Saint David’s Day

The patron saint of Wales is Saint David, or Sant Dewi as the Welsh call him. He lived in the sixth century and became the Archbishop of Wales. He was particularly fond of bread, vegetables, and water, drinking nothing but water for most of his life. He is also associated with water because it is said that a spring of water came bubbling up where he walked at significant times and places during his life. I’m interested in Saint David partly because some of my ancestors came from Wales.

The Welsh celebrate Saint David’s Day with leeks (remember Fluellen in Shakespeare’s Henry V?) and daffodils, male voice choirs, and harp concerts. If you would like to celebrate this Welsh holiday with your children, the website below has coloring pages, craft projects, a recipe for leek soup, and more information on David’s life.
St. David’s Day Activities for Kids
St. David died in about 589, and his last words were recorded as:

“Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”

‘Do the little things’ (‘Gwnewch y pethau bychain’) is today a very well-known phrase in Welsh. It reminds me of Elisabeth Elliot’s admonition to “do the next thing.” Either way it seems to me to be a good motto. Sometimes it’s all I can do– to do the next little thing that needs to be done, and sometimes it’s enough. Happy St. David’s Day!

The Most Wonderful Doll in the World by Phyllis McGinley

I wrote a post a week or two ago about doll stories, when I was reading some of Rumer Godden’s stories about dolls. Now I’ve found another doll book to add to the list—the 1951 Caldecott Honor book, The Most Wonderful Doll in the World. Poet and author Phyllis McGinley wrote this tale of a girl, Dulcy, with a powerful imagination. In fact, Dulcy’s mother says she has “too much imagination” because Dulcy is always dissatisfied with the dolls she receives as gifts and must imagine them just a little bit different or better.

When Dulcy gets a new doll, Angela, from her friend, the elderly Mrs. Primrose, Dulcy thinks Angela is a fine doll, but she can’t help wishing that Angela’s hair were black instead of yellow. However, when Angela is lost, Dulcy’s longing and imagination transform the missing doll into the most wonderful doll in the world.

I couldn’t find much information about Helen Stone, the illustrator of this little story. She won two Caldecott honors for books upon which she collaborated with Phyllis McGinley. Her other Caldecott honor book is called All Around the Town by Phyllis McGinley, and it seems to be an alphabet book. Helen Stone also illustrated my favorite Phyllis McGInley story, The Plain Princess.

Read more about Phyllis McGinley here.
If you know or find out more about Helen Stone, please leave a comment.

Rocks in his Head by Carol Otis Hurst

I’ve seen this picture book biography recommended on several lists of “living books”, particularly living science books, and I agree that it’s a beautiful and inspiring story. The author’s father, who is never actually named in the text, was a collector of rocks. But more than a collector, he was a student and archivist who carefully curated and labeled his collection of rocks from all over the country.

Since Ms. Hurst’s father and his family were living through the Great Depression, her father’s day job was minding his gas station. When the gas station went broke, he took other jobs to support his family. Because he had never been to college or formally studied geology, most people thought Carol Hurst’s father’s passion for rocks was simply an amusing hobby. However, he eventually met someone who appreciated the informal study he had done and the depth of knowledge he had acquired.

Rocks in his Head is the kind of story our children need. They need to see that if they pursue an interest with persistence and passion, they can become experts. And they can do that whether or not this interest or passion becomes their job. I have an adult daughter who is teaching herself Polish because she is interested in all things Polish at the moment. I have a son who is becoming a talented and expert musician, in his spare time. I am an amateur, part-time librarian. So far, none of my children has “rocks in his head”, but if that were to be someone’s passion, I would encourage them to study and collect and learn with all the resources available to them. Because our economy is generally much better than that of the time during the Great Depression when Ms. Hurst’s father was living, we have much greater opportunities to both make a living for our families and pursue our own interests. Encourage your children and yourself to take advantage of every opportunity.

Something Beautiful, Something Good

Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport.
Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, illustrated by Rafael Lopez.
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Francis Vallejo.
Freedom in Congo Square by Carol Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie.

I checked out these four 2016 picture books from the library because they sounded interesting and had received some accolades and good reviews. Then, as I read them, I realized that, serendipitously, they all carry a similar theme: art and beauty can emerge from the depths of poverty, suffering, and confusion. And that art can be a source of inspiration and celebration for the artists and for those who can find the ability to appreciate their art. Maybe “emerge” isn’t quite the right word; it takes perseverance, insight and ideas, and hard work for the art to “emerge” in all of these stories.

Freedom in Congo Square is a verse story about the weekly Sunday celebration of freedom and community that the enslaved and the free black people of New Orleans came together for in Congo Square. The rhythm and rhyme of this poem mirrors the week to week rhythm of work and rest that comprised the lives of of hundreds of African Americans, and the folk art style complements the story. Dance, music, community and hope for freedom from oppression are all celebrated in this paean to a New Orleans tradition. The foreword and the author’s note also give more historical information about the development of the gatherings at Congo Square.

Jazz Day is a compilation of mostly free verse poems inspired by a famous 1958 photograph by Art Kane for Esquire magazine of a gathering of famous and not-so-famous jazz musicians. Mr. Kane had the idea of inviting all of the jazz community to come to Harlem and pose for a photograph in front of an “absolutely typical brownstone.” The invitation to the photo shoot was open to all jazz musicians, and 58 of them showed up for the photo, including Count Basie, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and Lester Young. The illustrations include color paintings of the crowd milling about and the individual musicians and a foldout image of the famous photograph itself.

Something Beautiful is based on the story of the origins of the colorful murals of East Village in San Diego, California and of the Urban Art Trail, a movement for reviving urban communities through art. In this picture book, a little girl, Mira is the catalyst for a community celebration of color and painting and art. Even the neighborhood policeman becomes involved in the riot of color and artistic freedom that brings life and beauty to an entire neighborhood. The illustrations in the book were done by Rafael Lopez who is the inspiration for the book: the husband in the husband-wife-team who brought murals and bench paintings and public artistic expression to East Village.

Finally, Ada’s Violin tells the story of a community built on a landfill in which the children learn to play instruments made from recycled trash. The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura (Asuncion), Paraguay is a real thing. Families in Cateura spend their days picking through the trash in the landfill to find things they can recycle or sell. The average income is $2.00 a day. Ada Rios is a violinist with the Recycled Orchestra. Her violin is made of “an old paint can, an aluminum baking tray, a fork, and pieces of wooden crates.” THe director of the Recycled Orchestra, Favio Chavez, says, “The world sends us garbage. We send back music.”

Recycled Orchestra from theremix on GodTube.

Indeed, all of these books tell how, in one way or another, art can come from poverty and oppression. It’s not easy. It takes the persistence of a Favio Chavez or an Art Kane or a Rafael Lopez. It takes other people buying into the artist’s dream to create a community of artists. (I think it also takes the inspiration and grace of the Holy Spirit.) But it can be done.

Victoria House by Janice Shefelman

I found this picture book at Goodwill, the resale shop. As I looked through it, the pictures by Tom Shefelman drew me in, and I decided to take a chance and spend the dollar to bring it home to my library. I’m glad I did.

Victoria House is the story of an old country house, vacant and overgrown with weeds. As the developer who bought the land that Victoria House sits is about to have the house demolished to make way for “a boulevard lined with Spanish-style buildings,” the architect, Sarah, asks if she can move Victoria House to the city. She gets the approval of her husband, Jess, and of her young son, Mason, and of Big Earl, the house mover, and the house is carefully moved to a lot in the city.

I have another book in my library called Pete’s House by Harriet Sobol, and it is quite popular. It tells the story of a boy who is watching a house get built. Victoria House would pair well with Pete’s House, since both are about the nuts and bolts of building or remodeling a house. It’s a subject that can fascinate certain children as they think about what goes on underneath the surface in building and remodeling houses we live in.

As I said, the illustrations in Victoria House are stunning. Some of the color paintings reminded Engineer Husband of architectural renderings, which can be a work of art in and of themselves. I can see why someone might want to go to the trouble of moving such a beautiful house from the country to a place in the city where it could be repaired, lived in, and loved.

Victoria House was published in 1988, and it’s out of print. However, if you or your children are interested in old houses or architecture or house-building or moving houses, this book would be worth pursuing.

The Language of Angels by Richard Michelson

The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Karla Gudeon.

I love nonfiction picture books about overlooked and under-reported events and people in history. The Language of Angels is just such a picture book, about Itamar Ben-Avi (Ben-Zion) and his father, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who were instrumental in the revival and implementation of Hebrew as the official and modern language of the state of Israel.

I knew that when Israel became a nation, that new/old nation adopted Hebrew as their official language. But I had no knowledge at all of the people behind the revival of the modern Hebrew language. When Eliezer Ben-Yehuda moved to Jerusalem in 1881, no one spoke Hebrew as their main, or native language. Today more than three million people speak Hebrew in daily life.

How did Eliezer and Devorah Ben-Yehuda and their son, Ben-Zion, manage to reinvent a language that had been dead as a daily spoken language for over 1500 years? Well, Eliezer started schools where the primary instruction was in Hebrew. And he decided that his children would speak and be spoken to only in Hebrew—a decision which made for a lonely childhood for Ben-Zion, since no one else spoke Hebrew when he was a child. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda also wrote a Hebrew dictionary and enlisted his pupils to help him make up words for modern things such as ice cream cones and bicycles. (Read the book to find out how to add new words to an old language.)

Even with the afterword that has more information about these people and their language-making, I still had unanswered questions. How did Ben-Yehuda get people to agree to have their children educated in Hebrew, an antiquated and unused language at the time? How did someone talk the fledgling government of Israel into adopting Hebrew as the national language? What happened to Ben-Zion during World War II and after? (His father died in 1922.) Of course a picture book can’t answer all the questions one might have about a particular subject, but the fact that this one sparked so many questions is a good recommendation for it.

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What Do You Say, Dear by Sesyle Joslin

What Do You Say, Dear? A Book of Manners for All Occasions by Sesyle Joslin, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
What Do You Do, Dear? Proper Conduct for All Occasions by Sesyle Joslin, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

My favorite Maurice Sendak books are not those he wrote and illustrated himself, not even the wildly popular Where the Wild Things Are, but rather this set of two volumes on good manners and proper conduct by Sesyle Joslin. What Do You Say, Dear won a Caldecott honor for Sendak’s pictures, and his droll, kid-friendly style does add to the book’s charm. However, I really love the situations that Ms. Joslin came up with for both of these books, situations that any child might find himself called up on to deal with at any moment. Example:

“You go to London to see the Queen. She says, ‘Oh, you must stay for dinner. We are having spaghetti.’ So you do, and there is spaghetti for the appetizer, spaghetti for the main dish, and a spaghetti salad. By the time the Queen’s guard brings spaghetti for dessert, you cannot fit in your chair any more and you want to leave the table. What do you say, dear?”

What person hasn’t found himself at some time or another at Buckingham Palace and burdened with a surfeit of spaghetti? *What DO you say, dear?

What Do You Do, Dear?, a second handbook of etiquette for young ladies and gentlemen to be used as a guide for everyday social behavior, is just as delightful as the first book, although not an award winner. You can use this second book to find out what to do when the Sheriff of Nottingham interrupts your reading or how to handle a handsome prince who proposes marriage when you unfortunately have just taken a great mouthful of pudding.

In addition to just tickling ye olde funny bone, these books use memorable vignettes to help children and adults remember the rules of etiquette. And which of us don’t need a little mnemonic device like a funny story to remember to mind our p’s and q’s? Oooh, I just found another “manners” book by Ms. Joslin that I would love to have: Dear Dragon . . . and Other Useful Letter Forms for Young Ladies and Gentlemen Engaged in Everyday Correspondence by Sesyle Joslin, illustrated by Irene Haas. It looks great.

*Of course, the proper thing to say to the Queen when you’ve reached your limit on the spaghetti is, “May I please be excused?”

All Upon a Sidewalk by Jean Craighead George

All Upon a Sidewalk by Jean Craighead George, illustrated by Don Bolognese.

Jean Craighead George, one of the great naturalist writers for children of the twentieth century, died in 2012. She left behind over 100 books, including the Newbery Medal-winning Julie of the Wolves and Newbery runner-up My Side of the Mountain. Although known for her fiction, Ms. George’s nonfiction narratives about various plants and animals and nature habitats are just as good as if not better than her novels.

In fact, All Upon a Sidewalk is something of a cross between fiction and nonfiction. It’s what many in the Charlotte Mason world would call a “living book” in that it tells a story that draws children in and encourages them to use their imagination to picture what life must be like for a tiny ant upon a large sidewalk. Lasius flavus is a small yellow ant who lives under the sidewalk on 19th Street in an unnamed city. “She was a yellow ant with big eyes, arrow waist, and a glittering assortment of six spindly legs.”

Lasius flavus is a worker ant, a natural chemist who serves the queen ant and follows the chemical instructions she receives from the queen. Whether it’s sugar or pollen or something else, Lasius flavus hurries to find what the queen wants. Today, Lasius flavus has a special mission: “the queen had asked for a wondrous treasure called Euplectus confluens. It was terribly appealing and hidden somewhere in the city.”

Both the reader and Lasius flavus remain in the dark as to the identity and whereabouts of Euplectus confluens until the end of the book. Lasius flavus walks about on the sidewalk, looking for this appealing substance, and on her way she encounters the dangers of spiders and bees and rainstorms and birds as she searches for the queen’s desire.

What a wonderful contrast to the flat prose of another popular children’s book about ants which says, “Do you know how many ants live in the world? More than 10,000,000,000,000,000. That’s a lot of ants. Ants live in fields and forests. They live under sidewalks, too. Ants are everywhere!”

And, instead of photographs, you get Mr. Bolognese’s painting, done from life. “He got down on his hands and knees and carefully inspected the sidewalk world through a magnifying glass.” Mightn’t your own children be inspired to do the same after reading this book?

All Upon a Sidewalk is out of print, but you can find used copies quite easily on Amazon or other used book sites.

The Princess and the Beggar by Anne Sibley O’Brien

The Princess and the Beggar: A Korean Folktale adapted and illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien.

The Princess and the Beggar is sort of a Korean version of Beauty and the Beast. The Weeping Princess marries Pabo Ondal, the fool of the forest. As they live together and learn each other’s way, the marriage transforms both the princess and the beggar. Or as the book says, “In time—as they planted, tended, and mended together, they learned not to fear each other.”

The illustrations show the dress and countryside of Korea during the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910), when the nobility wore fine brightly colored silks and brocades, while the peasants wore plain clothing of white and gray.Ms. O’Brien, the author-illustrator, lived in South Korea for thirteen years, the daughter of medical missionaries. She heard the story of Pabo Ondal and the the Weeping Princess as a child. Her faithful retelling and her beautiful illustrations show a sympathy for Korean tradition and folklore as well as an ability to to interpret that tradition for Western readers.

I would read this story along with a picture book version of Beauty and the Beast and compare the two stories. How is Pabo Ondal like the Beast? How is he different? How is the Weeping Princess like Beauty? How is she different? Do both stories end happily? Which is more familiar? Which story raises more questions? Some good picture book versions of Beauty and the Beast are:

Beauty and the Beast by Mahlon F. Craft, illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft.
Beauty and the Beast, retold and illustrated by Jan Brett.
Beauty and the Beast by Marianna Mayer, illustrated by Mercer Mayer.

I especially like that in this Korean tale it is the wife who teaches and also gives moral support and encouragement to her husband until he becomes the man he is meant to be. And then, “Ondal’s services to the king were many and great, but his happiness awaited him at the foot of Peony Peak.” (his home with the princess)

When the Rain Comes by Alma Fullerton

When the Rain Comes by Alma Fullerton, illustrated by Kim La Fave.

Malini is a little girl in a farming community in Sri Lanka. She wakes up in the morning, excited by her opportunity to learn to plant rice seedlings for the first time. But then, on her way to the fields, Malini has the chance to help the community in a different way, as the monsoon rains come and she responds to a near-disaster with pluck and bravery.

This story is just exciting and even scary enough to enthrall young readers and listeners, even as they learn to admire Malini’s courage and resourcefulness. The text itself, written in free verse, is filled with images and onamatapoeia and word pictures that will help readers to imagine what life must be like in a small farming community in Asia. And the illustrations are colorful and exciting, too, complementing the story and bringing out details that might be lost in the rush of the verse.

I’m excited to add this book to my library since my patrons are always looking for excellent picture books that will introduce their children to life in other places in the world. When the Rain Comes may become a favorite go-to title for those who are studying India and Sri Lanka.