April 20, 2017
North, South, East, West. By Margaret Wise Brown. Pictures by Greg Pizzoli. Harper. $17.99.
Places to Be. By Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Renata Liwska. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Kids in the 4-8 age range have a great deal to learn and balance, including the wish to explore and the simultaneous wish to stay with what is familiar. This desire lies at the core of North, South, East, West, a previously unpublished story by Margaret Wise Brown (1910-1952) brought charmingly to life by Greg Pizzoli with illustrations that superimpose simple shapes like layers of tissue paper and in so doing produce lovely color changes: a bird’s light-blue wings, for instance, when seen over her red body, turn a darker shade that blends both hues. The story, as befits a tale for this age range and as is typical of Brown’s work, is at its core very simple and charmingly poetic. A mother bird gets her nestling ready to fly away to a home of her own by teaching her “to fly above and below the storms,/ and to glide on the strength of the wind.” But where shall the young bird go? She wonders aloud, “When I fly away, which is best?/ North, South, East, or West?” This is left for her to discover on her own, just as young readers must eventually discover it for themselves. And so the little bird flies “to the North,/ to a land of ice and snow,” but finds it too cold. Then she flies to the South, but “it was too hot there to build a nest,” so she rests a bit and flies to the West – only to find herself thinking that for all the interesting things she has seen in the North, South and West, “the East was home.” And so she flies back “to where the land was soft and green with rain,/ and the sycamore trees grew tall,” and that is where she remains to grow bigger and have a family of her own. And of course, when her nestlings come out of their eggs, they ask exactly the same question that the bird asked at the beginning of the book – which way is best to fly? Now the bird and her mate (who has one of his wings wrapped delicately around her) smile at the three little ones asking the question; and the very last page of the book, which has no words at all, shows the small birds flying off in three different directions – to discover their own “best” place or, perhaps, to return, as their mother did, to the place that will always be home. North, South, East, West has a deeply reassuring message that is beautifully conveyed by Brown’s text, and Pizzoli’s art fits so well with the words that it is almost as if the previously untold story was waiting for these illustrations to come into being so its message could be properly conveyed.
Mac Barnett’s Places to Be has some of the same simplicity of style as books like Brown’s, and Renata Liwska’s illustrations fit it very well (if not quite as seamlessly as Pizzoli’s fit North, South, East, West). But Places to Be is a different sort of book, about an older and younger sibling – bear cubs, in this case – who together explore both their neighborhood and their emotions. Together they find “places to be tall” (the smaller one stands on the larger one’s head to reach a ball stuck in a tree), “places to be loud” (they yell as the bike they are on careens down a hill), “places to be mad” (they face opposite ways on a bench after a quarrel), “places to be brave” (a high diving board), “places to be picky” (at the table with nothing on their plates but vegetables), and so on. What makes Barnett’s book special is that it does not sugarcoat childhood or the bears’ relationship. The bigger bear’s place “to be bored” is in a hospital bed while his broken leg heals; there is a place “to be sullen” (a good vocabulary word, explained by the two bears being unable to buy ice cream because the stand that sells it is closed); and there is a place “to be jubilant” (another good vocabulary word, associated with a fireworks display). The interaction of the two bear siblings seems completely natural and unforced, certainly with the inevitable ups and downs that all brothers and sisters face, but with an underlying current of real love. This is shown through a kind of “framing story” in which, near the book’s start, the bigger bear’s skateboard breaks, putting him in a place that is “blue and purple” – and at the end, the two bears work together to make a new skateboard that the bigger bear rides on the final page as the smaller one rides a bike. The warmth of the bears’ relationship does not prevent all problems or solve all difficulties – a very good lesson for kids in the target age range – but it persists despite the inevitable bumps in the emotional road, and that is what really matters. Places to Be would be an especially good read-aloud book for a child, whether younger or older, who is trying to cope with the irritations and hassles of a brother or sister. The book shows that the ultimate place to be is together – a worthy lesson for kids of any age.