April 21, 2016


The Hole Story of the Doughnut. By Pat Miller. Illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

The Dead Bird. By Margaret Wise Brown. Pictures by Christian Robinson. Harper. $17.99.

     A strange narrative featuring a mixture of serious and amusing facts, Pat Miller’s The Hole Story of the Doughnut is the tale of Hanson Gregory (1831-1921), who went to sea at age 13 as a cabin boy and worked his way up – literally up for a time, in a sailing ship’s rigging – to become a ship’s captain and the heroic rescuer of seven Spanish sailors who had fallen into frigid water and would have drowned without his assistance. Gregory received a medal for that feat – but it has nothing much to do with the book’s main topic. That subject is one of those fascinating origin-of-common-objects stories that are invariably fascinating when well presented, as this one is. It seems that Gregory, who for a time – at age 16 – was a cook’s assistant, had the job of making sinkers: fried dough balls that sailors had for breakfast in the 1840s and that got their name because their centers were raw and so greasy that the pastries sank rapidly into the stomach. One day in 1847, Hanson wondered if something could be done about those raw centers of the fried dough balls, so he punched the centers out with the lid of a pepper can before frying the dough in lard, and thus created a shape that has since become world-famous: the doughnut. Despite skepticism from the cook and crew, Hanson’s odd-looking dough concoctions, originally known as “holey cakes,” delighted sailors and, soon, landlubbers as well, when Hanson told his mother about them and she started making them for sale ashore. The strangeness of this story is not so much in what happened as in what people later said had happened in order to make the discovery of doughnuts seem more dramatic. Miller explains – aided by very effective Vincent X. Kirsch illustrations – that sailors prefer bold stories to simple ones, so they created legends about doughnuts, such as one in which Captain Gregory, wrestling a ship’s wheel during a ferocious storm, speared an old-fashioned sinker on one of the wheel’s spokes and knocked out the cake’s center, thus creating the doughnut while saving the ship. There was no truth to that, nor to a claim – recounted by Miller at the back of the book, opposite a fine photo of Gregory holding a half-eaten doughnut – that the grandmother of a man named Henry Ellis had actually created the doughnut (Ellis later admitted that claim was just a publicity stunt). The Hole Story of the Doughnut is one of those wonderful tales that do not seem to be educational but really are – and, in this case, it is a story that will make young readers look with new knowledge and perhaps greater admiration at a food that is now ubiquitous but that did not exist at all until a little more than a century and a half ago.

     The intent of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Dead Bird also appears to be to give young readers a new perspective on something and to leave them perhaps wiser, perhaps sadder. But that intent is not entirely clear. Originally published in 1938 and now available in a brand-new edition with illustrations by Christian Robinson (replacing earlier ones by Remy Charlip), this (+++) book is certainly well-meaning but is also rather strange, and not in any offbeat or amusing way. The simple story has four children – multiracial and multi-ethnic, as is typical in kids’ books nowadays – walking in a park with their dog and finding a dead bird. “Sorry the bird was dead and could never fly again” but “glad they had found it because now they could dig a grave in the woods and bury it,” the children, not looking sad at all, make a hole in the ground with the help of the dog, and put ferns and flowers in and on the grave as they bury the bird and sing a song about it. Then they cry “because their singing was so beautiful and the ferns smelled so sweetly and the bird was dead” – and here they do indeed look sad, although the dog tries to cheer them up. They mark the bird’s grave with a stone and plant some flowers around it, and then – well, then the book comes to an abrupt and rather peculiar end with the sentence, “And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave.” And the scene shows happy children running, dancing, flying a kite and playing while, on the opposite page and deep in the woods, the bird’s grave remains visible. The tone of The Dead Bird is uneven and its meaning unclear – is Brown showing how wonderfully caring the children are, or how death is just a natural end to life, or how kids, like adults, eventually forget graves and stop visiting them, or something else? The book lacks empathy for either the children or the bird, which is surprising in a narrative by the author of The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon but perhaps simply shows that even excellent writers of children’s books have their off days. Robinson’s pictures are pretty enough, and the addition of a dog with human expressions (smiles, looks of concern) is an interesting touch. But The Dead Bird ultimately falls flat both as narrative and as teaching tool (if that is what it is supposed to be). Parents fond of Brown’s other books may be drawn to this one, but would do well to read it themselves and think through its mixed and unclear message before sharing it with their children.

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