Over in the Meadow



Over in the Meadow by John Langstaff


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.


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.




Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?


Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? By Bill Martin, Jr.


Illustrated by Eric Carle

Bill Martin, Jr. was on a train heading for New York City when the line “brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?” came into his mind. By the time he pulled into Grand Central Station fifteen minutes later, the book was complete, jotted on the margins of his newspaper. He chanced upon an ad portraying a bright red lobster and he hunted down the artist and invited him to collaborate. Eric Carle had no experience as a book illustrator but over a weekend he created the painted tissue paper collages. The resultant book has remained a bestseller for over forty years. Perhaps the spontaneity of its creation ensured its enduring freshness.


Of the 300 books that Bill Martin, Jr. wrote, there are two that stand out. The first begins, “Brown Bear,/ Brown Bear,/ What do you see?/ I see a red bird looking at me.” Using this template, in the ensuing pages, we meet a yellow duck, a blue horse, a green frog, a purple cat, a white dog, a black sheep, and a goldfish. The second book begins, “A told B,/ and B told C,/ I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree” – this from Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, co-written by John Archambault. The key to both is the cadence of the rhythm, in the latter case finger snapping and jazzy. Listen to Bill Martin, Jr. sing Brown Bear with his slightly cracked and off-key voice – it is hard to read the words without giving them a tune. There are a myriad of books that teach the colors, animals, and alphabet, but children return to these two repeatedly because of the melody behind the words.


Martin was raised in Hiawatha, Kansas in a house without books. He had difficulty with reading until he went to teacher’s college where memorization of poems by Robert Frost and Walt Whitman helped him decipher the written word. In response to a professor’s encouragement, he read a whole book for the first time. Because of his own dyslexia, he wrote books that children could hear. His rhythmic language has greater affinity to song lyrics than to either poetry or prose.








Madlenka by Peter Sis


Illustrated by Peter Sis

East of Tribeca and west of the Brooklyn Bridge, there is a city block ringed with apartment buildings, in one of which lives a young girl named Madlenka. She has a loose tooth, which news she is anxious to share with Mr. Gaston, the French baker. What follows are several pages of all things French, from his greeting (“Bonjours, Madeleine”) to patisserie cuisine (croissants, financiers, madeleines) to French icons (Tour Eiffel, Arc de Triomph, Puss ‘n Boots, the Little Prince, the original Madeleine). A square cut-out creates a window into the mysterious bakery from one side and out to Madlenka on the sidewalk from the other. She proceeds to circumnavigate the block announcing her news to Mr. Singh in his newsstand, Mr. Ciao the Italian ice cream vendor, Ms. Grimm the German opera diva, and more. We see elephants and turbans, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Pinocchio, and the Bremer Town Musicians and a Wagnerian Brunnhilde (double dots over the u). There is a density and complexity of visual information that defies a single perusal, beginning with Sis’s detailed cross-hatched rendition of the city block, drawn from a dizzying Escheresque perspective – it is at once a bird’s eye view of the buildings ringing a central garden and a pedestrian’s view of the facades as seen from the sidewalk. Another visual legerdemain is seen in a wolf’s mouth in which the white teeth are also the lit windows of an old-fashioned passenger train.DSC03454

Madlenka is a hymn to the richness of a New York City childhood and the cultural odyssey afforded by a walk around the block. Sis captures the joy and imagination of a child who is known and loved by her exotic immigrant neighbors – easy to do, perhaps, since the girl is based on his own daughter. This is one of Sis’s most accessible books and one that can be read repeatedly without wearing thin

DSC03456Peter Sis (rhymes with peace) penned several loftier books, among them Starry Messenger, which tells the story of Galileo, and The Tree of Life, a biography of Darwin. These are the kind of beautiful books that might be given by a sophisticated aunt to spark a young mind to tackle The Voyage of the Beagle or to develop a passion for astronomy. These are wonderful books for a long winter’s read in front of the fireplace with plenty of time to wonder at the intricate drawings and digress into the footnotes.

It makes sense that Sis should be drawn to non-conformists – visionaries who demonstrated rare courage in challenging conventional wisdom. Sis grew up in Czechoslovakia, as he describes in the graphic memoir, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Corrupted by rock and roll, he rebelled against the repression of the Communist state, and eventually defected to the United States. Initially a film-maker, Sis became a children’s book illustrator and writer, encouraged along the way by Maurice Sendak, but he has also created a NYC subway mural, a stage set for the Joffrey Ballet, and over 1,000 illustrations for the NY Times Book Review. For his myriad accomplishments, he received a MacArthur “genius” Award, one of only a handful of children’s writers or illustrators to be so honored.DSC03457

The Owl and the Pussycat

61BzZrdo1KL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear


Illustrated by Jan Brett

“Amiable lunacy.” This was George Orwell’s perfect description of Edward Lear’s poetry. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Lear single-handedly invented the nonsense genre. He began with absurdist limericks, illustrated with his own simple, sometimes surreal, line drawings, and graduated to his longer story poems, of which The Owl and the Pussycat is the best known.

Along the way, Lear invented bizarre characters, imaginary lands, and made-up words. A great traveler himself, Lear sent his characters sailing off to the great Gromboolian plain or the hills of the Chankly Bore or the land where the bong-tree grows – place names that embody the exotic. Of his many neologisms, runcible appeared to be his favorite: he used it repeatedly, as in runcible cat, runcible raven, runcible wall, runcible hat, runcible goose. The owl and the pussycat use a runcible spoon to eat their mince and quince, a utensil that made its way into the dictionary as a pronged spoon (though Lear’s illustration shows it as a ladle).DSC03487

Lear suffered from melancholia, a tone that suffuses some of his poems, especially those that describe lost love, such as The Dong With a Luminous Nose or The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. But this is not the case for The Owl and the Pussycat, a lively voyage of courtship between an unlikely pair. Nor is it the case for another of the greats, The Jumblies, a journey poem to an earthly paradise and back. For richness of whimsy, fantasy, language, and rhythm in the nonsense realm, Lear had no equal.

Lear’s pen drawings may appear naïve, but he was actually an accomplished artist. He published a highly acclaimed folio of parrots when he was only 19 and later became known for his landscapes depicting distant lands. It was on the basis of his natural history and landscape paintings that Queen Victoria sought him out for drawing lessons. For contemporary illustrations, seek out the edition by Jan Brett. Her detailed colorful paintings are set in the Caribbean and are lush with tropical flowers and fish.DSC03488

Aside: 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.

The Little Engine That Could


The Little Engine That Could retold by Watty Piper

Illustrated by George and Doris Hauman


“I think I can” became such a standard in American vernacular that the phrase, along with the book title “The Little Engine That Could”, were actually trademarked by Platt and Munk.

Published in 1930 at the onset of the Great Depression, the book appeals to all but the most cynical because of its spirit of can-do optimism. A happy little train chugs along with a jolly load of good things (dolls, toys, stuffed animals, lollypops) for the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain. When her engine breaks down, the toys, led by an animated clown, flag down a succession of engines (all male) that refuse to help. Along comes a little blue engine who utters her trademarked phrase, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can,” and manages to pull the load over the mountain just in time to avoid disappointing the waiting children (“I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could.”) (Perhaps there is just a bit too much sugary goodness here.)


The original illustrations were by Lois Lenski, but new illustrations were commissioned from George and Doris Hauman in 1954 and these are the ones with which we are familiar. The little blue engine’s bright open face appears on her smokestack, the gold band on the top giving her something of a Nefertiti look (the engine design was also trademarked.) The toys from the train appear toylike and so does everything else – the trees, including one with a candy cane trunk, are set on little stands, the bottles of milk march along on elfin feet, the apples and oranges have happy faces, and there is an unlikely toylike windmill in the background. There is much to engage and delight.


And what of the author? Who would have a name like Watty Piper? No one, as it turns out. Despite putative biosketches that have appeared in some books, Watty Piper was the house pseudonym for Platt and Munk – used since the 1920’s for a series of beloved large-format anthologies with names like The Road to Storyland and Stories That Never Grow Old. When The Little Engine That Could first appeared, it acknowledged a predecessor called Pony Engine that was published in 1916. In fact, the story, complete with famous “I think I can” phrase, appeared as early as 1906 in a Sunday school tract of unattributed authorship, and there were many other versions that followed. In 1955, faced with a lawsuit, Platt and Munk offered a $1,000 reward to the person who could prove authorship and it is telling that the prize was divided between three claimants, certainly none of whom were the real McCoy. Not many stories have had as many writers claiming paternity as this one.





The Tomb of the Boy King


The Tomb of the Boy King
by John Frank


Illustrated by Tom Pohrt

There are really three stories here. There is the story of King Tutankhamen, who assumed the throne at the age of 9, and died mysteriously a decade later. A loose sliver of bone within the skull lead to speculation of foul play and court intrigue, an exciting modus exitus.DSC01451

Then there is the story of the discovery of his tomb by the British archeologist, Howard Carter, in 1922. Of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, King Tutankhamen’s was the only one not significantly plundered by grave robbers. Over 5,000 objects were found, including the life-size golden mask that has become the iconic image of ancient Egypt. The astonishing treasure was housed in the Cairo Museum, where it quietly languished until 1972 when the first of several traveling world tours was launched. Millions of visitors waited in long lines to view the riches at the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum – the first blockbuster museum show.DSC01452

And third, there is the superstition of the ancient mummy’s curse that protected the grave against marauders. The death of Carter’s golden canary by a cobra was to foreshadow the death of his wealthy friend and backer, Lord Carnarvon, during the course of the excavation, a death that was accompanied by a triad of eerie coincidences.

John Frank tells the three intertwining stories in verse form, with the DSC01450allusions to the mummy’s curse providing an undercurrent of mysterious suspense. Tom Pohrt’s pen and watercolor illustrations have a sepia toned palette reminiscent of old photographs from the era. He includes borders with hieroglyphics or artifacts, thus overlaying the culture of the pharaohs on that of 1920’s Egypt. There are comparatively few non-fiction children’s books that bear repeated out-loud reading, and this is one of them.

Aside: For a lighter take on the King Tut story, try “We Want Our Mummy”, a 1939 movie made when the Three Stooges were at the peak of their zany form. Playing three detectives hired to find the kidnapped Professor Tuttle and the mummy of King Rutentuten (pronounced rootin’ tootin’), the three hail a cab in New York and end up in the desert sands of Egypt, $2,198.55 lighter. After a few “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk”s and some classic dialogue:

     (Moe: I got an idea. We’ll make a mummy out of you.

     Curly: I can’t be a mummy. I’m a daddy.

     Larry: OK, so you’ll be a daddy mummy),

the Three Stooges discover not only the mummy of the midget king but also that of his wife, Queen Hotsy Totsy.


Make Way For Ducklings

DSC02800Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey


Illustrated by Robert McCloskey

Shortly before Robert McCloskey’s death in 2003, Make Way For Ducklings was made the official children’s book of Massachusetts, prompted by students in a third grade class. Hard to imagine a more appropriate award, for McCloskey was a master at evoking the essence of place. What Make Way For Ducklings was for Boston, Time of Wonder was for coastal Maine and Homer Price was for Centerburg, Ohio. The eight books that he wrote and illustrated were each a celebration of one of these three settings, each of which he knew well. His books were also a quiet celebration of America – apple pie, blueberry picking, donut machines, harmonicas, a certain unpretentious can-do spirit, common-sense competence, and innocent understated humor.

Make Way For Ducklings stars Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, a pair of ducks who settle on an island in the Charles River, free of foxes, turtles, and boys on bicycles. After their eight ducklings hatch out, Mr. DSC02804Mallard goes off exploring while Mrs. Mallard teaches her offspring to swim, dive, and follow in a straight line. When it is time for their rendez-vous, Mrs. Mallard proudly leads her brood in a single file procession through the streets of Beacon Hill and through the gates of the Boston Public Garden. They are helped along the way by Michael the policeman and Clancy from headquarters who stop traffic to allow their safe passage. There is something fascinating about the ordered geometry of birds, be it the V-shaped pattern of migrating geese, the wind-facing seagulls on an island rookery, or the following behavior of imprinted chicks. It is the image of the proud Mrs. Mallard and her trail of spirited ducklings – delighting the boy in the Corner Book Shop, amazing the street sweeper on Charles Street, bringing traffic to a halt on Beacon Street – that is the lasting one.Make-Way-for-Ducklings-1950

Make Way For Ducklings is one of the most enduring and beloved of picture books – both the story and the illustrations are imbued with honesty and quiet humor. To perfect his drawing technique,DSC02801 McCloskey brought a dozen or more ducklings home to his West Village apartment and lived with them long enough to make hundreds of sketches. In the book, every twitch of the tail, every preening of the breast feathers, every flap and waddle seem true. The humans, in contrast, are comical caricatures. As an artist, McCloskey was talented and meticulous – he was the first to receive two Caldecott Medals (for Make Way For Ducklings and Time of Wonder) and he was also awarded three Caldecott Honors, a remarkable achievement.

The Cats in Krasinski Square


The Cats in Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse


 Illustrated by Wendy Watson

 How to present the Holocaust to children? For those who are too young for Anne Frank or Primo Levi, a gentle approach is provided by The Cats in Krasinski Square, a book that sets just the right tone. It tells of one small moment of successful defiance and quietly heralds the human courage, friendship, and dignity that survived in the face of unfathomable brutality.

 The book was inspired by I Remember Nothing More, a remarkable memoir by Adina Blady Szwajger. A medical student at the time of the walling off of the Warsaw Ghetto, she devoted herself to her young charges in the Warsaw Children’s Hospital until 1943 when the final deportations of Jews to the concentration camps were nearing completion. She escaped the Ghetto and began working as a courier for the Jewish Resistance. She was one of the fortunate few to survive the war.

 The Cats in Krasinski Square features a young girl who has escaped the Ghetto and is able to pass as an Aryan outside the Wall. She lives with her older sister, a member of the Resistance, and she befriends the cats who have been rendered homeless by the war. When she learns that a plan to smuggle food into the Ghetto is threatened by the Gestapo, she gathers up the stray cats into wicker baskets. As the train carrying the food couriers pulls into the station and the German soldiers let loose their snarling dogs, the cats are released and pandemonium ensues. That night the food makes its way into the Ghetto and the girl passes a loaf of bread through a hole in the Wall into the grateful arms of her friend Michal. Meanwhile, in Krasinski Square, a carousel swirls to gay music and children laugh with delight. Szwajger described watching the carousel as the fighting of the Ghetto Uprising raged and the houses (her own, among them) went up in flames on the other side of the Wall. The merry riders were seemingly insensible to the human tragedy playing out nearby.DSC03536

 Karen Hesse is a sensitive writer who has garnered both a Newberry Medal and a MacArthur Award for her books for children. With an economy of words and a poetic prose style, she has taken on complex moments in history and given them a human face. Her subjects have included the grinding poverty of the Dust Bowl, the forced relocation of the Aleuts after the Japanese invasion, and the Ku Klux Klan in New England. Never sentimental or sensationalistic, she creates a strong sense of historical place and the response of individuals to burdens imposed by the vagaries of historical circumstance.

 In The Cats in Krasinski Square she is aided by Wendy Watson, a visual artist of comparable sensitivity. With softly blurred illustrations in muted yet luminous golden and ruddy tones, she portrays essence of cat along with essence of war-torn Warsaw. In the climactic train station scene, she provides just enough comic relief to allow the reader to feel triumphant exhilaration as a clever young girl with ingenuity outfoxes the Nazi soldiers.DSC03535

Paddy’s Christmas


Paddy’s Christmas by Helen Monsell


Illustrated by Kurt Wiese

 While Mother, Father, Aunt, and Uncle Bear are sleeping in the cave for the winter, Paddy is out playing in the woods. Tumbling down a hill, he comes to rest at a log cabin and through the windows he witnesses the celebration of Christmas. He rushes back to the cave and asks excitedly, “What is Christmas? … It’s pretty, it’s lots of fun, and it makes you feel good from the inside out.” Uncle, Aunt, and Mother Bear each reluctantly visits the cabin in turn and returns with an interpretation – decorating with holly and mistletoe and singing songs, receiving presents, and giving gifts. Paddy finds that decorating the cave is pretty and playing with his gifts is fun, but only when he gives presents to his family does he feel fulfilled.


 Many spirit-of-Christmas books are saccharine, preachy, and oddly enervating, but not this one. Paddy is frolicsome and pesky, while the adult bears want nothing more than to be left in peace so they can go back to sleep – which they do repeatedly. Self-sufficient and independent, the little bear gathers the running cedar and decorates the cave, he juggles the pine cones which his aunt has given him, and he collects the gifts (a stick for his father, nuts for his uncle, red feathers for his aunt, and a stiff grass broom for his mother) all by himself. He has an invigorating curiosity and resourcefulness that are infectious. Read this book and you’ll feel like going outside to scavenge in the woods for holiday ornaments too.


 Anyone who has seen The Story About Ping or The Five Chinese Brothers will recognize Kurt Wiese’s illustrations. German-born, Wiese moved to China in his early twenties to try his hand at business. With the advent of WWI, he was captured by the Japanese, turned over to the British, and detained as a prisoner of war in Australia. This was a fortuitous incarceration, since the unique fauna of down-under inspired an interest in sketching. After a detour to Brazil, Wiese settled in rural New Jersey where he embarked on a remarkably prolific career (well over 300 books) as a children’s book illustrator. His bears in Paddy’s Christmas are filled with the cheerful vitality that characterizes his work.








Boats by Byron Barton


Illustrated by Byron Barton


 For the very young child, the real world is wondrous enough. A garbage truck on its weekly rounds, with all the attendant activity of the garbage men wheeling the trash cans, the whir and clang and scrunch, the slap on the side and the swinging up on the running board – what could be a more exciting start to a day?

 For the very young child, everything is novel. It will be some time before a growing child becomes jaded with the quotidian and prefers the fire-breathing dragon over a cud-chewing cow, a sword-wielding knight over a policeman directing traffic. Young children want to know name and function – and Byron Barton is an astute writer/illustrator who provides just this information. Boats, Planes, Trucks, Trains – he covers these as well as many other everyday things in the everyday world. DSC03457-5

 For a novice parent, it is often difficult to distinguish among the many picture board books written for the very young. But children can tell the difference, and Barton’s books, for whatever reason, become the favorites of many a toddler. He is absolutely straightforward. “A fireboat rushes to put out a fire. A ferryboat carries people and cars.” No gimmicks, no wry humor – just plain talk conveying basic information. Each page contains a six or eight word declarative sentence in the most unadorned of language. The text is illustrated by flat art – thick black outlines, bright contrasting colors, bold geometric shapes. The people resemble Playmobile characters.DSC03456-5

 The test of a picture book is repeated readings. Barton’s books never become annoying, as so many do. There is a Zen-like pleasure that comes from the simplicity of the spare text and unembellished art. There is space for embellishment by the child and parent, space for running commentary, room for imaginative flow. In the midst of the chaos and cacophony that are a feature of modern life, Barton’s little books provide a welcome quiet spot.DSC03455-5