Friday, February 25, 2011

The Legacy of the Bicycle

The bicycle is making a comeback today largely because of its affordability, portability, and its ecological friendliness. In the late 19th century, when it was first introduced in America, the bicycle revolutionized the lives of ordinary citizens, especially women and African Americans. Sue Macy’s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (with a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) charts the dramatic changes that resulted from the bicycle.

When you think about it, when we were kids, as soon as we could ride a bike our lives changed dramatically. We could ride to a friend’s house who lived two miles away instead of just playing a pick-up game of kickball with the neighborhood kids. We could ride to the Dairy Queen and buy an ice cream cone, ride to a piano lesson or football practice. It gave us independence, too.

For women at the end of the 19th century, one change set off many others. Not only could they get around freely and efficiently, but women also invented things to help them hold their skirts in place or carry groceries home, designed bloomers so they wouldn’t have to ride sidesaddle, and they could exercise. There were political debates about whether women should be allowed to ride. Some of the opposition was even led by other women! Charlotte Smith, for instance, fought for the rights of female workers for 15 years, but focused much of her wrath on the bicycle, calling it “the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.” On the other hand, Albert Augustus Pope, the man who through his manufacturing and marketing innovations single-handedly propelled the bicycle to the peak of its popularity, took a stand (through his advertisements) in favor of bloomers. The bicycle may have gone out of favor in 1897, but the changes it helped bring about remain.

Learn more about the bicycle’s influence in this interview with author Sue Macy.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Extended Family

The relationship between the third-grade heroine and her grandfather forms the core of Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream by Jenny Han, illustrated by Julia Kuo. It’s relatively rare to find new books with portrayals of an intergenerational family living together under the same roof.

Tomie dePaola’s Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs and his 26 Fairmount Avenue books spring to mind. And for older readers, there’s Paul Fleischman’s The Borning Room, and two books by Sharon Creech—Heartbeat and Granny Torelli Makes Soup. And one of my favorite tributes to intergenerational families and relationships is a nonfiction title—Eloise Greenfield's book written with her mother, Lessie Jones Little, Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, which covers life from the late 19th-century through the mid-20th-century. This was (and is) a common experience for many families, especially when they were first arriving in the United States.

Clara Lee confides everything in Grandpa, including her wish to be Little Miss Apple Pie in their town’s Apple Blossom Festival. Grandpa’s unfamiliarity with some of the rituals of the Apple Blossom Festival gives Clara Lee reason to explain them (for his as well as readers’ benefit). And when her anxiety about preparing for the contest causes her to grow impatient with her six-year-old sister, Emmeline, Grandpa may be gentler with the third-grader than perhaps her parents would be, but his disappointment in her behavior makes a greater impact on Clara Lee.

In the book’s most poignant scene, Clara Lee tells her grandfather about Miss Little Apple Pie hopeful Dionne Gregory bragging to Clara Lee that her great-great-great-uncle was one of their town’s founding fathers, and that her family is “as American as apple pie.” His response—that her Korean American heritage makes her more of a person, not less of a person—provides the perfect reassurance for Clara Lee. He gives Clara Lee a way of perceiving herself that will far outlast a Little Miss Apple Pie crown.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Child's-Eye View

There’s Going to Be a Baby by John Burningham, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, unfolds as an ongoing conversation between mother and child. It’s an exploration of how things will change when their new baby arrives. Each activity—a meal in a restaurant, a visit to the zoo, an errand at the bank—presents a way for the mother to gently reintroduce the topic of the forthcoming addition to their family (“Maybe when the baby grows up, it will be a chef and work in a restaurant,” his mother suggests). Yet Burningham and Oxenbury remain entirely within the child’s perspective.

The boy’s fantasies of his new baby brother or sister as a chef or a zookeeper or—best of all—a banker bring comic relief. The scenes between mother and child remain within a realistic context. The child’s fantasies unfold as pixelated comics-style panels, such as the images of the banker-baby in a button-down shirt and tie counting piles of coins. The fantasies gauge the boy’s emotional ups and downs: when his mother says the baby might grow up to be a zookeeper, he says, “Then the baby might get eaten by a tiger” (not to worry—the boy’s fantasy shows only the infant’s exhaustion from cleaning zebras and feeding seals in a series of windowpane illustrations). At one point, just when the young hero seems to be warming up to the idea of a new sister or brother, he stands up in the tub and pronounces, “Mrs. Anderson’s baby threw up all over their new carpet.” Surely Mommy won’t bring a baby home now! The impact of his pronouncement feels more forceful because it’s spoken by the child not in response to his mother’s imagined future for the baby-to-come, but instead arises from his own thoughts during one of his daily rituals--taking a bath.

This is a journey of a child’s resistance to and gradual acceptance of the notion of a new baby in his home. The ending feels pitch-perfect. The boy confides in his Grandad, and his words reveal how much consideration he has given to this forthcoming change. He reviews highlights of the conversations he’s had with his mother: “Maybe it will be Susan or Peter. Maybe it will be good at cooking.” Author and artist keep the focus completely on the boy hero: “Grandad, the baby will be our baby. We’re going to love the baby, aren’t we?” Young readers who have trepidation about impending changes to their own families can see that other children have also been through this experience, and they are not alone in these confusing feelings.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

No Gimmicks

Let us pause for a moment in praise of books that use design in service of their content.

So many books have flaps to lift or tabs to pull, or parts that pop up, and for no apparent reason, other than to give children something to do—a gimmick. One Blue Fish by Charles Reasoner, on the other hand, is a perfectly designed book. Each element of the book serves its sole purpose: to introduce youngest book lovers to colors, numbers, and creatures they are likely to encounter in their own surroundings.

Each number, spelled out, appears on the left in big, chubby, easy-to-read letters. The corresponding numeral is displayed--die-cut, or cut out in the shape of the numeral--on the right. With repeated readings, children start to see that the two belong together. They learn to identify the letters in the words, and the sounds they make. And when they look beneath the numeral, they see that the single “blue fish” goes with the “one” and the “1.” It’s a book they will want to come back to again and again because of the element of surprise. It becomes a peek-a-boo game, as they grow confident about what they will find under each number-shaped flap.

As with the best children’s books, the simplicity of One Blue Fish’s design is deceptive. Yet a book this clean, with all of its parts working together seamlessly, is very difficult to achieve.