April 05, 2012


Laundry Day. By Maurie J. Manning. Clarion. $16.99.

The Little House. By Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

     A tale of big-city tenements told with surpassing innovation and in celebration of the now-old-fashioned notion of the American “melting pot,” Maurie J. Manning’s Laundry Day is the deceptively simple story of a young boy who finds a red cloth when he heads out of his apartment into the crowded streets to try to make a little money by shining shoes. Manning sets the time in the early 20th century by showing horse-drawn vehicles and period clothing, and makes the boy’s poverty evident through his repeated unsuccessful attempts to find someone’s shoes to shine. But instead of dwelling on problems, this boy looks up from the curb in wonder – in a beautifully drawn scene showing how the buildings and clotheslines appear from below – when a long piece of red cloth flutters down onto him. Putting his supplies behind some boxes for safekeeping, the boy takes the fallen fabric and starts climbing up from the street to the apartments in the closest building, trying to find the cloth’s owner and encountering someone of different ethnicity each time he rises higher. He helps a Chinese woman fold laundry, but the cloth is not hers; he shimmies across a clothesline to ask a prospector who is reading about the Klondike if he lost the cloth, and helps retrieve the man’s hat when it blows off, but again, no luck; the cloth does not belong to the Ukrainian family with the new baby, the Italian organ grinder, the four Polish girls – it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s. Manning does a wonderful job portraying the different households and showing the shoeshine boy interacting with kids and adults alike as he climbs, higher, ever higher, eventually connecting with a Jamaican lady who claims the cloth – it is her headscarf – and brings a little magic into the boy’s life after he shimmies down the drainpipe to get back to the street. Laundry Day is an entrancing book and a very unusual one, with a clear sense of time and place, of hustle and bustle, of the immigrant experience, and of the sheer joy of a journey through multiple cultures.

     A city tale of a different sort, The Little House is now 70 years old and as sweet a fable as ever. Virginia Lee Burton (1909-1968) based the book, which won a Caldecott Medal, on her own house; the new, 70th-anniversary edition includes a CD with two readings by Lorraine Lee Hammond (one with page-turn signals, one without, both with music composed by Hammond), plus an introduction by Burton’s son, sculptor Aristides Burton Demetrios. The ancillary material is fine, and often informative – for instance, Demetrios points out the way Burton kept the house in the same place on each page for almost the whole book, having things happen around it while maintaining its centrality. Still, it is the original words and pictures that Burton created that are the main attraction here. The story goes back even further into the past than does Laundry Day, to a time when the house was out in the country, happily watching the seasons change – a time when the city was distant, a time well before the “horseless carriage.” Burton imagines how a country house might have felt, if it could feel, as the city began to encroach on it, as roads were built, housing developments sprang up, and “everyone and everything moved much faster now than before.” And then “no one wanted to live in her and take care of her any more,” Burton writes, with the personalization that is a hallmark of the book; and after many years, the Little House is actually surrounded by the much-expanded city, where “everyone seemed to be very busy and everyone seemed to be in a hurry,” until eventually “her paint was cracked and dirty” and “she looked shabby” amid skyscrapers, cars, buses, elevated trains and lots and lots of people. But there is a happy ending in store for the Little House, and the final line of the book, “all was quiet and peaceful in the country,” brings this “once upon a time” story full circle in a blend of nostalgia and wistfulness that is as lovely today as when the book was first published in 1942.

     The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse is an even older tale, based on one of Aesop’s fables and reimagined by Paul Galdone in a book originally published in 1971. The attractive new edition gives today’s children a chance to see Galdone’s colorful illustrations and to follow his version of the story, in which the elegantly dressed town mouse refers to the country mouse’s home as a “dismal place” and the food as “rustic fare,” luring his old friend to town – and to court – with tales of “dancing and feasting and all kinds of merriment.” So the humble country mouse – dressed like a friar, in a plain brown robe tied with rope – heads to town with his friend, and indeed encounters a table where “there were creams and jellies and sweetmeats,” fine cheese and delicious champagne. But there are also threats, with which the town mouse is quite familiar but the country mouse is not: Galdone’s drawings of the open-mouthed, large-fanged cat and the scowling servants (seen from mouse height) clearly communicate the country mouse’s terror. The country mouse realizes, in a typical Aesopian moral, “‘What good is elegance without ease, or plenty with an aching heart?’” And so he heads home to “the peace and quiet of his cottage,” the same peace and quiet that Burton’s Little House finds at the end of that book. Cities do have their pleasures, but for the Little House and the country mouse, they are not worth the tradeoffs – although certainly Laundry Day shows the humane side of city life (old-fashioned city life, to be sure) to very good effect.

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