Gittel’s Journey

I’m up against a thousand deadlines, each breathing a further blazing flame against the back of my neck, but–

This morning I got a call from the Children’s Book Shop that a new book had come in, one I’d been waiting for, and I went in, glanced through it, and immediately bought two copies (not gratuitously– one for me, one for a friend who I decided needed it). Which book prompted this rapid response from me? Bought today, blogged today?

Gittel’s Journey, by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates.

Gittel's Journey.jpg

We’ve read about Lesléa Newman here before, and also about Amy June Bates, since they’re the duo who brought the world the amazing Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed. To be perfectly honest, when I read that Amy June Bates would also be doing Gittel’s Journey, I was simultaneously thrilled (“I love her work!”) and nervous (“But this is such a different story– will she suit it?”). Why did I worry? Her work is as adept, and I can give no higher praise, as Trina Schart Hyman’s on Little Red Riding HoodAnd I don’t think it’s any coincidence I was reminded of that book: There’s the same painterly style, the same splash of red that pulls Gittel right off the page, and the same windswept grace to the style.

And when we consider the story– well, here let’s pause and talk about the story.

Gittel and her mother have to leave their home, which isn’t safe for them, to journey to America. Leaving much they love behind them, including Gittel’s beloved goat, Frieda, they travel to the shore to board a boat to America, but there they’re stopped– Mama has an eye infection and isn’t allowed to accompany her nine-year-old daughter onto the boat. Gittel must go alone on a long, arduous journey to a distant relative, whose address Mama has written on a piece of paper for her. Gittel bravely goes forward, only to find in America that her terrified grip on this piece of paper has smudged the address until it’s unreadable! A kind interpreter helps her find her cousin, and, ultimately, Mama is able to join her, too. All ends happily– on the surface.

Except that we all know more. If we look to Little Red Riding Hood here, the little girl travels by boat instead of through a forest, but she does meet a wolf, yes. But the wolf in Gittel’s story isn’t any particular person, no. The wolf is the threat of pogroms in the Old Country (Russia, Poland– as Newman makes clear in the excellent backmatter, borders shifted). The wolf is also the health inspector who separates Gittel from her mother. The wolf also rears his head in the threat posed to Gittel, who has no English, at Ellis Island before the kind interpreter appears and saves her, quite literally, from being lost in, if not the woods or the wolf’s belly, a new country with no home and no prospects. The wolf was– and still is– all around for immigrants with few resources available to them. (For a beautiful modern story of immigration to America, check out, I’ve said it before and will say it again, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales.)

Like Ketzel— and like Dreamers, for that matter– the story is ultimately hopeful and very beautiful. But unlike them, the wolf is around the corner in every page. My daughter noticed this when she read it alone before I could get to read it to her (the little scamp!). I asked her if she liked it. “Yes,” she said, “it was a very good book. But it was sad.” Coming from the Changeling, that means that something in it worried her. And, after reading it with her, I saw what it was. If I had to guess, if I had to put my finger on one page that made her sad, I’d guess it was the two page spread where on one side you see Mama on Shabbat, holding her candles, and on the other page you see Gittel, weeping over her Mama’s candlesticks: “Candles and candlesticks belonged together just as she and Mama belonged together. Gittel shut her eyes and sang the Sabbath blessing softly to herself. It only made her sadder.” Note that, absent the illustrations, these words lose much of their poignancy: in context, my eyes prickled as I read them aloud to the Changeling, and I held her a little closer.

But, in the end, Gittel prevails over the wolf: she arrives and is brave, and, ultimately, her mother arrives, too. “Come, Mama. […] Let’s go home. The sun is about to set, and it’s time to light the candles for Shabbos.”

I don’t know what else to tell you. The illustrations are exquisite. The story is heartbreaking but beautiful. If you have a heart, you will feel. If you don’t, this is a book which could make you grow one. If I gave starred reviews here, this would get one. I bought two books on an impulse– I knew this book was something special. But after reading this with the Changeling tonight? I know I’ll be getting more. I’m not going to use a word like “timely” here and make reference to current affairs: this book is more than that. It’s history, it’s the present, and we have the power, if we want to make it so, to ensure that we can edit out the wolf for the future.

Please, do me a favour. Call your local bookstore and reserve two copies: one for yourself, and one for a friend or for a donation.

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Happy Valentine’s Day!

This is more of a postcard than a post, but Happy Valentine’s Day, my dear readers! Here are three books for you– we’ve seen all of them before, but why not revisit them?

I recommended Love Is by Diane Adams, illustrated by Claire Keane, as a baby present before, but it would also be a beautiful Valentine’s Day gift.

Love Is.jpg

Funny and sweet with a spice of zest in the form of messy bath times and wakeful nights, Love Is shows the universality of love: children will see themselves in both the duckling (the one being cared for) and the child (the caretaker), while parents will identify with the child as caretaker and maybe learn a thing or two about themselves in the process…

always love Steve Light and Lucky Lazlo is no exception!

lucky-lazlo

For young children and up to adults, this is a zany, lovelorn adventure at the theatre, and theatrical it is! Parents will appreciate the funny allusions to theatre, children will enjoy the slapstick elements, and who doesn’t enjoy a romantic comedy ending with a rose and a kiss? As for the detailed, crazy, pops-of-colour art… that’s Steve Light in a nutshell, and always a delight!

And finally, check out This Is Not a Valentine by Carter Higgins, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins.

This Is Not a Valentine

An unfluffy, not-too-sweet book of romance, this is about loving your own person on your terms in your own way. No glitter and sugary hearts here! The art is deliberately sketchy, but, in its very roughness, exquisitely beautiful (I see in my post I compared it to Christian Robinson; astute of me!). Likewise, the text rebels against jewellery and roses… but only if you want to. It’s a book that’s sweet in its own way, on its own terms, and teaches you to do the same.

So that’s a set of three good books for today– all sweet, but not saccharine. Tell me, what’s your favourite Valentine’s Day book?

The House of Lost and Found

(A note about the giveaway is at the bottom of the post, but first I want you to read about this gorgeous book.)

You know, I didn’t plan to write about this book. I didn’t plan to write about anything tonight, honestly, and if I had planned to, it would have been about one of the really recent books I found and love– some are very new, and some I’ve been meaning to write about for several weeks, in fact… including the exquisitely beautiful Dreamers, by Yuyi Morales, which I only just bought but have loved since it came out in September. And then something happened.

I’ve been tired, honestly– happy tired, but tired. Work, family, and life have sort of ganged up on me and I haven’t had much time for anything but getting by, day to day. So there are a lot of things which have slipped by me: things I love, including knitting for my daughter, and even reading and writing. Oh, I manage to get both in, or else you’d only find me in jail. If I don’t knit, write, or read– I go bonkers. But I’m doing a base level of these to get by, and I miss keeping up with new books and making beautiful things.

Please, don’t worry about me! I’m doing good work and I’m excited about it. I know that after I finish my dissertation I’ll be back on the knitting, reading, writing horses and as productive as ever. But I admit that I was feeling a little melancholy.

And then my daughter, the little Changeling I live with, pulled this book off of my shelf tonight: The House of Lost and Found by Martin Widmark and Emilia Dziubak. I bought this book about a year ago (I see it came out September of last year, which sounds about right). And when I first bought it I flipped through it a few times, admiring it, but deeming it too old for my daughter. Then this child, this Changeling, pulled it off the shelf tonight and I read it to her and narrowly avoided tears.

The House of Lost and Found.jpg

This is, without a word of a lie, one of the most exquisite books, visually and intellectually, I’ve ever read.

The story is of an old man, Niles, who lives alone– his wife is dead, his children have grown up and moved away, and even his cat has wandered off: “Just as well, thought Niles. That’s one less thing to worry about.” Whereat this cat-lover’s chest tightened and eyes prickled. He turns off the lights in his house, one by one, saying good-bye to everything he used to love, one by one, as dreariness sets in.

And then his doorbell rings, and a small boy is there holding a flowerpot full of dirt, and asking Niles to look after his flower while he’s away. Niles is left with the flowerpot and no desire to look after any living thing.

But he waters the dirt in the pot.

And he finds himself wondering, as the seed sprouts and a tendril of a leaf pushes through the dirt, “What kind of flower is it?”

And as the plant grows and grows and our curiosity increases, so does his excitement increase– and his interest in life revives: he cleans the house, the cat comes back (YAY!!!), and he reads again (there go the tears again…). And the flower grows and grows until…

I’m not going to spoil the ending for you. It’s too beautiful.

But the story might sound a little familiar to fans of folklore out there. The story is decidedly similar to that of the traveller who brings something of some apparent value, but dingy, to a family in dire need and asks them to look after it for him. The family is virtuous, and with every act of goodness their fortune increases and the dingy item brightens. The traveller returns and sees how their goodness has polished the cup or horn or whatever the item was and says something about how good they are and they can look after the item for the rest of their lives. And so they live on in prosperity and virtue for the rest of their lives. I’m sure I could look it up in Aarne and Thompson and find something there– it’s an old story!

There are key differences: here it seems like the tender growth of the flower fuels the revival of life in the old man, rather than the virtue of the man fuelling the growth of the flower. (There are other differences but you can discover them when you read the story!) But the symbiotic relationship between the protagonist and the special object is key to the soul of the story and it’s a thing of beauty: both the beauty of the flower and the beauty of spiritual heart of the book.

I want to add something here about the illustrations, while we’re talking about beauty. First of all, Polish illustrator Emilia Dziubak is new to me, and I’m both sad about that (what have I been missing?) and happy (I’ve discovered someone new and amazing!). She might be the only one out there so able to convey the dinginess and gloom of Niles’s house while at the same time rendering it with visible tenderness and love: he’s not slovenly, her art seems to tell us, he’s just old and sad. And as light and air and cleanliness and the cat creep back into the house, the tenderness and love remain but the dinginess and gloom flee the scene; her skill is glorious and if, like me, you’ve been missing out, you may want to rectify that.

All in all, this was a lesson for me in many things:

a) Listen to the Changeling, for she is wise;

b) Read new and poignant books, for they will open your heart and soul and render you more fit for future work;

c) Hug your cats and water your plants, for who knows what the future will bring?

So that’s the story of an unexpected book creeping in and changing the course of my evening.

Finally, I want to thank all of you for participating in the Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones giveaway! For those of you who participated: I have ordered the books into the Children’s Book Shop and they should be arriving this week. It might be the third week of February before I get them to the post office, but I promise I will email you as soon as they go into the mail! Thanks again.

February Giveaway: Final Call!

A real post with a real review will be coming soon (I promise!) but this is a final reminder that TOMORROW is the last day to get a free book from me! Thank you so much to those who have participated so far, and I’ll be sending out all books as soon as the Children’s Book Shop has gotten in all of the copies I’ve asked them to order in (probably the second week of February).

Also note: I am happy to giftwrap and include a gift note if you ask me to– books make great surprise gifts, as we all know.

Here’s a reminder of the rules:

a) I will, if you email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com give you a book of your choice: either The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, or Howl’s Moving Castle.

b) You will choose! One book per person, please. Just email me and say, “Please send me the following book, at this address!” I will send it to you.

c) This offer is ONLY FOR THE FIRST WEEK OF FEBRUARY! February 1-February 7. That’s it. Email me during that time and I will send you a book.

d) Worldwide. No exceptions. I don’t believe in setting barriers to books. Bridges, not walls.

e) Yes, you in the back? You ask me: Why? Because I love Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones and it hurts my heart that I keep running into people who haven’t read them, that’s why. Yes, it may be a slightly bold and stupid giveaway, but my blog readership is small, the books are good (and inexpensive), and I don’t anticipate overrunning my book budget. Also, giving books to people makes me happy. So feel free to share this widely, because I am The Book Evangelist and I share The Gospels of Aiken and Wynne Jones.

To sum up: Please don’t be shy! Email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com and get a free Joan Aiken or Diana Wynne Jones book! I will be buying the books locally and shipping via USPS. Happy reading, and happy February!

Launching the February Giveaway!

This isn’t a real post, just a reminder of my giveaway for the beginning of February (that’s now!). Here’s a reminder of the rules:

a) I will, if you email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com give you a book of your choice: either The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, or Howl’s Moving Castle.

b) You will choose! One book per person, please. Just email me and say, “Please send me the following book, at this address!” I will send it to you.

c) This offer is ONLY FOR THE FIRST WEEK OF FEBRUARY! February 1-February 7. That’s it. Email me during that time and I will send you a book.

d) Worldwide. No exceptions. I don’t believe in setting barriers to books. Bridges, not walls.

e) Yes, you in the back? You ask me: Why? Because I love Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones and it hurts my heart that I keep running into people who haven’t read them, that’s why. Yes, it may be a slightly bold and stupid giveaway, but my blog readership is small, the books are good (and inexpensive), and I don’t anticipate overrunning my book budget. Also, giving books to people makes me happy. So feel free to share this widely, because I am The Book Evangelist and I share The Gospels of Aiken and Wynne Jones.

To sum up: Please don’t be shy! Email me at deborah@childrensbookroom.com and get a free Joan Aiken or Diana Wynne Jones book! I will be buying the books locally and shipping via USPS. Happy reading, and happy February!