October 04, 2018


Eliza: The Story of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. By Margaret McNamara. Artwork by Esmé Shapiro. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Unstinky. By Andy Rash. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.

     Increasingly, books for young readers are exploring the outsiders, the unknowns, the people and circumstances that have not been included in traditional histories and narratives – sometimes to rehabilitate people to whom history has been less than kind, sometimes to draw attention to ones whom history has ignored. There is a special push nowadays to tell the stories of women who were historically important but who are far less known than men of the same time, including ones who did many of the same things. The inclusionary impulse can sometimes, because of political correctness, be taken to absurd lengths, as happened recently when astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell was awarded $3 million for her role in discovering pulsars, and it was widely reported as a 50-years-later righting of a wrong in which the Nobel Prize had been given to a man in her lab rather than to her – when in fact what happened was that Nobel rules forbade giving the prize to a student, which is what Burnell was at the time; gender had absolutely nothing to do with the award. On the other hand, sometimes paying attention to previously under-noticed historical characters does feel like redressing a balance, as in the case of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. Like other women of her time, she was quite deliberately self-effacing and saw her role as the promotion and assistance of her husband, Alexander Hamilton, who by all accounts adored her. But in the 21st century, the notion of being a great man’s modest helper is no longer deemed attractive, especially when someone has genuine accomplishments of her own – as Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton did. Hence we have Eliza, a nicely written bit of hagiography in which Alexander Hamilton gets little more than a couple of passing references and the focus is determinedly on his wife/widow. One remarkable thing about Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was her longevity: she lived from 1757 until 1854, a 97-year-span that would be exceptional even today and was nothing short of extraordinary in her own time. And what Margaret McNamara shows in Eliza is that Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton accomplished a great deal in her long life in addition to what she did to preserve Alexander Hamilton’s writings and thoughts. She founded a school to teach children whose parents could not afford to have their children educated, in a time before the United States had public schools. And she co-founded the first orphanage in New York State and New York City, an institution that still exists under a different name and with a somewhat altered purpose. She also knew all 14 U.S. presidents who held the office during her lifetime – although McNamara’s notions of how Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton felt about some of them are speculative. Eliza is structured as an imagined letter being written in the last year of her life by Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton to her yet-unborn great-great-granddaughter, and although it is written in modern American English, it tries to come across with some degree of period authenticity – an effort in which it is aided by illustrative paintings in which Esmé Shapiro reflects some of the art of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton’s time. The final two pages of the book, in which McNamara discusses the reality underlying the “docudrama” format of Eliza, and in so doing presents far more facts and far more context than would fit into the main narrative, are even more fascinating than the book’s basic story – but will appeal more to adults and to older children than to the young readers for whom this picture book is intended. Eliza is in fact quite a substantial work for a picture book, packed with interesting information and beautiful illustrations and shining a light on a genuinely notable historical American figure whose accomplishments were many and would surely have drawn much more attention had she not lived in a time when women’s roles were quite different from those of today.

     Purely fictional, far lighter in tone, and a great deal sillier, Andy Rash’s Unstinky is nevertheless similar to Eliza in one important way: it too focuses on someone who is not like others of the same type and whose accomplishments never get the focus and attention they deserve, because they simply do not fit into the strictures of society. That Rash’s book’s protagonist, Bud, is a stinkbug, makes the whole story amusing – but does not obscure the serious underlying message about finding out who and what you really are, and what you are good at, and then celebrating whatever that may be instead of trying to hide it out of fear of being judged “different” or “not like everyone else.” Bud is clearly a stinkbug: like the other ones in this story, he has legs and arms that look like boots and long gloves, respectively, and he has a shield-shaped body divided into sections – those are the features that characterize all the otherwise-different-looking stinkbugs Rash portrays. Bud’s problem is that he doesn’t stink enough, especially when compared with fellow stinkbugs named P.U. Bottoms, Lord Stinkington, and The Fumigator. While those bugs produce malodorous emissions galore, Bud puts out smells such as those of pine trees, fresh-baked bread and flowers. Especially flowers. The more Bud practices by stomping, waving, wiggling and waggling his body around, the more types of flowery smells he makes – nothing stinky at all. In fact, his flower smells are so sweet that they attract the attention of “a confused bee” named April, to whom Bud confesses his unalterable unstinkiness. April, of course, thinks Bud’s smells are just fine, so she invites him to a dance at the beehive, and soon enough – after many misgivings on the part of the other bees, who fear they are about to suffer through major stinking – Bud produces such a lovely flower smell that the queen bee herself declares he will always be a welcome guest. Being a nice-guy bug, Bud tries to show the other stinkbugs how his dancing will let them produce pleasant smells – just as they tried to help him find a way to be stinkier. But Bud’s efforts backfire, just as the other stinkbugs’ did when they tried to help him: the other bugs emit even worse smells after Bud has spent time teaching them. So, in the end, everyone accepts a different role in this buggy environment: those who can, stink, while those who can’t, don’t. And a suitably smelly time is had by all, with everyone learning to do what he is good at even if that is not in line with tradition or socio-entomological expectations.

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