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.

 

 

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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.

 

The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins

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The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss

1938

Illustrated by Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss achieved fame for his children’s books, but he had a lesser known career as a political cartoonist for a left-wing daily where he railed against fascism. His political views colored his books, most overtly in Yertle the Turtle, which features a despotic character inspired by Hitler. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins has a more subtle message which has to do with the arrogance of power.

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King Derwin looks down from his mountain-top palace over the castles, the mansions, and the houses to the distant farmer’s huts. Bartholomew, the unassuming son of a humble cranberry farmer, looks up over the houses, the mansions, and the castles to the palace. He has the same view as the King, only in reverse. As the King dashes through the town in his carriage, the townspeople hear the cry “Hats off to the King!” Bartholomew finds, to his dismay, that as quickly as he removes his hat, another appears on his head. The King calls in Sir Snipps, the royal hat maker, the three Wise Men, Yeoman the Bowman, seven magicians, and even the executioner – all to no avail. Finally, the nasty Grand Duke Wilfred, a boy himself, offers to push Bartholomew off a turret. As Bartholomew franticly sheds his hats as he climbs the stairs, they become increasingly ornate until the 500th has not only exotic bird plumes but a giant ruby. The King, delighted, offers 500 gold pieces for the hat and Bartholomew returns home, bareheaded at last.

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Dr. Seuss began his career with And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, a book that was rejected by 27 publishers. The title features the anapestic tetrameter rhythm that became one of his trademark meters. His second book, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, was unusual (in retrospect) in that it was written in prose, as were the two subsequent Bartholomew books, The King’s Stilts and Bartholomew and the Oobleck. Without the distraction of the insistent rhymed beat, the prose trilogy is distinctive for the originality and strength of the stories. Intersperse these with the gentle Horton books and the standards (e.g., The Cat and the Hat) that celebrate the extravagance of the frenetic imagination. All have in common the unmistakable high-energy Seuss illustrations that combine frenzied motion, zany humor, and improbable beasts (or hats). The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins appears more subdued than some because it is in black and white, with only the red hats providing a splash of color.

We have, by the way, a college indiscretion (involving gin during the Prohibition era) to thank for Dr. Seuss’s pseudonym. Kicked off the Dartmouth humor magazine as punishment, Theodor Seuss Geisel adopted Dr. Seuss as a nom-de-plume so he could continue his submissions in disguise. Of German descent, he pronounced his name soice, rhymes with voice, until he was won over to the Americanized pronunciation, soose, which appropriately rhymes with Mother Goose.

 

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

 

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The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

1969

Illustrated by Eric Carle

Eric Carle created The Very Hungry Caterpillar at the beginning of his career and it remains his most popular book. A caterpillar emerges from an egg and begins eating. Over the course of a week, he eats through a variety of fruits – one apple, two pears, three plums, four strawberries, five oranges – and then gorges himself on a sickening feast that includes an ice-cream cone, a pickle, and a slice of watermelon. Curing his stomach ache with a nice green leaf, he spins himself a cocoon and then emerges as a beautiful butterfly. With a minimum of fuss, a child has learned the days of the week, a few numbers, and the miracle of metamorphosis. A young child never ceases to be intrigued by the worm holes, just the size for a tiny finger, that go right through the foods on the page.

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The Very Hungry Caterpillar was the first of several “very” books which combine natural history, life lessons, and a multi-sensory component. The Very Busy Spider features the gradual building of a web, raised Braille-like on the page so there is a textural dimension. The Very Quiet Cricket ends with the realistic sound of a cricket chirping, while The Very Lonely Firefly includes the magic of twinkling lights. Carle avoids what in other hands might feel gimmicky by his obvious respect and wonder for the natural world.

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Carle’s illustrations have a deceptive air of simplicity. He creates collages with pieces of tissue paper painted with acrylic so there is considerable richness of texture and vibrancy of color. The technique, in his hands, is wonderfully suited to animals, insects, plants, and landscape. Less so to humans, who have calamine pink skins and thick legs. To see more of his art, visit The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, which also features rotating exhibits of the many gifted artists who have enriched the world of children’s book illustration.

 

A Number of Animals

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A Number of Animals by Christopher Wormell and Kate Green

1993

Illustrated by Christopher Wormell

Of the thousands of alphabet and counting books, we should be grateful for the good ones, for the process of learning the ABC’s and the numbers requires repetition, and the mediocre ones quickly become tedious.

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Christopher Wormell’s first contribution to this genre was An Alphabet of Animals, a book that was awarded the Graphics Prize at the Bologna International Children’s Book Fair. The format was one that he has used repeatedly. Text is on the left page, in this case simply the letter and the animal name (Qq, Quetzal, Ss, Swan, Tt, Tiger, Zz, Zebra).   Image is on the right. The animals, outlined in bold black lines, are depicted in striking linoleum block prints. The backdrops are minimal – at most there might be a tree with windfall apples for the pig, two pyramids behind the hooded cobra, or a skeleton beneath the hunched vulture. Most often there is a luminous yellow foreground and a luminous blue sky above – never a cloud to mar the purity. It is the beautiful stippled shading of sky (lighter, more golden, at the horizon, as though the sun were always about to rise) that gives the illustrations their radiance.

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For his first counting book, A Number of Animals, Wormell collaborated with Kate Green, who provided a narrative. The text begins, “One little chick, lost and alone.” A solitary yellow chick, in search of its mother, asks for help from the horses, cows, turkeys, goats, geese, sheep, ducks, and pigs he encounters, in sequentially increasing numbers. In each illustration, the tiny chick is dwarfed by the large animals – part of the pleasure for a child is being able to spot the plucky little thing. The text is written with an ear to cadence and poetry, but each page is distinctive – not the repetitive sing-song that characterizes so many children’s books.

Three slow cows sunning in the meadow.

“Have you seen my mother?”

But all they do is moo.

Five shaggy goats grazing in the field.

Their beards are hairy. Their horns are sharp.

“Baa-aa,” they bleat. “No hens here!”

Wormell’s lino-cut prints are always striking, but it is the marriage of text and visuals that makes this book interesting, even when read many, many, many times.

Like Robert Lawson, Christopher Wormell cut his artistic teeth making Christmas cards. He was taught the art of making linoleum block prints by his father and every December the household was transformed as the children contributed to the cottage industry of handmade holiday cards.

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Big Red Barn

 

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Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown

1956

Illustrated by Felicia Bond

Big Red Barn is one of Margaret Wise Brown’s best. Nothing much happens. We meet the animals leading their daytime lives on a farm. Then dusk falls and the animals walk up the hill to the big red barn and go to sleep. Little happens, yet young children love this book because of the addictive language that was Brown’s particular genius. The lulling musicality, the cadenced repetitions, the off-kilter rhyming are hypnotic, calming, and achingly beautiful. The illustrations, created by Felicia Bond for the 1989 reissue do justice to the text. The bright reds and greens of the vibrant sunlit world metamorphose into the whispering shadows of night.

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Margaret Wise Brown began her writing career while a teacher-in-training at the Bank St. Experimental School in Greenwich Village. Her style was strongly influenced by the “here-and-now” philosophy espoused by Bank Street founder and early education revolutionary Lucy Sprague Mitchell, which proposed that young children would rather read stories about the real world of their own lives than fantasies and fairy tales. Brown’s short literary career (truncated by her untimely death) was characterized by a whirlwind of productivity: she had over 100 children’s stories in print during her lifetime and new books continue to be published posthumously, even half a century later.

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Strikingly beautiful, green-eyed and blond (one of her several pseudonyms, Timothy Hay, referred to her hair), Margaret Wise Brown led a colorful life. She divided her time between her island retreat in Maine (called The Only House) and a tiny house in Manhattan (called Cobble Court). The latter was a wooden farm cottage built in the early 1800’s that lay hidden behind row houses in the Upper East Side. Brownie, as she was known by her many friends, was never married and had no children. She had a prolonged affair with an older woman (Blanche Oelrichs, an actress, author, socialite, and ex-wife of John Barrymore), and was affianced at the time of her death to a younger man (James “Pebble” Stillman Rockefeller, Jr.). She lived with flare and style: with her first royalty check, she purchased all the flowers from a street vender’s cart and threw a party at her Greenwich Village apartment.

Aside: Cobble Court was slated for demolition in the1960’s. Fortunately, it was saved and can now be seen – diminutive, idiosyncratic, and charming – at the corner of Greenwich and Charles Streets in the West Village.

 

The Story of Little Black Sambo

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The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman

1899

Illustrated by Helen Bannerman

Of the 100’s or 1000’s of picture books that a child is read in childhood, few make a permanent imprint. Enjoyed in the moment, they disappear like an Etch-a-Sketch picture when the book is closed. Every once in a while there is one that creates an indelible image and The Story of Little Black Sambo is one of these few. Read at the age of 3 or 5, many adults remember decades later the surreal scene of the tigers joined mouth to tail, whirling around the palm tree so fast that their bodies blur and they melt into butter. It is this remarkable scene that anchors the story in memory.

Helen Bannerman grew up in Madeira where she was home schooled, along with her six siblings, by her father, a minister who was more interested in the natural history of mollusks (his passion) than in his parishioners. After her marriage, she spent 30 years in India where her husband, a physician, devoted himself to combating bubonic plague. She wrote and illustrated The Story of Little Black Sambo for the amusement of her two young daughters, never imagining it for publication. Alice Boyd, a friend who was going on home leave, persuaded Bannerman to relinquish her manuscript. Unfortunately, Mrs. Boyd sold the copyright to a publisher for 5 pounds, contrary to Bannerman’s instructions, thus robbing the author of considerable financial rewards as well as control over subsequent editions.

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The book was an immediate success in 1899 and continues to fascinate children a century later. The hero is a joyous character who combines bravery with artless ingenuity when confronted with four fierce tigers who are ultimately brought low by hubris. Bannerman wrote and drew with effortless simplicity, a quality that she applied to ten subsequent books. Her first remains her masterpiece.

The Story of Little Black Sambo is set in India and has Indian characters, but the illustrators of the many unauthorized editions often relocated the story to the American South or to Africa, sometimes with offensive caricatures in the picaninny or golliwog style. Accusations of racism in the 1960’s and 1970’s resulted in the book being banned from many libraries. Revised and rewritten editions appeared with renamed characters, altered locales, and self-consciously respectful images. Although these books were perhaps motivated by good intentions, they are singularly lacking. For the magic, seek out the original.

There is a certain randomness to outrage and censorship: take a look at Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo or Jean de Brunhoff’s The Travels of Babar, both of which remain on library shelves with nary a whisper.

 

 

Madeline

 

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Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

1939

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.

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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.

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The Journey

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The Journey by Sarah Stewart

2001

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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Over in the Meadow

 

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Over in the Meadow by John Langstaff

1957

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.

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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.

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