Children’s nonfiction continues to shine, and if I had to choose one word to define its glory, the word is VOICE. That voice ranges from whimsical to witty to irresistible “sit-down-and let-me-tell-you-a-story.” The “voice” or style of picture book illustrations is just as diverse. Here are a few new books I’ve enjoyed.
Jingle Bells in Savannah? Who knew? John Harris, that’s who. On a visit to Savannah he learned the genesis of the popular holiday song, took scraps of history, added a bit of social commentary and ‘what if?’ and came up with Jingle Bells: How the Holiday Classic Came to Be, illustrated by Adam Gustavson (Peachtree.) The composer, John Pierpont, was a Yankee Unitarian minister in the 1850s, presiding over a congregation that included a few African Americans, so we get a brick through the church window to point out the atmosphere of the time and place. But overall this is a story of nostalgia and celebration.
How do you write a biography about someone who spends his life sitting around making up languages and writing fantasy stories? If you’re Alexandra Wallner, you elicit the help of your husband, illustrator John Wallner who creates a board game that runs through the pages filled with magical creatures, strange letters and words, and playing cards that portray the real and fantasy worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien (Holiday House.) The “game” is the life and books of the author, born on the South African veldt filled with scary animals, raised in the bucolic English countryside (think Shire,) and ending up as an Oxford don creating the vast world of The Lord of the Rings. It’s a good story, made fantastical by the artwork.
[Aside: Reading Tolkien’s wonderful Father Christmas Letters became an annual tradition in our house. These letters written over twenty years to the Tolkien children are filled with elves and goblins and the clumsy but lovable North Polar Bear. Tolkien illustrates them as well.]
The story of Belle, The Last Mule at Gee’s Bend, is told to a young boy in the voice of an older woman, Belle’s owner. It’s a poignant history of the people of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and how Martin Luther King inspired them to vote and march for civil rights back in the 1960s. And Belle? When the sheriff closed the ferry that took the people to the polls, Belle and her colleagues hauled wagons the long way around. Then, in 1968, she pulled the cart with King’s coffin during his funeral procession. The voice here is slow and steady, just like Belle, and mesmerizing too. Belle… is written by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud, illustrated by John Holyfield (Candlewick.)
The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood, told in third person, is author Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve’s own story, illustrated by Ellen Beier (Holiday House). We enter the bleak frigid Midwestern winter world with children wearing drab clothes that don’t fit anymore, waiting for the “Theast” box of used clothes to arrive from New England at Christmas. We also see the joyful and colorful indoor life of these Sioux families, as Virginia’s family dresses up to dance to music on the radio, and young Three Kings wear Sioux feather headdresses in the Nativity play. Will Virginia get a new coat that fits her from Theast box this year – that beautiful silver fur, or a red one with a hood that she longs for?
How about this for a new twist on an old topic – Green Bible Stories for Children by Tami Lehman-Wilzig, illustrated by Durga Yael Bernhard (Kar-Ben.) The linkages are ingenious – Noah and biodiversity; Abraham, Lot, and sustainable grazing; God, Moses and crop rotation. The tone is colloquial: “One day God told Moses, “I’ve decided that the Sabbath is not only for humans.”” Activities are added to each story – sprouting seeds, recycling, saltwater experiments and more. Green Bible Stories… illustrates that ecological problems and solutions have a long history.