Blog Posts

Two Wheels and Two Tales


I could never choose just one of the picture book biographies of Italian cyclist Gino Bartali over the other, since the authors of both these outstanding books have given me the generous gift of their time and attention to critique my work.

And to be fair to Bartali himself—someone so courageous deserves to be the subject of at least two books. He could have chosen to be remembered as a two-time Tour de France champion, with championships an amazing 10 years apart. His first happened in 1938 when he was 24 years old, and his second came in 1948, when he was 34, an advanced age for a world-class cyclist.

It’s what happened between those two championships that demonstrated Bartali’s courage and grit. By delivering documents hidden in the hollow places of his bicycle to evade Nazi soldiers, Bartali helped 800 Jewish people and 50 English soldiers. He never even talked about it after the war was over. He never thought of himself as a hero. 

A quote from Bartali appears as a prologue to Hoffman’s The Brave Cyclist. “If you’re good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirts and then they shine in some museum. That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.” The back cover of Hoyt’s Bartali’s Bicycle has a more succinct version: “Some medals are pinned to your soul, not your jacket.”

Both books are masterfully illustrated by Italian artists. Iacopo Bruno chose stylistic close-up illustrations in bold colors in a vertical orientation for Bartali’s Bicycle. Chiara Fedele’s illustrations for The Brave Cyclist are more muted and realistic and fill horizontal spreads.

The Brave Cyclist shows us Bartali as a youth, in a struggle to win the Tour de France, and all the way through winning his second Tour de France. Bartali’s Bicycle focuses closely on the war years.

Kudos to both authors for shining a light on a deserving subject!

Remarkable…

“In leafy calm,

in gentle arms,

a gorilla’s life began.”

So begins the lyrical narrative of Ivan the gorilla’s remarkable true story. Katherine Applegate followed up her 2013 Newbery Award-winning novel, The One and Only Ivan, with this nonfiction picture book about the events that inspired the novel.

She relates some of the facts—Ivan was a western lowland gorilla born in central Africa—in a straightforward style. But with her spare lyricism, she leaves room for the illustrator, G. Brian Karas, to supply essential components of the story. 

From Karas’s illustrations, readers learn:

·       the “gentle arms” in the opening belong to Ivan’s mother gorilla; 

·      Ivan and another baby gorilla are unloaded in America in a truck yard for a shopping mall owner who “ordered and paid for them like a couple of pizzas;” 

·      fully-grown Ivan in his shopping mall cage sees human families, and feels the lack of his own “family to protect;” 

· and the gentle hands Ivan feels in the end of the story belong to a female zoologist.

Applegate engages the reader’s senses. When Ivan is a baby in Africa, we hear the “hoots and grunts and chest-beats” of his father and the poachers’ loud guns. When Ivan is ready to join the gorilla habitat in Zoo Atlanta, we feel the gleaming sunlight, smell the jungle scents, and hear the people’s cheers and the clicking of cameras.

This real-life fairy tale—where early misfortune is reversed for a happily-ever-after ending—is one to treasure.

In This Book…

In front of me sit three copies of In the Fiddle Is a Song: A Lift-the-Flap Book of Hidden Potential by author-illustrator, Durga Bernhard. It’s my go-to gift these days. What child doesn’t delight in revealing a surprise by lifting a flap, adding a tactile experience to the aural and visual? Flaps give rise to pauses, to predictions, to slowing down, to savoring. 

In this gem of a book, every inch of the spreads is covered by colorful paintings, treating the reader to joyful sights—a swing hanging from an autumn tree, a butterfly unfolding its wings, a freshly cut loaf of warm bread. The 97 words sit directly on the lovely colors, no white space needed. 

The word count might seem slight, but the number of different words is even slighter. Every left hand page begins with “In the” and the text hiding under every flap begins with “waiting to.” A pattern to follow is a gift, allowing children to “read” like their grown-ups do, and to engage in lovely language.

This book is out of print—a tragedy! If a reissue isn’t possible, perhaps its poetic lines could be printed on a double spread in an anthology, surrounded by the best of its images—except they’re all the best.

To see the potential in the world, in both nature and human endeavor, helps us live with energy and optimism, a meaningful message for both little listeners and their caregivers.

Applesauce Day

https://www.pbspotlight.com/

Through #PBCritiquefest, (www.pbspotlight.com) hosted by PBSpotlight and Brian Gehrlein, I’ve discovered the charming picture book Applesauce Day by Lisa Amstutz. Lisa is also an agent at Storm Literary Agency. She’s generously donating a critique in connection with #PBCritiquefest. Applesauce Day is a heart-warming reminder of the sense of belonging children gain from participating in a family culinary tradition. Told from the perspective of a city child, Applesauce Day shares the details of the experience: the twist and pull motion for picking an apple; the blurp, blurp sound coming from the simmering sauce; and the feel of the scratches on the well-worn pot that’s embraced on the cozy ride home.  Dreams of future Applesauce Days add reassurance as the story closes.

If You’re Looking for a Book About Rocks…

Sometimes the best outcome of going shopping—for a gift or for myself—is remembering that all I need to do is return home and look on my shelf or in my closet. And there I’ll find a fitting gift or garment that’s a better choice than what the store has to offer.

I had that same thought when I read about a new children’s picture book on the topic of rocks. Memories of an old favorite, If You Find a Rock by Peggy Chastain, with photographs by Barbara Hirsch Lember and published by Harcourt, Inc. 20 years ago, spurred me to search out a copy, and I was charmed all over again.

The photo illustrations are magical. They vary in perspective and include a view of a boy in mid-leap between crossing rocks in a rushing stream; a worry rock for rubbing troubles away held in hands observed at close range behind a child’s back; and a pensive girl kicking a walking rock as she makes her way home in the fading daylight.

The text engages the senses and evokes a calming aura. The author chooses words that are plain but precise—a skipping rock can “trip across the surface, making a chain of spreading rings.” When you sit on a resting rock, “you feel the cool moss squush beneath you.” When you turn over a hiding rock, “in the cool, dark underside live all kinds of things that creep and crawl and hide out of sight.”

A listing of all the kinds of rocks that have been considered, and the description of a memory rock that “reminds you of a place, or a feeling, or someone important” make for a satisfying ending.

A revision of this book for children today would include more variation in the cultures of the children featured in the photographs. Everything else is perfection.

Of Raccoons and Re-readings

Reading to my resident 4-year-old was a pandemic pleasure, and Raccoon on His Own by Jim Arnosky stayed at the top of our stack. A curious little animal (a third sibling, wouldn’t you know!) finds himself alone in a floating canoe. Anxious moments abound and dangers must be dodged. The parent is on guard more faithfully than the little one realizes. All’s well that ends well. My little human could easily relate.

Is the book nonfiction? Some might say so. After hearing about a similar but more recently published title, Coyote Moon, I found myself wondering whether Jim Arnosky could have witnessed the adventure in Raccoon on His Own and skillfully described it? Did he attribute any knowledge or feelings to the little raccoon that would tip the scales toward the category of fiction?

Checking back, I found just two bits that Arnosky couldn’t have known for sure—first, that a chill ran down the little raccoon’s spine; and second, that the little raccoon was afraid to jump into the dark water. A hidden camera could have caught all the other details—but they more likely came from the author’s lively imagination and thorough understanding of the habitat.

Thanks, Jim Arnosky, for allowing children—and those of us lucky enough to read to them— to experience an everyday drama of animals living in relation to each other in the bayou. Coyote Moon has its strengths, but a story from an animal mom’s point of view doesn’t have the same appeal as one seen through the eyes of an offspring. And I’ll take the happy reunion of the raccoons over the gory feast of the coyotes any day.

For the Love of Yogi

In Yogi: The Life, Loves, and Language of Baseball Legend Yogi Berra, author Barb Rosenstock, in her signature style, uses a fabulous inventory of verbs: haul, outline, drag, beg, jeer, hoot, calm. But the verb that crops up on ten of the pages, beginning with the first one, is LOVE. By the last page, the reader can’t help but LOVE Yogi, and envy anyone who was fortunate enough to have known such a warm, humble, and funny guy. His amazing achievements in baseball seem just an added bonus.

There’s no mistaking which one is Yogi.

Sometimes LOVE is what Yogi wasn’t getting—from coaches, from harshly teasing players and fans, from his hometown team. Yogi “still loved, loved, loved baseball. But would baseball ever love him back?” How could a reader not pull for him when the author asks a question like that? And in the end, we are gratified to learn that “the whole world, inside baseball and out, loved his fearless heart, his fierce drive, and his famous words. Always.”

Less is More: Literacy and Science

To master the Next Generation Life Science Standards, young students must develop an understanding of how plants and animals use their external parts to help them survive and thrive. But wait! Have first graders noticed that animals don’t all have the same coverings? And if they know that snakes and armadillos don’t have fur, can they name the coverings they do have?

With the almost wordless No Dogs Allowed, Linda Ashman has given her readers an intriguing way to think about those coverings. The sign at the restaurant says that no dogs are allowed, but what happens if other animals arrive? The sign can’t fit a long list of animals, so the waiter who is trying to exclude them must use categories: first, no one with fur, then scales, and so on. Readers begin to predict what’s ahead by using the illustrations – a literacy standard in the Common Core. The gems of detail in the illustrations pull the reader back to the beginning to explore and enjoy again and again.

On Ms. Ashman’s website, she describes her inspiration for this book and the underlying theme of acceptance, always important to keep in mind.

War Dogs: What’s Not Said

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In Katherine Selbert’s War Dogs, Winston Churchill and his poodle Rufus are wonderfully compatible, and so are the author-illustrator’s words and pictures. This glimpse into Churchill’s life during World War II is a great example of how much of a story can be omitted from the text and carried by a combination of the pictures and skillfully placed tip-offs. Nowhere in War Dogs does the text say that Rufus is a poodle, or even a dog. It doesn’t need to. The illustrations reveal his size, color, and breed. He sniffs, his ear twitches, he begs Mrs. Churchill for treats, he holds Winston’s hat in his teeth.

Selbert’s words do double duty to inform the reader that the prime minister and Rufus are alike in many ways. Winston sets his shoulders like a tenacious bulldog when he addresses the House of Commons, he works doggedly with his advisers on the invasion plans, and he bundles into a woolly coat. The ending reveals that Churchill was known as the British Bulldog. The final two-page spread satisfies by closing the loop, echoing the book’s title: “They rest in the country at last, two war dogs.”