With Jim retired, his selections here are now intermittent.
A NEST FOR CELESTE by Henry Cole
Back in 1939, Robert Lawson published Ben and Me, a historical fantasy about a mouse who supposedly gave Ben Franklin many of his bright ideas. It was good enough to still be in print all these years later (at a time when the average children's book stays in print just four years). It also contained enough solid historical fact to inspire a young Pennsylvania grade schooler named David McCullough to begin a lifetime love of history (resulting in two Pulitzer Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom).
Lawson's shoes and work are a large order to fill but Henry Cole takes a bold step forward with yet another mouse in this novel subtitled: "A Story About Art, Imagination, and the Meaning of Home."
It is set in 1821 at the manor house of a Louisiana plantation that is the temporary resting/workplace of John James Audubon. The latter will become the most famous artist/naturalist in American history but at the time of the story he is still learning his craft and barely earning enough money to survive.
Apprenticed to Audubon is a 13-year-old boy named Joseph Mason who moves haltingly between the roles of "go'fer" and background artist (painting the plants and flowers that will be backdrops for Audubon's life-size birds.
All of that is historically true. Into this pageant comes a humble and naive mouse named Celeste who will take up residence in Joseph's pocket and heart, allowing the reader/listener to gain a mouse-eyed view of Audubon's work and times.
The book is not all history; indeed, it has a rich and dramatic plot involving Celeste's wildlife neighbors, including a pair of selfish, scheming rats who make five-star villains.
The reader-aloud should not be put off by the misleading size of the volume -- 342 pages. First, the text is set in large type and double-spaced. Second, more than a hundred pages are populated by large pencil illustrations around which the type is wrapped. And finally, the narrative is suspenseful and meaningful on a variety of levels.
One can easily see a future Audubon or David McCullough seated in a classroom today, scouring these pages and being inspired to take the road to art of history.
BELLA AND STELLA COME HOME
In the transitory/migratory world in which many of today's children are growing, few will escape the traumatic experience of "moving" from one home to another. Because of all the emotions involved — some good, some not so good, "moving" is one of life's most indelible moments.
Strangely, few children's picture books have captured or addressed that feeling. Indeed, few have even tried. And now we have a little gem — Bella and Stella Come Home — to answer the call.
Bella is a preschooler who looks like any one of thousands of preschoolers, which means illustrator Christopher Denise has done his job perfectly. Bella represents a huge congregation of little movers (and "shakers" if you take into account their emotions).
Stella is Bella's small stuffed elephant; she also is her only apparent friend in these hours of moving. In fact, as the story's uncertain moments unfold, Stella rises to the occasion and grows larger on the pages. Together these two pals wade through the heartache of saying goodbye to the old house and the nervousness of walking into a new one.
And then there is the disappointment of realizing the new house will not be a carbon copy of the old — who ever heard of a yellow kitchen? And a bathtub with feet? And then there's the new bedroom — not good! Empty, vacant, not even curtains.
Finally come the boxes of magic, those cardboard packages containing all the things that made up the old bedroom: piece by piece, tea set, rug, bed cover, night light.
And finally there is a new day with neighbors calling, including a little boy Bella's age who has a stuffed giraffe. New home, new friends, a new beginning —and that's what moving is "supposed" to be about. Is that the way it always is for all children? No, but they can dream and books like this hold out hope that dreams can possibly come true
On a teeny little farm, in an itty-bitty coop, a very small hen laid a big, humongous egg. The egg began to shake. The eggs began to quake. Out popped a big, humongous chick. "What is it?" crowed the little rooster.
And thus begins the tale of Chicken Big, a very funny take-off/turn-around of Chicken Little, complete with some of the most dim-witted chicken coop residents the barnyard has ever seen. If Ol' McDonald had to deal with the likes of these folks, he'd have quit farming his first day on the job.
As Chicken Big grows larger and larger, the locals keep trying to guess what he is, estimates that run from elephant and hippopotamus to sweater and umbrella, depending on which rescue operation Chicken Big is running in the barnyard.
There's no great (or even small) moral to this tale; it's just a plain laugh-out-loud good story that will bring on the best of reading refrains: "Read it again!" Also by the author/illustrator: Frank Was a Monster Who Wanted to Dance.
In a tale as evocative as her Caldecott-winning Owl Moon, Jane Yolen gives us a story of things lost and things found, of the sounds we take for granted in our lives, and the difference between a house and a home. That's quite a lot for a picture book but Yolen and her illustrator David Small are more than up to the task.
Set in the mid-1800s, young Elsie is Boston born and bred, soaking up every sound and scent of the city. When her mother dies the city reminds Elsie's father too much of his loss and he moves himself and Elsie to a sod house on the Nebraska plains. This may be the right move for his aching heart, but it does nothing for Elsie except to drive her deeper into herself. Add to that the loneliness of the prairie and you have a very sad child.
"Only one Friday — when Papa had gone off again, buying seed corn for the coming spring —Elsie accidentally . . . " I can't spoil the tale's ending or ploting except to say it's a turning point for both the story and Elsie, leaving the reader aloud and audience with much to talk about, including how each of us handles the "moves" in our lives. Also by illustrator David Small: The Gardener.