Children's Books: Montauk ducklings, Maurice Sendak
Montauk author Eva Moore has turned a local incident into a fetching picture book in "Lucky Ducklings: A True Rescue Story," illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Orchard Books/Scholastic, $16.99, ages 5-8). A duck family out for a walk runs into a spot of trouble when Mom steps across a grate and her tiny babies, following faithfully after, disappear one after another down a storm drain. It's impossible not to think of Robert McCloskey's 1941 children's classic, "Make Way for Ducklings," with storytelling language that marches along in just the irresistible way the ducklings follow their mother, and the timely participation of friendly uniformed town officers -- firemen here, where McCloskey had police.
So many children's books want to teach kids to be conscious of the environment, yet so many forget to tell a good story while they're making their points. Here the idea percolates up through the story and the pictures. One spread gives the kid's-eye view of a street-corner trash bin overflowing with the debris of a summer afternoon: crushed soft-drink cans, pretzel crusts, tail ends of hot dogs and sticky ice-cream residue, all tumbling out onto the ground and offering the ducklings "a bite to eat." Revolting, the reader objects, shouldn't ducks eat better? When the ducklings are handed up from the grate, filthy and disheveled but determined to get back in line and carry on with their walk, readers in their various ways will reach the same conclusion: This little corner of this little town is part of a bigger world that we share with other creatures; let's look out for one another.
Maurice Sendak, who died in May, wrote in many moods, from silly on down to fairly despairing, and the books that resulted have always seemed like facets of a complex crystal. "My Brother's Book" (Michael di Capua Books/HarperCollins, $18.95, all ages) speaks of Sendak's love for his brother, Jack, who died in 1995, in poetic language alternately high-flown ("slanting wide the world to the winter side") and familiar ("his poor nose froze"). References to Shakespeare abound, the pictures suggest a William Blake dreamscape, and there are echoes from Sendak's own books. A slender volume, it seems to carry a great weight. Clearly produced by an artist contemplating the end of life, "My Brother's Book" probably could not be published except as a posthumous work, the editorial decision informed by our grief at losing an author we love. This is not a children's book in the sense that most of his others are -- actually, Sendak always said he didn't write for children -- rather, it is a kind of illustrated prayer.
Painter and writer Kadir Nelson turns his talents to the inspiring life of "Nelson Mandela" (Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, $17.99, ages 4-9), leader of historic change in South Africa. Mandela grew up struggling against harsh European domination in South Africa, grew old in prison, and emerged to lead his country and give people striving for racial equality everywhere a renewed sense of strength as they "walk the last mile to freedom." Nelson's deeply human portraits of Mandela at the various stages of his extraordinary life are the great pleasure of this book.
How much did young America rely on slave labor? This rich history is slowly being mined for children's books. "Brick by Brick," by Charles R. Smith Jr., illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Amistad, $17.99, ages 4-8), tells the story of how slaves, on loan from owners, raised the original White House from the raw land that would become Washington, D.C.: "Slave hands swing axes/ twelve hours day,/but slave owners take/slave hands' pay." Using names in the rhymes, the author underlines the individuality of workers who were used as bulk labor.
"The Very Beary Tooth Fairy," by Arthur A. Levine, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen (Scholastic, $16.99, ages 3-7) is not a splendid picture book, but it does invite reflection about the phrases parents use to teach children about diversity and tolerance. Zach is a small bear whose mother has told him to avoid humans. "They are dangerous and unpredictable," she warns. But Zach is expecting the tooth fairy. What if she is a person? In Zach's world, Santa is clearly a bear, because he leaves a paw-print signature. The Easter Bunny? Animal, no question. When the tooth fairy reveals herself, her actions will remind parents how deeply children consider the rules we give them, and how much we influence whom they admire and whom they fear.