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The book is unconventional in format (it is a mock historical document, set in the future, complete with footnotes, newspaper articles, and transcribed conversations) and unusual in its juxtaposition of humor with serious social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