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William’s House, by Ginger Howard

William's House, by Ginger Howard

Ginger Howard studied architectural photography, and she’s even restored two historic homes. (She dedicated the book to “Jim and Jimmy Remond, always ready with hammer and nails.”) So for her first children’s book, she told the story behind a house built in 1637. “William knew just the kind of house he wanted,” her story opens. And soon she’s revealed that William is settling in America, though he was born in England.

“William cleared an area 20 feet square,” Howard writes, dedicating a whole page to the saplings and trees used for posts and fences. Since they don’t have any glass, William uses a translucent animal horn to create a window for his wife. Then he builds a fireplace in the corner, and stuffs corn husks into a bag to make a bed.

In fact, if this book has a fault, it’s that there’s too many details. Howard lists out the tasty dishes eaten by William and Elizabeth, and the problems with their stored food that tells them it’s time to build a cool cellar. In August the winds blow, and William realizes that “It is windier here than at home in England.” So to save the home from being crushed by a falling tree, William next cuts down all his trees.

The illustrations are colrful, drawn by an advertising storyboard artist named Larry Day. Day has two children, and used them as models for the children in “William’s House.” I like how he used an old-fashioned font on the title page, with a parchment scroll over a rustic landscape with birds in the sky. But like Howard, this is Day’s first book, and I wondered if that gave him an extra enthusiasm – or a novice’s uncertainty?

In the story, William puts shingles on his roof in autumn. Then in winter he replaces it with an even steeper roof to keep the snow from piling up. In January he builds a bigger fireplace. And when he realizes that it’s nothing like his home in England, he also realizes something else. “This is our new home. Welcome!”

Unfortunately, that’s the end of the book. Its whole story is about a construction project! But luckily, there’s a secret second story that’s scattered throughout the book. As Day’s watercolors illustrate the father’s worries about his house, Day tucks black and white sketches of William’s boys playing in the nearby woods. It’s a crucial component to the story, because it gives it an extra playfulness, and even some childish warmth.

Howard’s text may offer a peek into 1637 – but thanks to Day’s cheerful drawings, readers also get two more!

Bewildered for Three Days, As to Why Daniel Boone Never Wore His Coonskin Cap, by Andrew Glass

Bewildered for Three Days, As to Why Daniel Boone Never Wore His Coonskin Cap, by Andrew Glass

What do Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, and Johnny Appleseed have in common? They’ve all appeared in children’s books by Andrew Glass. But in 2000, Glass turned his attention to Daniel Boone, the famous Kentucky frontiersman. Glass starts with a true piece of history – that Daniel Boone never actually wore a coonskin cap – then invents a tall tale that explains why!

Writing about Indians is a delicate subject, but Glass finds a way to have it both ways. A young Daniel Boone farms a “hardscrabble” field with his brothers, they’re suddenly surprised by a tribe of Cherokees. Glass writes their “warriors burst through the trees, shrieking and waving hatchets.” But it turns out they’re friendly Indians, who have come to protect them from a more hostile tribe. “It was only a terrifying misunderstanding,” explains Daniel Boone’s mother.

Glass’s illustrations are almost impressionistic, with bright colors, almost like an American Gauguin. It seems oddly appropriate for a story set in the mid-1700s. Glass mixes some real history into his tale, and soon the Indian’s son is telling Daniel Boon about a fertile farming land that waits beyond the dark mountains. And Glass drew a funny illustration of Boone waking in the woods, only to discover a hairy bear standing over him.

It’s difficult to be both the illustrator and the author, and Glass sometimes offers too many details. He devotes a whole page to Boone’s thought process, explaining why he decided to chase the bear who had stolen his coonskin cap. But Glass seems determined to present a sympathetic explanation for the Indians’ hostility. (“The Delaware [Indians] live in the forest and love the savage wilderness as their mother. When we ask them to honor our fences, it is an unreasonable thing we ask.”)

There’s some exciting scenes, like when young Daniel Boone jumps off a 60-foot cliff to escape an attacking tribe of Indians. (The Indians gawk as Boone lands in a tall tree, while the text explains the rest of Boone’s escape.) Boone ends up hiding in a hollow log – all night – while the tribe of braves camps for the night, never realizing how close he is. Boone intrudes on a family of raccoons, and to thank them for his hide-out, he promises, “sure and solemn: I will never again wear any of your kin on my head.”

In an author’s note at the end of the book, Andrew Glass admits that Boone probably just preferred wearing a wide-brimmed hat. But he thought a promise to raccoons would be more dramatic!

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.”

Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing, by April Jones Prince

 Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing, by April Jones Prince

In 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge was completed, and the magic moment is captured in a story by April Jones Prince. “For 14 years they’d watched it rise,” she writes, “the cities’ schoolteachers, bankers, cabinetmakers, pointing and gawking, ooohing and aaahing…” The woven steel cables are “graceful and strong, like stairways straight to the stars.” Prince describes the achievement with a kind of poetry in 21 Elephants and Still Standing, and she spins a good story out of the people’s reactions!

“New York and Brooklyn, dwarfed by its arches, knew the future had entered their sights.” Fireworks are launched for hours, and “flags waved, bands played, kids hoorayed before bigwigs in top hats galore.” But Prince knows that the real excitement comes from the people moved by the event. She imagines them thinking about the things they’ll do, and marveling at its architecture in the streets below.

“But so long and so lofty, its cable so new – some had to ask, Is it safe?”

It’s Prince’s first book for Houghton Mifflin, but she’s helped along with some suitably grand illustrations that were contributed by Francois Roca. He draws platforms crossing over paddle-wheel steamships, and a boy sailing under the bridge as fireworks explode in the sky. But when questions are raised about safety, the bridge is shown in the shadow of a cloud. Sunlight shines on the river and it lights up the clouds – but the Brooklyn Bridge is a dark silhouette. “Who wants to bargain THIS bridge won’t dance in the wind?”

“Both the bridge and [P.T.] Barnum embodied the audacious, can-do spirit of the latter 1800s,” Prince writes on the book’s jacket, “and their coming together seemed a perfect, outrageous window on the times.” Her book describes the famous circus owner as “larger than life,” a “world-famous showman” whose ideas “weren’t contained by a tent.” And Prince shares the wonderful story of a May evening in 1884, when Jumbo the elephant marched down Broadway, past City Hall, “past mothers, fathers, and children.”

It’s a true story, and it’s one worth remembering. (To verify the story, author Prince “traveled to museums and libraries, scrolled through old newspapers, viewed documentaries, scoured books old and new, and called upon experts.”) All of P.T. Barnum’s elephants filed onto the Brooklyn Bridge – twenty-one elephants in all. And when they came out the other side, it’s P.T. Barnum that assure the crowd that the bridge must be sound.

As white fireworks lit up the sky.

The Ride: The Legend of Betsy Dowdy

The Ride: The Legend of Betsy Dowdy

Here’s a good book about American History for girls. “Can one girl save the Revolution?” asks the cover of The Ride. The book tells the inspiring true story of a young girl named Betsy Dowdy who performed her own version of Paul Revere’s famous ride. “In Elizabeth City, North Carolina, the Daughters of the American Revolution named their chapter after Betsy Dowdy,” explains an author’s note at the end of the book. It’s a colorful children’s picture book, but it was based on her legendary real exploits more than 200 years ago.

“Sometimes legends start in the quietest of places,” the book begins. This one started in North Carolina, where the King’s soldiers are shown pointing their rifles threateningly at a colonist who wants freedom. “When 16-year-old Betsy Dowdy heard Papa talk about war approaching, she felt as helpless as a ghost crab skittering along the sand,” writes author Kitty Griffin. But the nearest rebel militia is 50 miles away, and Betsy suddenly overhears a message that a man in a boat delivers to her father. “Lord Dunore and the redcoats are marching to Great Bridge. They’re after your ponies and our supplies!”

Betsy packs her supplies – a wool cloak, a knife – and scratches a note for her father with white chalk on a piece of slate. She whistles for her horse, telling her “We’re riding for freedom,” and then fords across the cold water of the river. The night air is cold as she rides through the forest, and after many miles she explains her mission to a ferry boat owner, and begs for a ride across the river.

“You’re a pepper pot, Betsy Dowdy,” he says, and it is a very exciting story. The book’s illustrations are very colorful, sometimes filled with bright and engaging yellows and sometimes with dark, moody purples and blues. Illustrator Marjorie Priceman had already won two Caldecott Honor awards, and her simple style is fun and effective. As Betsy leaves the ferryman, she’s shown galloping again through the purple night-forest of North Carolina.

“Liberty is our dream,” says the ferryman, and Betsy repeats the word to comfort herself. She sees a snarling fox, and she’s even knocked off her horse by a tree branch. But her horse neighs for attention, and she takes it as a sign to continue. And eventually an orange light rises as she reaches the militia rebels’ camp.

This would be a great book for children, because it makes the American revolution accessible to even the youngest readers. (At the general’s camp, there’s even the flag with a snake labeled Don’t Tread On Me.) It’s got everything you could want in a children’s picture book – it’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s brightly-illustrated.

It teaches a lesson about perseverance, and about history – but it’s also just a really great read.