Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Polar Bear in a Hannukah Tale? It's A Miracle!

Simon and the Bear
by Eric Kimmel (illustrated by Matthew Trueman)

Most children's Hanukkah stories have: latkes, menorahs, maccabees, and dreidels!

Author Eric Kimmel's Hanukkah stories have all these and then some: goblins, magic, miracles, and bears.

Kimmel's first book. Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, appeared 25 years ago (republished this year to mark the occasion) to critical acclaim and a cult following cutting across cultural audiences.

The quirky tale was initially rejected but won the Caldecott Honor in 1989.

Kimmel's current Hanukkah story, Simon and the Bear, also offers a fresh take on the conventional telling, piquing popular and critical interest.

When we meet him, Simon is setting off from his Russian village, or shtetl, and heading to America, where he hopes to find work so he can eventually bring his family to this promised land to live a better life.

I and the Village
by Marc Chagall

For the journey, his mother packs salt herring, brown bread, hard boiled eggs, plus special supplies for the upcoming festival of lights-- a menorah, matches, candles, and a dreidel. Close to tears as they part, she also parcels out advice: 

  "Wherever you are, Simon, don't forget to celebrate Hanukkah and its miracles. Who knows? You may need a miracle on your long journey."

Somehow, mothers just know, for this indeed was the case. Though Simon lucked out and got the very last boat ticket, tragedy soon struck; the boat hit an iceberg and sank. 

Simon did a great mitzvah (good deed) and gave up the last lifeboat seat to a man who had a little boy waiting for him in New York. Just in time he jumped and landed on an the iceberg.  Heeding his mother's sage advice, Simon took out his tiny menorah. No sooner had he lit the first Hanukkah candle, than he found himself face to face with a huge hungry polar bear. Talk about needing a miracle! Fortunately, this bear liked latkes, herring and brown bread. She may have been a mama bear, as she instinctively wrapped her furry paws around Simon as though he were a cub, keeping him warm that night.

The next day, and each day after, the bear swam off and returned with a fish, which she shared with Simon. With their bellies full, Simon would light the menorah then regale the bear with Hanukkah stories and songs. On the seventh night of Hanukkah, Simon realized that he'd been blessed with seven miracles:

"This is truly a miracle. And not the only one," Simon said to himself. He counted the miracles on his fingers. He'd gotten the last ticket. He'd found a place in the lifeboat. He'd saved a man's life. He'd jumped on the iceberg, not in the ocean. The bear didn't eat him. She brought him food. She kept him warm.
Seven miracles! Simon looked out across the sea. "It will take another miracle for me to be rescued. Is one more too much to ask for?"
On the eighth night of Hanukkah, as Simon prepared to light the menorah for the final time, he realized that he would soon be in the dark, literally--after tonight he'd be out of candles, matches, and latkes. The bear could very well swim off and leave him alone and cold and hungry. 

As if reading his thoughts, the polar bear suddenly sniffed the air, then jumped into the water. Though Simon feared the worst, she wasn't deserting, she was investigating an approaching vessel.  The Hanukkah candles, it turned out, had helped the crew spot Simon, and bring him an eighth miracle. He was rescued!


In New York, Simon made the front pages and met the Mayor, who was, it turned out, the man he'd given a seat to on the life boat. Asked what he would like as a reward for his selfless deed, Simon replied that his wish was for a job so he could send for his family to join him.  

The Mayor purchased first class tickets for Simon's family and found him the perfect job, Polar Bear Keeper at the Central Park Zoo!
   "Which goes to show that miracles aren't just for the Maccabees," Simon told his friends and family every year at Hanukkah time. "They can happen to anyone, anywhere, even in the darkest times. You just have to believe."

Simon and the Bear, like Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, seems to have carved out a distinctive niche in the Hanukkah story genre, one which expands upon, enriches, and broadens the main holiday themes. Kimmel beautifully weaves other elements of Jewish history and culture into the story. 

The elements of iceberg and lifeboats may render the tale too intense for younger children, yet this story line will definitely appeal to many older youngsters, who frequently seek out books about the Titanic disaster, and may introduce a whole new group of readers to the Hanukkah story.

The Brooklyn-born Kimmel has written over 50 children's books which draw on Jewish as well as African and other cultural folk tales for inspiration.
Illustrator Matthew Trueman is a commercial artist born north of Venice, Italy who has contributed to a number of children's stories, including Erica Silverman's retelling of a Sholom Aleichem story, The Day the Chickens Went On Strike: A Rosh HaShanah Tale. His distinctive style has been said to evoke artist Marc Chagall, whose early 20th century paintings depicted the tapestry of Eastern European Jewish village life as Aleichem's stories did.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Friendship Great & Deer

This is the true story of a sweet little fawn lost then found, nuzzled, and nurtured by Kate, a canine whose big heart matches her Great Dane dimensions. The tale is lovingly documented by talented photographer Isobel Springett, who provided sustenance, shelter, and the name "Pippin." Fortunately for readers who adore warm and fuzzy sagas, Isobel's brother Martin happens to be an award winning author and composer. 

This Canadian sister/brother duo, (she in Vancouver Island, he in Toronto) provide lush, lovely photographs and simple, straightforward prose enjoined to foster a charming parable about the ways wild and tame intertwine, and relationships transcending species blossom and endure.

The fawn lay still and quiet. She was alone and afraid as she waited for her mother to come back.  Every little deer needs its mother to protect it from the many dangers of the forest. But her mother did not return, and three long days passed.

Isobel, hearing the plaintiff cry, found the fawn, brought her into her farmhouse, and instinctively laid her beside Kate, her black Great Dane, whose\maternal experience was nil, but whose instincts turned out to be spot on, nuzzling and licking the soft little treasure, who responded in kind. As Pippin grows and thrives, the bond between dog and deer actually deepens, surviving Pippin's eventual return her habitat, where she passes each night, but returns to spend the waking hours with her adoptive moms, Kate and Isobel. (She's also a sort of second cousin to Henry, the resident black cat, who deigns to endure Pip's tongue bath greeting.)

Love at first nuzzle

Great mama Kate keeps her eye on Pip

Pippin grows into a playtime companion for Kate

Pippin, Henry, & Kate

Pippin nuzzles Kate 


Although the children's story is a relatively slim volume, the Springetts created a website, a Youtube channel, and music to accompany the videos composed by Martin, available for iTunes download.

With all the hoopla, have Kate & Pippin become household names?  Well, maybe not as much as this universally recognized duo bearing strikingly similar names:
 Kate, Duchess of Cambridge and sister "Pippa" (Philippa) Middleton
But for those who enjoy the enchantment of happily ever after, fairy tale endings, it's sure to celebrated in heartwarming fashion for a long, long time.

Some additional interesting links: 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pursuing the Panda: A Remarkable Woman Explorer's Expedition of Love

From the book Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, Alicia Potter author, Melinda Sweet, illustrator
Alfred A. Knopf (Random House Children's Books imprint), 2012

Pandas, those adorable emblematic emissaries of China, are revered the world over by young and old alike. Once upon a time, not very long ago, pandas, like many other wild creatures, were prized mainly for their trophy pelts. Even the great conservationist Teddy Roosevelt's sons were proud to gift a stuffed and mounted giant panda specimen to the Chicago field museum in 1929.  

The elusive panda was regarded as a somewhat mythical creature, which added to its mystique and lure.  How ironic that proof of the iconic creature's death seemed to be required to prove it's existence!

In part what separates this expedition from others was the instinct to preserve not only the animal's legacy, but it's life, as shown in the opening excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Mrs. Harkness:
Ruth Elizabeth Harkness (21 September 1900 – 20 July 1947) was an American fashion designer and socialite, who traveled to China in 1936 and brought back the first live giant panda to the United States - not in a cage, or on a leash, but wrapped in her arms.

Ruth Harkness returns to the United States with Su-Lin

Su Lin, whose name meant "a little bit of something very cute" became an instant celebrity, instigating an outpouring of "Panda-monium," a phenomenon confirmed by newspaper headlines the nation over.

In and of itself, the story of the discovery of the first panda cub to arrive on our shores is thrilling and page turning. What adds an extra dimension is the fact that the woman who achieved this feat was the most unlikely of explorers. Her husband, a Harvard graduated, "Rooseveltesque" gentleman adventurer, had undertaken the original panda search shortly after their marriage. Two years into the trip, fighting the Chinese bureacracy as well as failing health, he died of  throat cancer (his bride had not even known he will ill!), his mission in limbo. 

Bill Harkness' young widow, Ruth, chose to channel her sorrow in a remarkable way: she would continue her late husband's quest herself, her pampered urban lifestyle notwithstanding. (She was reportedly quoted quipping that she would not walk even a block, she'd hail a cab.) 

To fulfill this aim it was crucial to listen not to the many naysayers surrounding her, counseling a more rational course. Instead, this fashionable and seemingly lightweight lady of means determined to listen to her heart. She somehow managed to draw on inner resources of resolve, fortitude, and faith to make it happen, when logic and the prevailing wisdom told her: no way!

Ruth Harkness and Su Lin in China

She tapped 22 year old Quentin Young, an already seasoned purveyor of museum specimens in the wild, of Chinese/American heritage, who helped her map out a 1,500 mile trek along the Chinese/Tibet border. She fashioned a wardrobe, hired 20 people to cook, carry gear, and otherwise enable the effort, and set out, covering up to 30 miles of rugged terrain per day. Incredibly, she attained her goal in an astounding four months!  The rest, as they say, is history, including how the lady and the panda became an American social and media phenomenon.

Ruth Harkness' efforts helped further the cause of conservation. An entranced public became more educated about the need to protect, rather than poach, the panda. The episode also provided closure for her personal grief: before leaving China she scattered her husband's ashes and gifted her wedding ring to Quentin Young to give to his fiance.  Harkness published her diary, The Lady and the Panda, in 1938, and returned to China with a second panda. She died at age 46 in 1947.

Below are links providing additional background to this lovely but little known story. Mrs. Harkness and the Panda is cataloged as a J (junior level) book in our local library system, designed mainly for upper elementary aged readers. However, this 59 year old librarian who loves animals, love stories, and tales about unlikely ladies who take chances and beat the odds, recommends it most highly to one and all.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Cats Dreams: Cream, Raining Mice, Catnip Trees

To nap, purrchance to dream

We love to wonder what our babies are dreaming about, our furbabies especially. When their whiskers twitch and paws move we smile and imagine all sorts of delights cryptically crossing their dreamscape. 

Author and poet Ursula K. LeGuin and Illustrator S.D. Schindler give us a peek inside the magic naptime of one curled up torty. I became a fan of LeGuin through her science fiction writing during my 20s. She has crafted a series of junior fiction entitled CatWings, and several other younger children's titles which feature cats and other critters.  Schindler also collaborated with LeGuin on Catwings, Snow Globe Family, The Runaway Pumpkin, and others.

First purrson

The lyric poem of a picture book is stated in few simple words complemented by lovely  watercolor and gouache pictures, which are lovely to look at but also help the reader "feel" the story.  We see our kitty run and play then call it a day, spying a spot to curl up. Usually, this is all we get to see of our cats in repose. But LeGuin and Schindler help us picture the pleasures we could only imagine.

"Oh, how nice! It's raining mice!  Oh, happy day! All the dogs have run away! Kibbles and cream. What a good dream! Now I'm climbing a catnip tree clear to the top. I'm going to stop and have a rest in a blue jay's nest, and all the birdies will wing to me..."

Suddenly, the catnip tree wobbles, kitty falls down (resembling our own sudden shakes in our sleep) and is jolted awake to find a better spot: "Her lap is the best, best place for a nap. I leap to her lap. I'm sitting on her. I'm singing my song inside of my fur. Purr..purr..purr..purr..."

Reader guidelines suggest that Cat Dreams is perfect for those in Pre-K through Second Grade, but catlovers of any age will no doubt be charmed.  

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Travels with Tucker: Photojournal of A Little Dog's Big Adveture


Take one adorably disheveled yet dapper Jack Russell Terrier named Tucker. Place front and center of the experienced loving lens of his "Papa," fashion photographer Danny Sit.  Result? A delightful story about a doggy who obeys his thirst for adventure but gets lost along the way.

When I woke up today, I had no idea what the day would bring. The bed called out, "Don't go." But I pretended that I didn't hear.I greeted Turtle, my favorite toy, as I always do. 'Today,' I announced to Turtle, ''I'm going on an adventure!" 

Despite his excitement, Tucker is at heart a dog of deliberate temperament. The idea of adventure is set; no need to rush the agenda. In fact, our fella ruminates rather intensely all through breakfast. He's so worn out thinking about where to go, he forgets to "help clean up" (instead of being scolded,  Papa praises his  "best little dog in the whole wide world" and is rewarded with a "big wet kiss right on his nose.")
Tucker's head gets so heavy he seeks relief in an immediate nap. Upon waking, the world once again his oyster, Tucker apparently draws on his storybook superpowers, climbing to the tallest tree in the yard.


No closer to deciding on his doggy destination, Tucker takes the sensible path of packing for any possibility. He brings his new coat with fancy new dog tag ("Papa said the tag would come in handy if I ever got in trouble.") Though it's a bright, sunny day, he recalls Papa saying how quickly the weather can change. Just in case "an iceberg floats down from the North Pole and he gets stranded on it," Tucker takes his warmest sweater. Thoughts of stormy weather prompt the packing of his yellow rain slicker, but our pup is not a gloomy gus by any means; he grabs his favorite hoodie, in case he runs across a "cool rock band" who ask him to join. After all, a little dude never knows! "barney in cashmere"


Wardrobe issues settled, Tucker tackles transportation. Recalling cozy road trips, our boy heads for the car but finds that driving requires Papa legs, not puppy paws, to reach the pedals. But wait, when Papa doesn't drive he takes the train! Tucker heads to the station just in time to climb "ALL ABOARD." A window seat, one more nap, the choo choo stops, and Tucker hops off to discover where his adventuring itch has led him. Nose and ears instantly disclose that Tucker's in the happiest place - the seashore!
I ran to the edge of the water. The rocks felt good on my back, and the sun felt good on my tummy. I gathered some driftwood. I dug some clams. How many biscuits can I trade for a bucket of clams I wondered. Lucky little dog that I am, I even found a big blue ball tat some other dog had left behind.


Suddenly, Tucker looks up from his fun and realizes he's far, far away from  familiar creature comforts - his turtle, his bed, most of all, his Papa!  Anxiety nips at his heels as he races up and down the beach wanting but not knowing how to return to them! Oh, the memories that flood his mind-- from that first day Papa brought him home to the time Eloise, the cat, took special care of him when he hurt his paw. Overcome, the only thing poor Tucker could do was to sit down on the beach and howl over and over "I'm lost!" Sadly, no article of clothing he packed had covered this calamity!


Just as Tucker's most forlorn howl escapes his lips, he hears a familiar bark! His best friend Puddles was playing nearby. Two Legs (Puddles' mommy) gives Tucker a "great big hug" (which he pronounces "swell" ), takes him home and shows him pictures of himself that a very worried Papa has been posting "everywhere!"  A happy reunion is little more than a nap time away for our hero, who can at last rest assured that things will once more be set right in his world. Puddles' house is comfy and cozy, but it's not the same as being home.


 The door opens and a distraught but delighted Papa greets/scolds his pup "Where have you been?" Tucker gives it all up, telling him everything, down to the tiniest detail, only stopping to plant kisses on everyone--everyone's ankles,  that is, "after all, I am a very little dog," though now with a great big adventure behind him.

Turns out, Tucker's story is a tribute to author/Vogue photographer Danny Sit's own dog Barney, another natural in front of the camera.

While Barney's adventures have taken him across the Rainbow Bridge, Sit remains doggy Papa and devoted personal photographer to two Jack Russell terriers named Apple and Henri - champion nappers both. Of all the terrific pictures in the book, the best may be the last page portrait of Sit reclining contently on his couch, a precious pooch lovingly perched atop his chest.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Tamest Taurus: The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf; Drawings by Robert Lawson

"Once upon a time in Spain, there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand."


It's hard to imagine a more innocent premise for a children's story. However, once upon a time in Spain there was also a Civil War, which erupted in 1936 shortly after Munro Leaf's book debuted. Despite the author's homage to the little bull's homeland, "Ferdinand" was banned in Fascist Spain and burned in Nazi Germany. Though some tried to brand this simple story regaling a gentle creature whose tail swished to his own drumbeat "subversive" it not only survived but thrived; translated into 60 languages, it has never been out of print. Heroic figures from Ghandi to FDR lauded Leaf and Lawson's work. The rest, as they say, is history.

Our library's  new copy appeared to be an exact replica of the original. Recognizing it as a classic from my own childhood (though I'd never read it), nostalgia and curiosity led me to reach for it from among the more lushly illustrated modern volumes on display. From the first page, the simply drawn story drew me in.

Like Rudolph  (the Red Nosed Reindeer) Ferdinand was what used to be labeled in less politically correct times a misfit.

 "All the other little bulls he lived with would run and jump and butt their heads together. But not Ferdinand." However, he wasn't excluded from playing; he chose not to join in.


"He liked to sit quietly and just smell the flowers" under his favorite cork tree--a fanciful answer to the many who may have pondered where wine corks came from. Ferdinand didn't appear to miss  the rough and tumble company of others. Of course, this worried his mother. But to her credit, she didn't care that her offspring was different (read: awkward, weird, nerdy), only that he might be  lonely and unhappy. Realizing that he was neither, she left him to enjoy his solitude and sanctuary. In my book, she ranks among the great literary mamas of any species. 


The little bull grew big and strong, but he didn't forsake his laid back lifestyle. While the other bulls fantasized of fighting in the bullring, Ferdinand could care less. However, he hadn't counted on the ironic twist of fate about to befall him. When men from Madrid arrived to find a fitting match for the matador, a random bee sting sent Ferdinand flying at full throttle. His involuntary display of strength and speed wowed the group and in short order our hermit-like hero was literally carted off to the city to face a surreal, Superbowl-like spectacle, in which he'd been cast as the main event.  (One can only imagine the reaction of Ferdinand's "home boys" as the "quiet one" was awarded their long sought after "prize".)


"Flags were flying, bands were playing..and all the lovely ladies had flowers in their hair." But the parade into the bullring soon raised a hackle on this reader.  "First came the Banderillos with long sharp stick in the bull and make him mad. Next came the Picadores..they had long spears to stick in the bull and make him madder." Finally the Matador, who was "supposed to stick the bull last of all." appeared.  (Gulp!) Enter  Ferdinand,  billed as  "El Toro Feroz", or Ferdinand the Fierce.


Our hero was soon socked in on all sides by shouting and clapping; the noisy throng eagerly awaiting the requisite head butting, snorting, jutting and sticking (plus all sorts of other mean, nasty, horrible things that adults reading to children are undoubtedly relieved he didn't mention).

Trembling, I could barely turn the page to learn Fernando the anything but Fierce's fate. I should have had more faith. This was one bovine who couldn't be bullied into being anything other than who he was. I've rarely been more relieved to read the rest of the story:

 ..."not Ferdinand. When he got to the middle of the ring, he saw the flowers in all the lovely ladies' hair, and he just sat down quietly and smelled." No matter how his tormentors provoked him, El Toro Feroz proved more pussycat than lion. Frustrated, the Matador threw off his cape (the bullfighter equivalent to throwing down your bat and helmet I'm guessing) and just cried. The flower child that  resides unseen alongside my graying soul flashed a triumphant peace sign.

Had Munro Leaf hailed from Hollywood instead of Maryland, the experience might have resulted in a major lifestyle upheaval for Ferdinand.  Fortunately, no such travesty took place.


"..for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy."

Fun facts/ final notes:

 The 1938 Disney Studio's feature won an Academy Award for best short animated picture.

Robert Lawson was the first person ever awarded both the Newberry and Caldecott Medals for excellence in children's literature.

A search of online images reveals an astounding number of creative tributes to Ferdinand, reflecting the enduring resonance of the story, it's hero, and it's subversive yet satisfying message.

A caption

For more on Munro Leaf, Robert Lawson, and the controversy surrounding The Story of Ferdinand:

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Yes Virginia (or Maryland, or Carolina), sandy claws do exist

Dogs do it and people don't blink an eye. But picturing a cat enjoying the beach takes a master's leap of imagination, not to mention the exquisite artistry of illustrator Anne Mortimer. And who better to describe the delights awaiting a feline getting her first taste of sandy claws than iconic author of children's classic Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown?

The kitty whose adventure quest mirrors an inquisitive child's first beach experience is Sneakers, who starred in the author's  Sneakers: seven stories about a cat, originally published in 1955, three years following her untimely death at age 42. While several baby boomer reviewers at miss the original most readers seemed to welcome this updated offering. I concur with the Lexington Herald Leader's accolade, "Kitty pictures so realistic you almost want to pet them," freely admitting to emitting audible "awwwwws" accompanied by an ongoing  desire to snuggle the adorable Sneakers! 

Who could resist tagging along with such a sweet "fat little cat" let loose in a wonderland seemingly designed for the incurably curious?  We're by  Sneakers' side as the tantalizing aromas of fish and sea mingle, enticing him to dip his paw into the chilly water. We feel his eyes widen as he spies a shadow in the sky, hears an assertive "Scree", and encounters the unthinkable, a bird who isn't frightened of him!

 We're with him as he playfully pokes at the mini shrimp popping up elusively in front of him like gophers in a boardwalk arcade game. We're close enough to sense the irresistible pull to put his head up to the magic pink and yellow shell which, though hollow, emits an echo of the ocean's roar!  We listen, entranced, to the mysterious, powerful booming broadcast back to us from sea pounded rocks far off in the distance during our carefree chasing of colorful butterflies, as children might run with kites on the beach. We creep with our kitty friend as he innocently wonders at then touches a mysterious orange object with beady black eyes and ginormous claws, receiving in return an OUCH-inducing life lesson!  Yes, we're beside Sneakers all the way, travelling  back to the forever fresh memory of our own first beach day, our child's, or grandchild's. 

The Denver Free Press suggests packing the book along for a child's first trip to the beach, which is an excellent recommendation. If you do, be prepared for requests from your little ones to have it read to them summer after summer. Word of warning: might also be a good idea to check the children's beach bags for the occasional smuggled furry traveler.