Rabbit Hill

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Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson

1944

Illustrated by Robert Lawson

New Folks coming. New Folks coming. This refrain is passed from animal to animal, from Little Georgie to his Father and Mother, to Pokey the Woodchuck, Willie Fieldmouse, the Mole, Phewie the Skunk. After a period of privation, the animals are excited that the Big House on Rabbit Hill will be occupied once again. They watch as the Man, the Lady, and their old Cat, Mr. Muldoon, take up residence, plant a lush vegetable garden, and generate a bounty of kitchen scraps. (“’You will find, Phewie,’ said Father with some heat, ‘that good breeding and good garbage go hand in hand.’”) The Man and Lady celebrate the first harvest with a feast for the animals, with the words “There is Enough For All”.

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The plot does not seem like much, but this book has staying power. Robert Lawson created, largely through humorous dialogue, a distinct assortment of animal characters, beginning with the oratorical Father, variously viewed as eloquent or insufferably verbose (“He always continued until something stopped him.”), who constantly harkens back to his Kentucky bluegrass roots. There is the highstrung Mother in a perennial nervous state, the cheerful and enthusiastic Little Georgie, the folksy and curmudgeonly Uncle Analdas whose speech is peppered with “dingblasted” and “gumdinged”, and the loyal, courageous Willie Fieldmouse whose role it is to discover that Mr. Muldoon is just a harmless puffball.

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Robert Lawson is the only creator of children’s books to have been awarded both the Newberry Award (for Rabbit Hill in 1945) and the Caldecott Medal (for They Were Strong and Good, a chronicle of his forebears, in 1941). His preferred medium was pen and ink, but for Rabbit Hill, he created soft-washed pencil drawings with his meticulous hand, quite different from the bold thick-lined caricatures of The Story of Ferdinand or Wee Gillis.

After graduating from art school, Lawson joined a group of artists and designers in the Camouflage Corps in France. The military value of concealing patterning and coloration took hold during WWI and a large group of artists (including such talents as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and Arshile Gorky) were recruited to design and paint camouflage disguises for war equipment and installations. There were no mass produced camouflage uniforms at the time, and it is remarkable that all such clothes, usually reserved for snipers, were individually hand-painted.

When the war was over, Lawson married and settled in Westport, Connecticut. He and his artist wife committed to each designing one Christmas card a day until the mortgage was paid off. It took three years. Their home, Rabbit Hill, was the inspiration for the book.

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Aside: “The warm sun had loosened his muscles: the air was invigorating; Little Georgie’s leaps grew longer and longer. Never had he felt so young and strong. His legs were like coiled springs of steel that released themselves of their own accord. He was hardly conscious of any effort, only of his hind feet pounding the ground, and each time they hit, those wonderful springs released and shot him through the air. He sailed over fences and stone walls as though they were mole runs. Why, this was almost like flying!”

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Freight Train

 

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Freight Train by Donald Crews

1978

Illustrated by Donald Crews

There is something irresistible about trains: whether it be counting the cars on a long Santa Fe freight, or standing on an overpass and feeling the whoosh as a locomotive passes below, or taking an overnight with the pull-down bunks in the sleepers, or listening to a whistle in the quiet of a summer night. Unlike the obsession many 2 and 3 year olds have with backhoes and caterpillars, the fascination with trains is lifelong.

Donald Crews is an author/illustrator who has explored this fascination repeatedly, beginning with the elegant Freight Train. Born and raised in Newark, NJ, he had a father who worked on the railroad. During the summers, his mother took the children by train to Florida (it took 3 days and 2 nights) to visit their grandparents. In his dedication, Crews refers to “the countless freight trains passed and passing the big house in Cottondale”.

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Freight Train begins with a double page spread that is blank save for a track traversing the bottom and a simple introduction. On the following pages, the cars are introduced, one by one, each a different color. We see the stationary train in its entirety, and then it begins moving, the image becoming blurred as it picks up speed. The train passes through a tunnel (glimpsed through a rock window), over a trestle, past city skyscrapers, through the blackness of night and the whiteness of day, until it is gone, with only a trail of smoke marking its passage. Through its journey, the track is continuous on every page.

The text is spare and simple, yet remarkably elegant.

   “A train runs across this track.

     Red caboose at the back

     Orange tank car next

     Yellow hopper car

     Green cattle car

     Blue gondola car

     Purple box car

     A Black tender and

     A Black steam engine.

     Freight train.”

As the train begins moving, the words change rhythm to evoke the klakity-klak of locomotion. There are only 55 words, but each is perfectly placed.

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Big Tiger and Christian

Big Tiger and Christian by Fritz Muhlenweg

1950

Illustrated by Rafaello Busoni

 

Out of print for many years, this is a book that happens into hands by chance. It is read in appreciation and amazement and continues to haunt the reader for decades more. It is a book that has inspired travels and changed lives. Yet it is almost completely unknown.

 

The story begins, in part, with Sven Hedin, a renowned Swedish explorer in the grand tradition, who did much to fill in the white patches on the map of Central Asia. In the 20’s and 30’s, he lead the Sino-Swedish Expedition to Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and Xinjiang, accompanied by an international bevy of archeologists, geologists, meteorologists, geographers, astronomers, botanists, zoologists. He was honored along the way by having a glacier, a lunar crater, and a butterfly (among other things) named after him.  My Life as an Explorer is a riveting travelogue.

The story continues, in part, with Fritz Muhlenweg. He was working as a young accountant with the new German airline, Lufthansa, when he was posted to Hedin’s expedition (Lufthansa’s interest was a proposed Peking-Berlin air route). He made three trips to Mongolia before settling into a career as a painter and writer.

Muhlenweg’s reverence for Mongolian culture is palpable in the tale that was inspired by his travels, and few books provide a deeper sense of place.  There are yurts, camel caravans, dunes, tamarisk trees, roasted barley, and language (try “zook, zook” if you want your camel to kneel). This is the backdrop that gives texture and depth to an adventure story that quietly enthralls. Two 12-year old boys, one European and one Chinese, go kite-flying in Peking and end up as secret couriers for General Wu. They embark on a 1,500 mile mission to Urumchi, on the far side of the Gobi Desert, by train, truck, horse, camel, and foot.  They encounter lamas, honorable bandits, dishonorable thieves, shepherds, traders, soldiers, warlords, wild monks, a nomadic girl, and a black poodle who have names like Dog, Sevenstars, Good Fortune, Affliction, Moonlight, and Thunderbolt. There is an evil villain named Greencoat and his nemesis, an outlaw king referred to as The Venerable Chief, a kind of Mongolian Robin Hood, and there is a hidden treasure in an abandoned desert city. Apart from the villain, who is irredeemably wicked, the characters are nuanced. Muhlenweg is sympathetic to even the roughest scallywags and in his hands they tend to rise to the occasion to reveal a hidden goodness.

 

 

 

 

Amos & Boris

 

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Amos & Boris by William Steig

1971

Illustrated by William Steig

For seven decades, William Steig was instrumental in defining the visual landscape of The New Yorker. At the age of 23, during the Depression, he sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker for $40. By the time of his death at 96, he had contributed over 1,600 cartoons and 200 covers to the magazine. At an age when most people are winding down, he launched his second career. He was around 60 when he published his first children’s book. His fortieth was published several months before his death. For productive longevity, he was unparalleled. He was also unmatched for his combined brilliance as an illustrator and writer.

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The most lyrical and poetic of his books is Amos & Boris, an ode to the transcendent friendship between a mouse and a whale. Amos, enterprising and adventurous, builds a boat and takes to the sea (fulfilling a boyhood longing that Steig harbored). One night, feeling at one with the universe, he rolls off his boat and it goes sailing on without him. After a night of loneliness and despair, alone in the vast ocean, he is rescued by Boris, and in their ensuing week together, an abiding friendship grows. Years later, Boris is beached during a violent storm and Amos is able to effect his rescue in turn.

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In this book, as in many of his, Steig quietly alludes to the ineffable questions that perplex us all. What are we doing here? What is it all about? What is our role in the scheme of things? And in Amos’s case, would there be other mice in heaven? Steig’s worldview is not angst-ridden, far from it. His tonal palette is playful, humorous, life-affirming, passionate and mysterious. His answers revolve around friendship, love, and family.

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Steig’s illustrations, supple India ink lines and watercolor washes, were created with a childlike spontaneity and pleasure. His prose is startling in its complexity, elegance, and sheer joy. Steig delighted in word play (“’Pheasant, peasant? What a pleasant present!’”) and archaic vocabulary (“churlish knave”, “fusty fens”). He had a precise verbal eye, as when Boris is rolled “breaded with sand” into the sea or when Amos listens to the surf sounds, “the bursting breakers, the backwashes with rolling pebbles”. Who else has ever written like this for children?

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Aside: “One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt thoroughly akin to it all. Overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of everything, he rolled over and over and right off the deck of his boat and into the sea.”

Great Expectations

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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

1861

We first encounter Pip in a desolate churchyard in the marshes, visiting the tombstones of his parents and five infant brothers, grasping that he is truly an orphan and alone in the world. Out of the bleakness, he is violently accosted by Magwitch, the escaped convict, who demands a file for his shackles and wittles for his stomach. The marshlands – wild, mysterious, apocalyptic – their silence broken only, on occasion, by the mournful horn announcing the escape of a prisoner from a convict ship, are an apposite setting to join two figures, forever thereafter intertwined, each with a moral compass more nuanced than would be initially expected. Few books begin with a first chapter as haunting as this.

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Dickens was a master at creating memorable characters, many of whom have become household fixtures – Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, Little Nell. And then there were others, less well-known, whose names alone should buy them immortality – Wackford Squeers, the Reverand Septimus Crisparkle, Uriah Heep, Uncle Pumblechook. Scoundrel and angel, miser and spendthrift, judge and beggar, orphan and whore – Dickens could paint them all, some as comic caricatures, some as nuanced characters of profound complexity. Arguably, his crowning creation was Miss Havisham, the reclusive spinster, jilted on her wedding day, whose life is a memorial to that betrayal, timepieces frozen to that moment. She wanders her cobwebbed mansion in her moldering bridal gown, past the desiccated wedding cake on the dusty banquet table, plotting her misandristic revenge by grooming the icy Estella, her beautiful ward, to break the hearts of men (beginning, most notably, with Pip’s).

Dickens was also a master story-teller. His books were serialized in weekly literary magazines, each installment being eagerly awaited by his enthusiastic audience. Great Expectations came towards the end of his illustrious career, by which time his craft was finely honed. Unlike some of his novels (“loose baggy monsters” according to the disdainful Henry James), Great Expectations is tightly structured. It melds all the Dickensian ingredients – gothic shadows and Victorian sentimentality, scathing satire and sympathy for the working poor, humorous parody and anguished tragedy, plot twists and social commentary, psychological depth and melodrama – into a really great story.

Given a chance, children love Dickens, a chapter at a time, ideally read before a blazing hearth. Great Expectations is a perfect place to start. A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield are good to follow.

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Voyage to the Bunny Planet

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Voyage to the Bunny Planet by Rosemary Wells

1992

Illustrated by Rosemary Wells

Voyage to the Bunny Planet comes as a sweet boxed set with three slim volumes. It deserves pride of place in every nursery library, as much for parent as for newborn, for it serves as the perfect introduction to the upcoming adventure.

In each story, a young bunny child has a trying day. Take Felix in The Island Light. He suffers the humiliation of being sick in art class at school. The Soviet army-style nurse gives him scalding tea that burns his tongue. After a punitive visit to a doctor, he takes a distressingly icy shower. His parents, distracted by the malfunctioning boiler, neglect to kiss him goodnight.

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Janet the Bunny Queen soars down from her celestial kingdom and carries Felix off to the Bunny Planet. He passes through an archway and lives the day that should have been, described in rhyming couplets. On a small island, Felix and his lighthouse keeper father weather a storm in their snug home, make apple pancakes, play gin together before a fire. The comfort of the scene is palpable, as is the closeness of father and son.

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Of the 125+ books that she has written, Rosemary Wells said that Voyage to the Bunny Planet best describes her spiritual core. With wry humor and empathy, she presents a litany of the miserable or humiliating moments of childhood – each one of which strikes a chord of recognition. The alternate reality of the Bunny Planet captures the ineffable magic of childhood – harvesting the first warm tomato of the summer, helping the mother make a soup, falling asleep on a mossy forest floor, making toasted tangerine (“Place the sections on a log, directly in the sun. Wait until they’re warm and crisp. Eat them when they’re done.”) Rosemary Wells’ vision encompasses both the tribulations and the quiet joys of childhood, but the spirit of a benevolent world, here embodied by Janet the Bunny Queen, always prevails.

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Aside: Rosemary Wells is always on the side of the angels. She created Getting to Know You as a celebration of the glorious and timeless Rogers and Hammerstein songbook. Sing the songs and see the musicals – Oklahoma, Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific. From exuberant (“Shall We Dance?”) to lyrical (“When the Children Are Asleep”), from funny (“Happy Talk”) to poignant (“If I Loved You”), in the canon of Broadway musicals, it doesn’t get any better than this.

The Borrowers

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The Borrowers by Mary Norton

1952

Illustrated by Diana Stanley

Whether the toy is a twig doll with a hollyhock skirt and an acorn cup or a Lego figure from a Star Wars set, children like to enact their fantasies in a miniature world. Whatever the era, diminutive has always held fascination. There is a long chain of authors who have fed this interest in a parallel world of small, anchored at one end by Jonathan Swift. No one much remembers the giant Brobdingnagians, but the image of the tiny Lilliputians staking the sleeping Gulliver to the ground is one that stays. T.H White continued the Lilliput story in his imaginative Mistress Masham’s Repose. There have been a slew of other books of variable quality. But the queen of small people was clearly Mary Norton, the brilliant English writer who created The Borrowers.

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Pod is the hardworking straightforward father, Homily the anxious harassed mother, and Arriety the spirited and curious 13 year old girl. They live under the kitchen floorboards of an old Georgian house in the English countryside, home to Great Aunt Sophie, a bedridden invalid who enjoys a decanter of Fine Old Pale Madeira every evening between 6:00 and midnight. There was a time when the house was full of borrowers, but the shrinking of the human household was accompanied by the emigration of the borrower families until only one remains. They live by quietly garnering from their human hosts – tea, sugar cubes, and biscuits, silver coins for plates, a lace handkerchief for a bedspread, a Queen Victoria postage stamp to hang as a portrait, discarded letters to wallpaper the sitting room with the writing running up and down in vertical stripes. Arriety’s bedroom is made from cigar boxes, so her view is of feathery palm trees and chiffon swirled ladies.

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Their survival depends on their invisibility – only Pod leaves their home for his borrowing forays and the only human being who sees him is Great Aunt Sophy, who assumes their long conversations are a figment of her Madeira-soaked imagination. Their routine is upset when a young boy arrives, sent from India to convalesce from rheumatic fever. Arriety encounters him on her first borrowing expedition, and the consequences of their resultant friendship threaten the existence of the borrower family. They are forced to flee, and their lives are taken up in the sequel, The Borrowers Afield.

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Mary Norton wrote six borrower books over a thirty year period – this is a rare series in which the sequels do not disappoint. The writing is light and intelligent, the characters subtly complex, the details inventive, and the stories fresh and truthful. The Borrowers was awarded the Carnegie Medal and ranks among the top children’s books ever written.

IMG_3547-629x1024The English editions of all but the last in the series were illustrated by Diana Stanley, and it is well worth hunting for them. She captured the tone of Norton’s writing and the nuances of the borrowers’ often precarious life. The same cannot be said for the illustrators of the American editions, Beth and Joe Krush, who seemed to be overly preoccupied by Victorian frippery, a style that Norton did not countenance.

Anne Frank

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Anne Frank by Josephine Poole

2005

Illustrated by Angela Barrett

When the conceptual artists, Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock, created their Holocaust memorial in Berlin, they hung eighty signs on lampposts in a neighborhood that had once been home to a significant population of prosperous assimilated Jews. Each sign had a simple image (an empty bird cage, a loaf of bread) on one side, of the kind one might find on an alphabet chart. The other side was printed with one of the many anti-Semitic proclamations issued between 1933 and 1945 that effected a gradual and relentless marginalization of the Jewish community. There were the substantive bans – those that prohibited employment, school attendance, emigration. More shocking, perhaps, were the more trivial and spiteful bans, devised simply to humiliate, posted after deportation of Berlin Jews was well underway. “In bakeries and cafes, signs must be posted stating that Jews and Poles may not purchase cakes. February 14, 1942” or “Jews are no longer allowed to have household pets. February 15, 1942.”

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There is much about the Holocaust that is unfathomable, especially to children, but the sundering of a child from a pet is a detail to which anyone who has loved a dog or a cat or a canary can relate. In Amsterdam, when the Frank family went into hiding in the secret annex, Anne had to take leave of Moortje, her kitty. Josephine Poole’s picture book biography recounts this tearful farewell. Anne was an exceptional child, with her fiery spirit and eloquent voice, but she was also an ordinary girl who led a life that would have been quite ordinary had it not intersected Hitler’s rise. She had an entertaining father and friends with whom she liked to see movies and a comfortable apartment and an affectionate cat – a life, in other words, that was similar to that of many children reading her story.

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Josephine Poole’s book is a good introduction to Anne Frank, and it is particularly valuable for providing historical context. What sets it apart are the evocative illustrations by the talented Angela Barrett. She is drawn to historical tales, which she illustrates with eloquence and an air of melancholy (see her Snow White, Joan of Arc, or The Hidden House), and her rich and somber watercolors convey the arc of Anne’s short life with a quiet intensity.

Aside: “’We had a canary. When we received the notice that Jews are forbidden from keeping pets, my husband found it impossible to part from the animal. Every sunny day, he put the bird-cage out on the window sill. Perhaps someone reported him, because one day he was summoned to the Gestapo.… After living in fear for many weeks, the police sent a postcard stating that I must pay a fee of 3 Reichs-marks to pick up my husband’s ashes.’ Rupert, 1943.” Places of Remembrance.

 

 

Pippi Longstocking

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Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

1945

As an adult rereading Pippi Longstocking, I had an uncomfortable sense that I had encountered this character in another guise. Could it be? Lisbeth Salander, the punk, damaged, vengeance-seeking heroine of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?

Dragon-tattoo-coverBoth superheroines who bring their superhuman powers to the defense of victims, brute strength in the case of Pippi, computer hacking in the case of Lisbeth. Both outsiders, awkward in the world, unable to read the cues of adult interaction. Both intolerant of societal norms and human hypocrisy. Both orphans, effectively. Both redheads.

As it turned out, I was right. Stieg Larsson was much influenced by his reading of Astrid Lindgren’s books during childhood. In his Millenium Trilogy, he named his alterego Michael Blomkvist after Lindgren’s boy detective series and he modeled his female feral warrior, Lisbeth Salander, after Pippi Longstocking.

Neither Lindgren nor Larsson were accomplished writing stylists. Lindgren’s prose is wooden and there is no narrative arc. Pippi is a shallow personality lacking any trace of emotional nuance. She tells us at the outset that her mother died and went to heaven, and that her father, a sea captain, was swept overboard during a storm, a catastrophe referred to thusly. “And then this annoying thing had to happen.” Even when saving small boys from a burning building, she seems largely lacking in empathy. When she disrupts the school classroom, when she explodes onto the circus ring, when she taunts the mothers at the coffee klatch with their endless complaints about servants, she is relentless and does not know when to stop. Despite the irritatingly frenetic illustrations that accompany most Pippi editions, there is nothing particularly funny about her antics – rather, they elicit the same kind of uncomfortable embarrassment that meets an off-color joke. Perhaps this is most apparent when she manhandles two burglars into submission and forces them to dance the schottische with her. Hours later, exhausted, they slink away, and I am reminded of the analogous scene when Lisbeth wreaks her revenge on her abusive guardian.

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Despite the flaws, Lindgren managed to create a compelling character whose popularity has remained intact for generations of readers. The premise is admirable – a nine year old girl who lives an unsupervised life in the Villa Villekulla, alone save for a monkey and a horse. She is resourceful, independent, irreverent, self-reliant, unconstrained. She is at her best when she shares her unfettered life with Tommy and Annika, the children next door, and it is only towards them that she shows a modicum of affection. The book is at its best when Pippi leads them into a world of imaginative play that showcases her tall tales from her former seafaring life, her transformation of the ordinary humdrum into marvels of wonder, and her 90-degrees-off quirky way of doing things. What I remember from reading Pippi Longstocking as a child was something quite simple – her conferring of treasure status on found objects (“Lumps of gold, ostrich feathers, dead rats, candy snap crackers, little tiny screws, and things like that”) and her secreting her worthless valuables in a hollow tree.

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(Illustration of Pippi with horse and monkey by Abby Haddican.)

 

Grandpa Toad’s Secrets

 

Grandpa Toad’s Secrets by Keiko Kasza

1995

Illustrated by Keiko Kasza

Funny picture books run the gamut: they can be zany, sly, silly, ironic, clever, joyful, nonsensical, slapstick. The responses they elicit run a comparable gamut. Surprisingly, there are relatively few great ones that elicit gleeful laugh-out-loud delight. Punch in New York, Lottie’s New Beach Towel, and Max’s Chocolate Chicken are three. A fourth is Grandpa Toad’s Secrets.

Grandpa Toad and Little Toad walk through the forest. Confronted by a hungry snake, Grandpa Toad blows himself up to balloon size and the snake, intimidated, slinks away. He then outwits a hungry snapping turtle by tempting him with the prospect of a snake feast in lieu of a measly toad snack. But when he happens upon a humongous monster, Grandpa Toad freezes and he gets snatched up for the makings of a toad sandwich. Little Toad, in a genius move, grabs red berries from a plant and pelts the brute. Looking down with horror on the red spots erupting on his legs and tail, the monster drops Grandpa Toad and runs.

This never fails: kids find this uproariously funny. There is the intrinsic delight in the child besting the monster, but the glee comes from the simplicity of the weapon – with harmless berries, Little Toad deceives the monster into believing himself mortally poisoned. Keiko Kasza’s watercolor illustrations capture Little Toad shivering with fear in his hiding place, then emboldened with outrage as he throws the berry grenades.   Toads (like chickens) are intrinsically funny so the author chose her protagonist well.

Kasza has written and illustrated almost twenty books, many of which involve a victim outwitting a foe through cleverness. My Lucky Day is one of the most inspired. A piglet arrives at the door of a fox. He enjoys a warm soapy bath (to get nice and clean), a filling meal with fresh cookies (to get fattened up), and a massage (to get tenderized). The fox, exhausted by his ministrations, falls asleep, leaving the rejuvenated piglet to skip off in eager anticipation of tricking his next carnivore.