Archive | August 2015

Peppe the Lamplighter, by Elisa Bartone

Peppe the Lamplighter, by Elisa Bartone

It’s loosely based on a story about the author’s Italian grandfather. (Elisa Bartone’s grandfather immigrated to the United States from a town near Naples, according to the book’s jacket.) She dedicates Peppe the Lamplighter to the memory of her grandparents and her father. And illustrator Ted Lewin just dedicates it “to the American Dream.”

It’s a sad story about Peppe, who lives in a tenement. His mother is dead and his father is sick, and “he had to work to help support his sisters: Giulia, Adelina, Nicolina, Angelina, Assunta, Mariuccia, Filomena, and Albina.” The last sister still lives in Naples with her uncle, a priest who runs the orphanage. Peppe visits the shops in Little Italy, hoping to find a job.

Illustrator Ted Lewin “has loved Little Italy since he first moved to New York,” according to the book’s jacket, and he draws beautiful pictures of the people in Peppe’s neighborhood. There’s a white-haired butcher (with a bristly moustache and a top hat), and “Fat Mary” who makes the cigars. A bar full of businessmen even watch as Peppe asks Don Salvatore, the bartender, for a job washing glasses. And word finally spreads to Domenico, the skinny lamplighter, who says he’s “going back to Italy to get my wife.”

Lewin’s illustrations bring the story to life, including touching pictures of the boy’s family waiting for him at home. But Bartone’s text gives each character a real personality. “Did I come to America for my son to light the streetlamps?” the proud father rails. And after he slams the door behind him, all the sisters contribute different words of support. “It’s a GOOD job, Peppe,” says his sister Assunta.

Peppe walks down the street at twilight, and opens the glass of each streetlamp to light it, and the description makes it seem exhilarating. Bartone describes it as a “joyful” feeling, and the boy imagined each small flame to represent promise for the future. “It was almost like lighting candles in the church for special favors from the saints,” Bartone writes, and the boy makes wishes for each of his sisters.

“This one for Giulia, may she have the chance to marry well… This for my mother, may she look on us with pleasure…”

The angry father heckles him from the window, while even Fat Mary tries to coax him to smile. But one night Peppe doesn’t go to work – and his little sister gets lost in the dark. The father agonizes over his missing bambina, and finally has a change of heart. “‘The streets are dark, Peppe… Tonight the job of lamplighter is an important job. Please, Peppe, light the lamps.

“You will make me proud.”

The Sun’s Asleep Behind the Hill, by Mirra Ginsburg

The Sun's Asleep Behind the Hill, by Mirra Ginsburg

In 1982 Mirra Ginsburg adapted an Armenian song into a beautiful bedtime picture book. “The Sun’s Asleep Behind the Hill” reads like a lullaby, describing the arrival of a peaceful evening as it’s greeted by the creatures around the world. Simple words are written in bold letters – it could easily be a child’s very first book. But best of all, all the sentences rhyme!

“The sun shone in the sky all day,
the sun grew tired and went away…”

The breeze notes that the sun sleeps behind a hill, signaling “It’s time that I was still.” The leaves notice the sleeping breeze, and decide they’ll also take a rest. Soon the birds notice the resting leaves and also relax, and a nut-gathering squirrel notices the relaxing birds, and curls up in its hollow branch. Then a mother with her child notes the sleeping squirrel, and then carries home her own sleeping child.

“It’s time for you to rest.”

But the story holds one last surprise – one creature that discovers that all the world’s asleep. An orange moon creeps into the sky, and declares “I am alone!” The sun is asleep, the breeze is still, the bird is quiet, and the leaves sleep over the lake. Even the child is at rest, and the moon survey’s the empty landscape in a grand, silvery drawing.

“I am alone. And I will shine with a silver light
in the wide, silent sky all night.”

Paul O. Zelinsky contributed illustrations that are colorful and detailed. As the sun sets, there’s a cat on a fence, picnickers leaving the grass, and a man rowing a boat across a shadowy lake. Zelinsky uses pastel colors, and his colorful impressionism gives the book a friendly tone – even as the colors turn darker to show sleepers on a quiet night. Drawings of nature suggest a calm dusk, as a pink sunset reflects in the grey-blue of a lake. And sometimes Zelinsky’s careful illustrations seem to capture the magic of life, like the drawing where leaves of several trees are lit by the sun as their branches bend in the wind…

“The leaves grew tired, they do not shake,
they are asleep over the lake.”

The real purpose of a bedtime story is to lull a child to sleep. And this book seems like it could accomplish that with both relaxing pictures and a simple story that repeats the same words – all about how it’s time to rest. The book’s cover calls it a “just-right bedtime book.” And I’d have to agree.

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon ScieszkaIt was the first collaboration Jon Scieszka did with Lane Smith, and it was a huge success. (The writer-illustrator team would later team up on six more books according to Wikipedia). Smith’s imaginative drawings are the perfect complement to Scieszka’s stories, which include parodies and twists on familiar fairy tales. And it was in 1989 that Sciezska delivered “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.”

“I don’t know how this whole Big Bad Wolf thing got started,” the narrator explains, “but it’s all wrong.” It turns out it’s the wolf himself, who seems surprisingly genuinely unthreatening. (He wears harmless spectacles, and his name is Alexander.) “[N]obody has ever heard MY side of the story,” the wolf complains. And then he describes the time he’d innocently visited his next-door neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar.

Now unfortunately his neighbor – a pig – has a lot of silly ideas. (“Can you believe it? I mean who in his right mind would build a house of straw…”) And even more unfortunately, the wolf has a cold, which makes him huff and snuff…and sneeze. “And you know what? That whole darn straw house fell down.” See? It was all an innocent misunderstanding!

Yes, he ate the little pig – but it was already dead. (“Think of it as a big cheeseburger just lying there,” the wolf explains.) And he still needed a cup of sugar, which required a visit to the neighbor one house down. “He was a little smarter, but not much. He had built his house of sticks…”

Smith’s art adds a lot to the book, because the tale is already so familiar. His odd color schemes and flat perspective give the story an appropriate oddness. And some drawings have an abstract feeling, resembling stark and surprising collages. On the first page of the book, the E in “Everybody” is made out of bricks – with straw on the bottom and twigs on top.

Everybody thinks they know the pigs’ story, but in Scieszka’s version, the wolf is the hero. “Now you know food will spoil if you just leave it out in the open,” the wolf explains innocently. And he’d discovered the second pig dead – after an unfortunate sneeze by his house of sticks. There was only one thing to do…but the wolf still needs that cup of sugar. And the third pig rudely refuses to give it to him, provoking a round of sneezing…right when “the cops drove up.” And it’s in the final drawing that Smith reveals why the wolf’s shirt sleeves was covered with stripes.

He’s telling his story…in prison.

Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton

“Katy and the Big Snow” is a classic children’s story from 1943. It had been five years since Virginia Lee Burton wrote “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.” Now she turned her attention to another piece of talking machinery — this time, a big red snow plow.

Katy is “a beautiful red crawler tractor” that belongs to the city of Geoppolis — and this book shows her in several detailed drawings. When the city is snowed in, there’s a two-page spread that’s almost completely white — representing snow — with Katy appearing in the upper-left corner beginning to clear out a path. Gradually more parts of the city start to appear on the pages, as though Katy has released them from enormous white snow drifts. That’s the book’s big surprise — watching the parts of the city appear from the big blanket of snow.

Burton draws the buildings small, so she’ll have room for the entire city, and the simple illustrations are busy and intricate. One page has 26 different vehicles drawn in the margins around the center picture’s frame — and the next page has 32 different drawings of the red snowplow in action! There’s one two-page spread that has no text at all, just a map of the city of Geoppolis. (It labels 30 different buildings, including the schools, farms, city services, and local businesses.) Because Burton drew the buildings small, she has room for the entire city, and she users only a limited number of colors in the pictures. Unfortunately, I think this robs the book of some of its magic…

I remember being frustrated by this book when I read it as a child. It seemed like there were too many pictures — and the text didn’t really tell a story. It just offered random facts about the city’s highway municipal department. (“When winter came they put snow plows on the big trucks and changed Katy’s bulldozer for her snow plow….”) Some of the dialogue actually comes from the Superintendent of the Water Department. Katy plows out the city — then goes home. The end.

Here’s an interesting thought about this book — it was written in the middle of World War II. America was rationing foods, fuels, rubbers, and even shoes. Franklin Roosevelt had expanded the size of the government, and now men were leaving their families to serve in a larger national effort. Great efforts were made to assure Americans that we were all in this thing together.

And when the city was covered by an enormous blanket of snow — Katy the big red snow plow came and plowed everybody out.