January 22, 2015


Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution. By Mara Rockliff. Pictures by Vincent X. Kirsch. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

A Violin for Elva. By Mary Lyn Ray. Illustrated by Tricia Tusa. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

     A wonderful, much-simplified retelling of one of the great stories of the American Revolution, Mara Rockliff’s Gingerbread for Liberty! contains so many improbable events that it reads like pure fiction – all the more so because of the highly innovative cut-paper illustrations by Vincent X. Kirsch, which give the whole book the sheen of a fairy tale. Yet the book hews remarkably closely to fact in its tale of a German-born American colonist who so loved his adopted country that he volunteered to fight for independence when he was 55 years old – only to be turned down as a fighter and asked instead to ply his trade as a baker to feed the hungry Continental Army. Yes, as the book says, Christopher Ludwick (or Ludwig) really did induce Hessian mercenaries, fighting for the British, to desert and join the American side – where they would be well-fed and have a chance to settle in Philadelphia, as Ludwick had, and make better lives for themselves. Yes, he did go behind enemy lines to persuade Hessians to defect. After the war ended, he did bake 6,000 pounds of bread to feed the defeated Redcoats. Besides all that, what did not even fit into Rockliff’s book was his marriage to an Indian princess (his wife gets only a brief mention); George Washington’s gift of a handwritten certificate of good conduct to a man Washington called “my honest friend”; and Ludwick’s tireless efforts after the war to help the poor, sick, and others in need. Even without those elements, this book is packed with fascination. Ludwick really did make a fortune as a gingerbread baker and confectioner in Philadelphia. He really did sneak into a Hessian camp (on Staten Island, New York) and persuade some mercenaries to desert and move to Philadelphia. And he really was on good and personal terms with Washington. Even the fanciful elements of the book make sense: Rockliff imagines Ludwick rowing to a Hessian camp while thinking the German words for “revolution,” “independence” and “liberty” – and he likely did something very much of that sort. She imagines that he may have made gingerbread as well as ordinary bread for Cornwallis’ troops – and while no one knows if he did, he was, after all, known as an excellent gingerbread maker, so this is possible. The story has a wealth of information told with a wealth of humor – for example, the illustration of very tall and very lean Hessians bending eagerly toward the short, plump, moon-lit figure of Ludwick is an especially amusing image. The book has fine bonuses, too, including an author’s note that gives additional information on Ludwick, and a recipe for gingerbread cookies that may not be 18th-century-authentic but that can be a lot of fun for young readers and their families to try.

     The deliciousness is of a different sort – a rather bittersweet one – in Mary Lyn Ray’s A Violin for Elva, a story about wishes that eventually come true when it is almost (but, luckily, not quite) too late. Elva is a little girl who hears music in her head and wants a violin so she can make more of it. But her parents, for reasons that are not very clear, refuse to get her one (kids who read the book are likely to ask why not, and since Ray does not explain, adult readers should consider possible scenarios). So Elva, instead of asking for an instrument again, simply pretends she has one, “performing” with sports equipment, her toothbrush and anything else she can get her hands on, “playing music only she could hear.” Her parents never reappear after their refusal to get Elva a violin, so their reaction to all this is unknown. Instead, Ray traces Elva quickly from childhood to adulthood, when she has “appointments and important meetings” but still longs for a violin. Elva regales herself with recorded music (today’s parents may have to explain vinyl records to today’s kids) and talks with her dog to keep herself in touch with something other than her own feelings (she lives alone and certainly does not look happy in Tricia Tusa’s illustrations). Eventually, after deciding it is never too late to indulge in a childhood dream, Elva buys herself a violin – and soon finds that it is far from easy to play. Despite her determination to learn on her own, she is disappointed again and again – until she finally gets up the courage to buy lessons from a violin teacher. And then she does learn to play – maybe not exceptionally well, but well enough to fulfill her childhood wish. The picture of the teacher’s students playing together – all of them young children except for adult Elva – is the most touching in the book, and rather sad as well for what it says about all the years Elva lost. But it is not the final picture – indeed, the one just afterwards, illustrating the words, “Elva was making music,” is as joyous as can be, showing Elva completely captured and enraptured by her own ability to play the violin at last. This is a sweetly meant book that is less immediately uplifting than are most picture books for young readers. The front and back covers show sheet-music excerpts from Mozart’s well-known serenade, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (“A Little Night Music”), and in a sense, that is what A Violin for Elva is about: the chance to make music after so many years, before night ultimately falls on one’s life. This is a more-thoughtful, more-cautionary message than is typical in children’s books, a fact to which parents should be sensitive – especially if their kids, like Elva, ask to play a musical instrument when they are young enough to have many decades of enjoyment ahead of themselves.

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