family sabbatical cover

Family Sabbatical

Family Sabbatical by Carol Ryrie Brink

1956

Illustrated by Susan Foster

Every book is a product of its times and Family Sabbatical is quintessentially 1950’s.  “”If I Russia, the Turkey might fall off the China into the Greece, causing loud Wales.  Abyssinia.’”  This is from George, the 10 year old middle child, who attempts to teach American colloquialisms (super duper, boy-o-boy) to Mademoiselle Beauregard, the dearly befuddled elderly governess.  The family is Midwestern, the children kind-hearted, and the humor literate and corny – a slice of ‘50’s Americana.


family sabbatical pg. 9

Yet it all takes place in France, initially in Cannes, later in Paris.  The Ridgeway’s are on sabbatical – the professor father is conducting historical research, the writer mother is working on a mystery, the three children are learning French.  Thirteen year old Susan is the capable/competent eldest, George is the naturalist and rock collector, and 7 year old Dumpling is the linchpin, precociously grounded with the wisdom of youth.  They live in the Grand Hotel Majestic et de l’Univers (known as the Grand Hotel and So Forth and So Forth), an edifice whose imposing name is insufficient to disguise aging decrepitude, eccentric bathrooms, and an erratically functioning gilt elevator.

But the second time they wanted to go up in the ascenseur, they saw that attached to the bird-cage door was a neat printed card which said: L’ASCENSEUR NE MARCHE PAS.

“But to marche means to walk,” said Susan, who was already learning some French.

“It means,” said Father, “that the elevator is not walking today.”

“But it means that we are,” said Mother.

Enter Mademoiselle Beauregard, the excitable spinster engaged to teach the children, a vehicle for the rich genre of humor that involves the French accent (think of what Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau was able to do with the words “room” and “phone”).  “Shorsh” delights in leading her astray – his greatest coup is inducing her to substitute “shut up” for “will you very kindly make a leetle more silence if you please”, an expression she innocently uses on the Father, to his horror.  Enter also Her Royal Highness, the Princess Adelaide Louisa von Mettnock-Hohenwurtzel (umlaut over the u), a fellow resident at the hotel, who turns out to be a kindly old woman rather than the golden-haired invalid that the children imagine.  Enter Mme. Ernestine DuChamel, quickly nicknamed the Earnest Camel, the proprietress of the Parisian private school in which the children are enrolled.  By the end of the first morning, Susan and George, with their rudimentary French, have been demoted to the first grade where they sit in tiny chairs alongside Dumpling.   Set off by these memorable characters, the American children experience the simple adventures of childhood, all tinted by the exoticism of French culture.

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lotties new beach towel

Lottie’s New Beach Towel

Lotties’s New Beach Towel by Petra Mathers

1998

Illustrated by Petra Mathers

Chickens tend to be cast as dithering ditzes, along the lines of Henny Penny and “the sky is falling.”  It is a sign of Petra Mather’s imaginative originality that her modest heroine, Lottie, is a hen.

Lottie is squeezing lemons and making peanut butter and banana sandwiches when the mailman leaves a package from her Aunt Mattie.  She opens it to find a beach towel, red with white polka dots.  Picnic lunch and towel in hand, Lottie heads for the beach to meet Herbie for an outing in his boat.  The story is a simple day in the life, with the myriad uses of the towel (as an island refuge for sand scorched feet, as a sail for a dead engine, as a wedding veil for a bereft bride, as a shawl when night descends) as the binding thread.

With minimal text, a simple plot line, and colorful clean pictures, Petra Mathers creates two memorable characters who enjoy a gentle loving friendship.  Lottie, grounded and competent, leads a rich and creative life – she makes lemonade from lemons, knits socks for Herbie’s webbed feet (he is a duck), strikes up new friendships with the wedding party, composes a letter on her old fashioned typewriter.  Herbie, sporting a hat emblazoned “Capitano”, is a dear old salt who repeats silly jokes and relishes a good cake (or anything else that can be eaten).  Lottie is affectionate and gently mocking.  Herbie acknowledges his foibles sheepishly, sustained by her understanding.  They are both decent and tender hearted.

They are also comical.  Even when read a hundred times, children always laugh when Lottie mistakes a starfish for her foot (“Silly me.”)  They laugh when the motor dies (“I think it’s just tired,” said Herbie.  “I think it just went to sleep,” said Lottie.)  They laugh when Herbie is messily gluttonous (“I’m so hungry I don’t care if there is sand on my sandwich.  Get it, Lottie?”  “Yes, Herbie, and jelly on your belly.”)  The bright fresh watercolor illustrations add humor, beginning with Lottie whose red crest variously resembles a floppy water balloon, a beret, a windsock, or an exclamation point.

Petra Mathers has written and illustrated a number of other distinctive books, beginning with Maria Theresa, the story of a hen who flies the coop and joins a circus.  Theodor and Mr. Baldini, one of her most original stories, features a dog who begins to speak.  His first words – “Beef Bits again?”