The Wheel on the School

The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong

1954

Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

When Lina, a young schoolgirl in a tiny Dutch fishing village, wonders why the storks no longer nest in Shora, she and her five schoolmates (all boys) resolve to fasten a wagon wheel onto the roof of the school to tempt their return.  Gently encouraged by their teacher, the children each take one of the roads radiating like spokes from the village, in search of a wheel.  Along their meandering and intersecting journeys, they are joined by a small and eccentric cast of characters, including Janus, the misanthropic and grumpy double amputee who spends his wheelchair-bound existence protecting his cherry tree from predatory birds and children.  Lina, exploring along a dyke, discovers a wagon wheel in the most unlikely of places, under an overturned fishing boat that had been beached by a storm eighty years before.  Aided by Old Douwa, who as a boy had saved his shipwrecked father – trapped beneath this very boat, she works to retrieve the wheel, racing against the incoming flood tide and an approaching storm.  Their subsequent rescue presages the later rescue of a pair of exhausted storm-battered storks, marooned on a sand bar, threatened by the rising tide – storks who become the first to nest on the wheel on the school.

The book quietly celebrates the power of children, ever resourceful, to change the world.  The book is also a quiet celebration of the European white stork (Ciconia ciconia), which has largely disappeared from many of its traditional breeding grounds in western Europe.  The population of breeding pairs in Holland at the advent of the twentieth century was over 500: by the time DeJong was writing The Wheel on the School, the number was in the 50’s, and nests which had seen continuous occupation for hundreds of years were empty.  Most Dutch today are more likely to see a stork, symbol of fertility, deliverer of babies in a sling, on a birth announcement than in the sky overhead.  The storks still fly north to breed but they now head for eastern Europe, particularly Poland.  Theirs is a remarkable migration: in flocks of 10,000 or more, they make the journey from their wintering grounds in Africa, splitting east and west at the Mediterranean Sea to avail themselves of the warm thermals that rise from the land.  The roundtrip is over 10,000 miles.  With their stark tuxedo plumage, impressive stature, and bizarre bill clattering (they cannot sing), it is easy to imagine how their miraculous return to a rooftop year after year came to be considered an auspicious sign.

Maurice Sendak illustrated six of Meindert DeJong’s books, including The Wheel on the School.  Their shared spirit of humanity made for a harmonious marriage of talents.  They also shared the honor of each being a recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international recognition for creators of children’s literature.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

1876

In one of the most famous scenes in American literature, Tom Sawyer is condemned to whitewashing the front fence as a Saturday morning punishment inflicted by Aunt Polly.  Taking stock of his pocket treasures, he realizes he cannot buy his way out.  Desperate for freedom, he has a sudden flash of inspiration.  Combining an acute understanding of human nature with masterful acting skills, he soon finds himself seated on a barrel in the shade eating an apple, his first booty, while his friend Ben paints away.  Tom “planned the slaughter of more innocents.  There was no lack of material…”  By the end of the afternoon, Tom has amassed a fortune (including a dead rat and a string, twelve marbles, a one-eyed kitten, and four pieces of orange-peel.)  And the fence has been whitewashed thrice over.

There is a reason that classics are classics.  The delight in discovering Mark Twain’s droll wit, pitch-perfect ear for colloquial speech, acerbic social commentary, and deft portrayal of boyhood along the Mississippi River is reason enough to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  There is also the imperative of reading a common literary canon.  Families are bound by shared memories, and cultures are bound by a common vocabulary of images.  Mark Twain is the quintessential American author and Tom Sawyer should be a familiar icon to all.  Every child can benefit by Tom’s epiphany that Saturday morning.  “He had discovered a great law of human action – without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

Among literary characters, Tom is one of the greats.  He is a good-natured adventurous romantic who combines ingenuity, courage, humor, honor, and a strong penchant for mischief.  Consider the following.  Spurned by Becky Thatcher, Tom takes to the Mississippi River where he leads a pirate’s life on Jackson Island with Huck Finn and Joe Harper.  The boys watch the townsfolk search the river for their drowned bodies.  That night, Tom slips away, thinking to leave a note for his Aunt Polly to ease her anguish.  Overhearing plans for the impending memorial service, he desists, and the three runaways make their triumphant return at their own funeral.  Tom is a prankster, but a lovable one, and the feelings between the boy and his guardian aunt run deep.

There is more.  For anyone who gets hooked on Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the incomparable sequel. The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court can follow.

The illustrations above are by an unknown artist from the Association of Illustrators, True Williams – the wonderfully-named illustrator for the original edition, and Richard Rogers.

Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection

Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection selected by Michael Rosen

1998

Illustrated by Paul Howard

Many of us may be philistines when it comes to poetry, but children are not.  They delight in the musicality of meter, the humor of limericks, the wordplay of rhyme.  They are adept at memorization – poems are easily engraved in memory in the young and, once owned, are there for a lifetime.  A poem memorized in childhood can be recited on a deathbed.

There are countless anthologies, many excellent, none exhaustive.  It is good to have a number on hand.  Classic Poetry has a particularly rich selection with stylistically diverse illustrations to accompany the poems along with portraits, both visual and text, of the poets.

Some are silly, as only Edward Lear can be.

Far and few, far and few
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Some are musical, none more so than Banjo Paterson’s lyrics that were written as a bush ballad.

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong, 
Under the shade of a coolibah-tree, 
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled, 
‘Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?....’

Some celebrate the exoticisms of language, as in John Masefield’s “Cargoes”.

Quinquireme of Ninevah from Distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine
With a cargo of ivory
And apes and peacocks
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

We should never underestimate the intelligence of children. They might not know a quinquireme from a Spanish galleon on first pass, but they will figure it out.  Their ears will respond even in the presence of nonsense.  Try a poem a day.  Or sit down with an anthology and read it from start to finish. 

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

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When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

1971

Illustrated by Judith Kerr

A rabbit features in the title of two exceptional books that chronicle the Jewish diaspora occasioned by Hitler’s anti-semitism. In one, the rabbit is a scruffy stuffed animal left behind by a nine year old girl when her family flees Berlin. Anna’s parents are comfortably well-off members of the assimilated German intelligentsia. They celebrate Christmas and Anna’s best friend is unaware that she is Jewish. But her distinguished father has been targeted because of his anti-Nazi writings and on the eve of Hitler’s election in 1933, the family escapes to Switzerland, leaving all their worldly goods behind. They settle in a village on Lake Zurich, then spend two years in Paris, before making their final move to London. As Anna adjusts to displacement, the rabbit becomes the symbol of all that has been taken away – language, culture, friends, home, sense of belonging.

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When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is autobiographical. Judith Kerr uses a light and knowing touch as she describes the world through the eyes of a young refugee. Anna rises to the challenge of a French school and an impecunious existence and finds pleasure in a new coat sewn from a wool remnant donated for needy children or the novelty of French onion soup at dawn during 14th July celebrations. French anti-semitism finds voice through the concierge who fears she will be cheated out of the rent money and the atrocities in Germany are alluded to through the fate of the dear and gentle Onkel Julius, ex-curator of the Berlin Natural History Museum, who commits suicide when his pass to the Berlin Zoo is rescinded. But the focus of this book is not on the horrors of the Holocaust but the experiences of a young girl who is uprooted from her country. It is a story of resilience that is particularly timely given the scope of displacement in the 21st century.

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The Hare With Amber Eyes has a broader historical sweep. Edmund de Waal traces the journey of a collection of delicate Japanese netsuke through five generations of the Ephrussi family – from Paris to Vienna, England, Japan, London. When the family palace in Vienna was requisitioned by the Nazis in 1938, the family members scattered. Their vast wealth, art collection, priceless library disappeared, but the netsuke were safeguarded by a family retainer known only as Anna, hidden until 1945 in her straw mattress. The hare with amber eyes survived the war, a symbol of artistic beauty and enlightenment quietly triumphing over demagoguery and prejudice.

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Little Women

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

1868

Illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith

For a book the author dismissed as “moral pap for the young”, Little Women has had an enduring hold. A slew of writers (Margaret Atwood, Simone de Beauvoir, J.K. Rowling, Susan Sontag, Jhumpa Lahiri, among them) claim this book as inspirational to their careers. The book is over 150 years old – it continues to attract new adherents.

In this one brilliant novel, Louisa May Alcott gave full rein to the contradictions that defined her. Born into a talented literate family, her father was a visionary transcendentalist philosopher (Emerson and Thoreau were family friends), an idealist whose “experiments” rarely put adequate food on the table. Her mother was “ballast to his balloon”, the pragmatic matriarch who sustained her daughters’ earthly needs. The father co-founded Fruitlands, a doomed utopian commune about which Louisa later wrote Transcendental Wild Oats, a satirical and very funny commentary – the diet was vegan, the shoes canvas, the showers cold, and the men urgently engaged in philosophical discussion in advance of any storm, leaving the mother and children to hastily harvest the meager crops (no root vegetables because they reached down rather than up towards the heavens). Louisa grew up in genteel destitution and was determined to avoid this fate as an adult. She wrote Little Women, a family story for girls, reluctantly, for money, and she channeled all of her own rebelliousness into Jo, her autobiographical double.

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Little Women is a family story in which not much happens, except for the transformation of four girls into young women. Meg, Jo, Amy, Beth – each has a distinctive persona and each is given time and a voice – grow up under the wing of Marmee, their wise and loving mother – the moral compass. Jo is the heroine, but the book’s richness is due to the quartet. Jo, the tempestuous willful one, chafes against the constraints imposed upon her sex and her writing aspirations, yet she is sustained by the cocoon of family with all the moralistic goodness it borrows from its Concord surrounds. She can rebel, as Louisa herself did, but she is never far from the sisters and parents who nurture her. Cozy domesticity around the hearth and a turbulent writing life in the garret – those are the opposing poles.

What Louisa preferred to write was in stark contrast to her famous novel. Under a pseudonym, she wrote gothic pulp fiction – lurid melodramatic tales featuring strong willed heroines, deceitful, intent on exacting revenge, with titles like Pauline’s Passion and Punishment. They featured sex, spies, and hashish, a far cry from the family tranquility of her books about the March family. She never made public her dual writing career lest it scare off her followers. Little Women was an immediate success and the royalties assured her (and her family) a comfortable living. Yet she disdained her readers and delighted in sabotaging their conventional expectations.

jo-and-beth-by-Jessie-Willcox-SmithLouisa was not without her share of sentimentality.  One of her three sisters died at the age of 22. She had Beth, the fictional sister, follow suit. Beth, the impossibly kind, shy, selfless girl who Jo loves deeply. Her death would wring tears from a stone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Babe: The Gallant Pig

 

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Babe: The Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith

1983

Illustrated by Mary Rayner

Dick King-Smith arrived late at writing, having exhausted prior careers as a soldier, a farmer, and a teacher. As though he needed to make up for lost time, he was remarkably prolix over a 30+ year stint, and turned out over one hundred books, most inspired by his knowledge of the barnyard. In his banner year, he published almost a book a month. No need to read all these. Pick one, and make that one Babe: The Gallant Pig, and you will have found the silk purse.

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Farmer Hagget goes to the village fair and wins a piglet in a “Guess my weight” contest. His voluble wife, whose defining characteristic is the run-on sentence, finds pleasure in the prospect of ham for Christmas. Babe, forever ignorant of his intended fate, is taken in by Fly, the black-and-white collie who teaches him the rudiments of sheep herding. Through his friendship with Ma, the aged ewe, Babe decides to adopt politeness as his modus operandi (“’If I might ask a great favor of you,….could you all please be kind enough to walk down to that gate….’”) rather than the snapping rudeness practiced by sheep dogs (“’Move, fools!….Down the hill. If you know which way ‘down’ is.’”)   The sheep, never before addressed with respect, are only too pleased to do Babe’s bidding. Using this approach, Babe saves the herd from sheep rustlers, thus saving his own neck from any future chopping block. He later takes on two dogs who have been worrying the sheep, and in the case of Ma fatally so, and he comes close to being summarily executed when Farmer Hagget believes mistakenly that Babe is the culprit. In the climactic final chapter, when he appears at the Grand Challenge Sheep Dog Trials, he is assured a place in the annals of sheep dog (or sheep-pig) history, to the cheers of spectators and readers alike.

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Few books are honored by the films that are ostensibly made in their image. Think of the Disney Winnie-the-Pooh empire as a particularly egregious example. Babe is an exception. Read the book first (needless to say), but then it is fine to see the movie. King-Smith’s animals are realistic (his pigs eat swill, his dogs snap at sheeps’ hocks, his sheep get foot rot) in all but their speech. The movie is faithful to that premise – the animals are real, but they can talk. The cast has been swollen to include a few invented characters (a dog, a cat, a duck) to round things out, and the Hagget couple has lost a bit of their nuanced complementary relationship in favor of a more stereotypic humerous bond, but these adjustments work well for the screen. And then it is a pleasure to return to the book to appreciate its more subtle workings.

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Now We Were Very Young & Now We Are Six

 

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When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne

1924, 1926

Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard

 

James James

Morrison Morrison

Weatherby George Dupree

Took great

Care of his Mother,

Though he was only three.

James James

Said to his Mother,

“Mother,” he said, said he:

“You must never go down to the end of the town,

if you don’t go down with me.”

 

The mother, alas, ignores her son’s injunction and vanishes, irretrievably: “LAST SEEN/WANDERING VAGUELY/QUITE OF HER OWN ACCORD”. In Ernest Shepard’s accompanying illustration, the young James is madly pedaling his tricycle in desperate pursuit of his flighty mother as she disappears around a corner. download-3Disobedience is one of A.A. Milne’s most memorizable poems, and one of his best. He portrays the wonderful independence of a child’s mind and the natural audacity – James James goes immediately to the royals for help, in this case King John. Children reading the poem delight in the conceit – for children who are rarely in charge, it is a welcome relief to enter a world in which the mother is leashed to the tricycle rather than vice versa, and the mother is guilty of disobedience and suffers the consequences. It is a sign of Milne’s respect for children that there is no happy resolution – the mother is gone, for good. James James is not particularly sad about his loss, but simply disappointed that his mother failed to listen to him.DdFwIR9X0AENVXB

Milne published his two volumes of poetry when his only child, Christopher Robin, was four and six. The world portrayed was that of his son, one of Nurses and Nannies, beetles and bears and the great outdoors, and the occasional royalty. These latter were whimsical and flawed. Take the ruler in The King’s Breakfast, for instance, who is thwarted in his desire for some butter for his bread. The Queen, the Dairymaid, and the cow all try to persuade him that marmalade would be preferable. The King takes to his bed, whimpering with dismay, until he finally gets his desire fulfilled. Or Bad Sir Brian Botany, an old obstreperous knight who uses his battle axe to blip the villagers on their heads – until they rise up and dunk him in the duck pond, and more.   It is a world in which children can be wonderfully entertained by not much, as when a child watches spellbound as two raindrops (James and John) race, with many starts and stops, down a window-pane.

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Anne of Green Gables

 

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Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

1908

Anne of Green Gables. There is no other character remotely like her. She is irrepressible, dramatic, talkative, imaginative, high-spirited, headstrong, passionate, ebullient, lively, impulsive, heedless. She is also sensitive, self-conscious, insecure, loving, generous, well-intentioned.

She first appears, waiting expectantly in a train station, as a skinny, freckled, green-eyed, redhead – a homely child. She enters the lives of Matthew and Marilla, an elderly brother and sister who had sent away for an orphan boy to help with the chores and haplessly ended up with an unlikely girl instead. She is a dreamer, bursting with imagination, exhilarated by the world. Matthew, a quiet shy gentle unpretentious and altogether good man, is quietly delighted by her. Anne recognizes immediately that though they could not be outwardly more different, they are really kindred spirits. Marilla is slower to warm. But over the course of five years, she responds to Anne’s hunger for love and eagerness to please, and comes to value Anne’s fundamental goodness and creative spirit. Anne is transformed by the undemonstrative love of Matthew and Marilla and their lives, in turn, are transformed by their act of selflessness.

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Lucy Maud Montgomery came from Prince Edward Island and her love of place is evidenced in the Anne books. She had an emotionally charged communion with nature that she bestows upon her fictional creation. Anne does not simply appreciate the natural world, she is intoxicated by it. The plot points are set pieces (Anne inadvertently dies her hair green instead of black, she unintentionally serves her bosom friend currant wine instead of raspberry cordial), but the descriptions of the Avonlea farmstead in the twilight, the apple tree allee in full blossom, the woodland flowers by the brook, as seen through Anne’s enraptured eyes, are always genuine. The setting is beautifully rendered, by author and character alike.

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Aside:

“Do you never imagine things different from what they really are?” asked Anne wide-eyed.

“No.”

“Oh!” Anne drew a long breath. “Oh, Miss – Marilla, how much you miss!”

 

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!”

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.