductive and full of strange promise and the hint of trouble.” All of which comes across in Stuart’s experiences.


The tone changes when Stuart heads out of town. As he motors north in his beautiful yellow and black miniature automobile, filling up with five drops when he needs to refuel, White waxes lyrical. We hear the notes of Thoreau as Stuart enters the lovely village of Ames’ Crossing. In place of the schooner, Stuart acquires a canoe, Summer Memories, in which he paddles in an idyllic and completely imagined interlude. This is a book of exquisite tenderness, of quiet honesty, of goodness. It is a book about the search for the unattainable and the quest for beauty. When asked by Stuart what is important in the world, a boy responds, “A shaft of sunlight at the end of the dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way the back of a baby’s neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy.” What other writer for children had such respect for his young readers?


Over in the Meadow



Over in the Meadow by John Langstaff


Illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky

Over in the Meadow is a traditional counting song that has many iterations. In this version, one turtle, two foxes, three robins, four chipmunks, five honeybees, six beavers, seven frogs, eight owls, nine spiders, and ten bunnies are enjoined by their mothers to do what they are meant to do – dig, run, sing, play, hum, build, swim, work, spin, and hop. John Langstaff, a Julliard trained concert baritone and founder of the Christmas Revels, included the musical score at the end of the text. Even without knowing the tune, it would be difficult to read the words without singing them.

A number of artists have illustrated this song, including Ezra Jack Keats (the Caldecott Medal winner for The Snowy Day), but Feodor Rojankovsky was particularly well-suited. A Russian émigré who fled to New York from Paris at the time of the German occupation, he was a prolific artist who illustrated over 100 children’s books, including The Tall Book of Mother Goose and more than 20 Golden Books. A childhood visit to a zoo which coincided with a gift of crayons inspired a love of drawing animals, and he became known for his realistic depictions of furry beasts. He was a master of the bunny, and many of his books include his signature stretched rabbit, seemingly suspended in air in elongate animation. In Over in the Meadow, using grainy crayon over pen and ink lines, he perfectly captures the soft fuzziness of bunnies and owlets and foxes.


Rojankovsky was catholic in his range of styles (during the 1920’s and 1930’s in Paris, he illustrated erotic fiction, in addition to jobs with fashion magazines, advertising agencies, and film studios) and this versatility is evident in Over in the Meadow. The cover illustration intersperses his soft furry mammals with stylized creatures in primary colors – a rooster, a robin, a butterfly – all intertwined with leafy tendrils, evocative of Russian folk art or a Ukrainian Easter egg. Rojankovsky created colorful and cheerful illustrations, but his art was not sentimental. Witness the final two-page spread which depicts the natural world at dusk. Many picture books for children end with soothing scenes of bedtime, but Rojankovsky shows the nocturnal world of predator and prey, the yellow-eyed owl swooping down over the fleeing rabbit. His artistic intelligence was honored by the award of a Caldecott Medal in 1956 for Frog Went A-Courtin’, also by John Langstaff.



Tuck Everlasting


Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt


The perverse unfairness of the human lot is not lost upon children, and they begin ruminating about death from an early age. They grieve in anticipation of the death of their parents, they cry at the funerals of pets, they anguish over their own eventual demise. Depicting the inevitable cycle of life and death, children’s literature is replete with the tragic endings of beloved characters. Who has not shed tears at the death of Charlotte the spider or Beth in Little Women or Old Yeller?

With the angst associated with mortality as the norm, it is unsettling to read Tuck Everlasting which portrays a family condemned to immortality. Mae and Angus Tuck, along with their two sons and their horse, happened upon a forest spring 87 years earlier which, unbeknownst to them, conferred eternal life. The youngest son, now 104, is doomed to be a 17 year old teenager forever. The older son was abandoned by his wife after twenty years of marriage: fearing the hand of the devil, she took their two children with her. The family is forced to lead a lonely wandering life, unable to put down permanent roots or develop friendships. When ten year old Winnie, the protagonist, discovers their secret, she is faced with the choice of joining the Tucks in their immortality or accepting her three score and ten. It is Angus, the melancholy and gentle father, who ruminates upon the meaninglessness of life without change, growth, and death.

This is a thought provoking book of considerable sophistication and depth. Consider Angus’s theory, for example, that the spring was an isolated remnant of an alternative world plan, subsequently abandoned. Or the Tuck’s speculation about other souls who might have drunk from the spring, roaming the world in a similar suspended state of endless being, but with no marking to permit recognition by fellow immortals. These provocative ideas are presented alongside a plot line that includes a kidnapping, jail-break, and murder, enlivened further by a Mephistophelian yellow-suited huckster lurking in the woods. Natalie Babbitt is a gifted writer who weaves her narrative through startling descriptive prose: “the hard brown-yellow light” heralding impending rain or the way Winnie’s mother and grandmother sit in the darkened parlor, “their knees loose” in the oppressive heat. It is an unusual book with an unusual tone that defies easy characterization – part Southern gothic, part New England puritan, part Midwestern goodness.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?


Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? By Bill Martin, Jr.


Illustrated by Eric Carle

Bill Martin, Jr. was on a train heading for New York City when the line “brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?” came into his mind. By the time he pulled into Grand Central Station fifteen minutes later, the book was complete, jotted on the margins of his newspaper. He chanced upon an ad portraying a bright red lobster and he hunted down the artist and invited him to collaborate. Eric Carle had no experience as a book illustrator but over a weekend he created the painted tissue paper collages. The resultant book has remained a bestseller for over forty years. Perhaps the spontaneity of its creation ensured its enduring freshness.


Of the 300 books that Bill Martin, Jr. wrote, there are two that stand out. The first begins, “Brown Bear,/ Brown Bear,/ What do you see?/ I see a red bird looking at me.” Using this template, in the ensuing pages, we meet a yellow duck, a blue horse, a green frog, a purple cat, a white dog, a black sheep, and a goldfish. The second book begins, “A told B,/ and B told C,/ I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree” – this from Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, co-written by John Archambault. The key to both is the cadence of the rhythm, in the latter case finger snapping and jazzy. Listen to Bill Martin, Jr. sing Brown Bear with his slightly cracked and off-key voice – it is hard to read the words without giving them a tune. There are a myriad of books that teach the colors, animals, and alphabet, but children return to these two repeatedly because of the melody behind the words.


Martin was raised in Hiawatha, Kansas in a house without books. He had difficulty with reading until he went to teacher’s college where memorization of poems by Robert Frost and Walt Whitman helped him decipher the written word. In response to a professor’s encouragement, he read a whole book for the first time. Because of his own dyslexia, he wrote books that children could hear. His rhythmic language has greater affinity to song lyrics than to either poetry or prose.



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.