February 01, 2018


A Peaceful Garden. By Lucy London. Pictures by Christa Pierce. Harper. $17.99.

Dear Girl,. By Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Paris Rosenthal. Illustrated by Holly Hatam. Harper. $17.99.

Martin Luther King Jr.: A Peaceful Leader. By Sarah Albee. Pictures by Chin Ko. Harper. $16.99.

     Peace means different things to different people, from “absence of war” to “inner calm.” This means that books for young readers can explore varying aspects of peace and peacefulness, offering different sorts of messages about quiet, serenity, and allied concepts. It also means authors can become a bit cloying when presenting their ideas. A Peaceful Garden will be a touch too sweet for some families, despite being well-intentioned from start to finish. There is no plot per se. Instead, Lucy London simply shows two cats digging a garden, with cute Christa Pierce illustrations to emphasize various points. London says “dig yourself a patch (soft soil is best – no clumps!),” and Pierce shows the cats digging and one of them picking up a smiling worm on a trowel and smiling back at it. London says, “A peaceful garden is for growing many things you might want to eat,” and continues in praise of carrots and peas, and then adds, “Lettuces are always lovely, don’t you think?” And Pierce shows the cats selecting seeds and digging holes in which to plant them. There are references to bees, butterflies, and blackbirds that enjoy things that grow in gardens, and how to attract some of these creatures, and London writes, “plook-plook-plook go the seeds. Very nice. Little paws can tuck them in.” Pierce shows the cats’ paws doing just that, and labeling the planted areas, and keeping everything watered because “water is important for growing things.” The narration continues at this level, which is more usually seen in board books than in ones intended, like A Peaceful Garden, for somewhat older readers. “What a pretty patch you’ve made,” London writes, and Pierce shows the garden growing extremely quickly – a touch of unreality there in what is otherwise a pretty good guide to growing flowers and vegetables. This is a sweet book that tips over into being a bit treacly: intended for ages 4-8, it will be most enjoyable for kids at the younger end of that age range.

     The same 4-8 age range is targeted by a book that stands as, among other things, a tribute to Amy Krouse Rosenthal (1965-2017) and includes material both by her and by her daughter, Paris Rosenthal. The book is in the tradition of such Dr. Seuss works as Happy Birthday to You! and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! That is, it seems to be addressed to individual readers, telling each a story all his or her own rather than offering a more-general narrative. But this Rosenthal offering tries a little too hard, as evidenced by its title, Dear Girl, – in which the comma is, confusingly and unnecessarily, part of the title. The idea behind this is to make the book a series of notes to each girl reading the book (which is for girls only), with the totality adding up to, in the words that appear on the cover, “A celebration of wonderful, smart, beautiful you!” So one page starts, “Dear Girl, Look at yourself in the mirror.” Another begins, “Dear Girl, Do you know that there is no such thing as asking too many questions?” And another opens, “Dear Girl, Make your room awesome.” The intent is fine, but the execution is somewhat awkward, and the text has none of the charm of the words of Dr. Seuss (admittedly an unfair comparison: almost nothing does). Holly Hatam’s illustrations lighten and enlighten matters enjoyably: one entire wall is covered with excerpts from Alice in Wonderland, written directly on the wall itself (as if on Lewis Carroll wallpaper), and one girl’s room includes a poster of Amelia Earhart bearing the quote, “Adventure is worthwhile in itself.” The intent of the book is to have girls feel good about themselves no matter what is going on, no matter what they are doing, no matter what feelings they may be having: “Dear Girl, Sometimes you just need a good cry.” The whole book is uplifting, determined to teach girls to be happy and at peace with themselves; and even though it pushes that uplift a bit too intensely, its heart is certainly in the right place. The best part of the book is the way Hatam’s work gently and effectively enlarges the text again and again. In one of the most telling illustrations, the text says, “Dear Girl, Find people like you,” and shows three girl soccer players of different races – while the next page, “Find people unlike you,” shows three non-soccer players (including a skateboarder and a painter) who are also of different races. This is a subtle and excellent way of indicating, without ever saying so directly, that “like” and “unlike” need have nothing at all to do with superficialities such as race or ethnicity.

     Of course, for many years – and even today – people have believed that race and ethnicity are what make people similar or different, and therefore justify different treatment (legal and otherwise) of those whose superficial appearance differs from that of the majority. In the United States, unequal treatment has been directed at all sorts of groups: Catholics, Native Americans, Orientals, Italians, Irish. But overt race-based separation in the past most directly hit African-Americans, and many in this group, which as a whole represents 13% of the current U.S. population, continue to accuse the nation of falling short when it comes to equal treatment. Those accusations in recent times have often been associated with violent protests, but stories such as that of Martin Luther King Jr. show that violence is not the best way to a better world. Sarah Albee’s very short book about King is at Level 2 in the “I Can Read!” series (“high-interest stories for developing readers”), but tries to go beyond the constraints of its format by keeping Albee’s narrative exceptionally short and including seven pages of a timeline and photographs at the back of the book. Albee bites off a bit more than she can chew here, reducing King’s story to very minimal length. She does hit several of the high points, though, and Chin Ko’s straightforward illustrations add to the hagiography of the text. The most telling points here are the ones of small things in King’s early life that, Albee suggests, helped form his eventual character, such as the time he “accidentally stepped on a white lady’s toe” and she “slapped him and called him a bad name,” but he “did not react with anger” because he “believed that bravery meant peacefully standing your ground.” Inevitably in a book of this type, this is a vast oversimplification – the consequences for young King would have been dire if he had reacted angrily – but the point is made that even as a child, King did not walk an angry or violent road. Martin Luther King Jr.: A Peaceful Leader is far too short and superficial to be more than a very basic introduction to King’s life and times, and 21st-century children are sure to wonder why there was differing treatment, “in the United States in the 1950s,” of “black people and white people.” It is certainly true that that was quite a long time ago, in a society very different from today’s. But Albee’s book and its portrayal of the peaceful nature of King’s battle against a far more restrictive society than now exists may help contemporary children and their families put in perspective the ugly, violent response to real but far less pervasive instances of mistreatment 50 years after King’s death.

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