As 2020 ended, three picture books were given to me and I also read Gary Paulsen’s unusual memoir of his early years, written for 8 to 12 year olds. Each of these stories was remarkable in conjunction with this complex year.
Every Christmas my husband Egils gives me picture books. (Sometimes books written for adults, too.) How does he choose these beauties? Not by reading reviews or listening to podcasts, but rather by simply going to the bookstore and sifting through what he sees. Sometimes I request a particular book, as I did when I asked for one of Yuyi Morales’ picture books, since I don’t have any. Alas, the bookstore didn’t either.
What he chose related to the natural world, so much on everyone’s mind this year. Moon: A Peek-Through Picture Book by Britta Teckentrup shows the phases of the moon and the animals that experience its nighttime glow. Die cuts dramatize the changing shape while the text and illustrations of woodland deer, desert scorpions, far northern puffins, jungle parrots and even jellyfish in the sea dramatize the connections between the moon’s phases and all creatures on this planet, including us.
Another of his presents related to open acceptance of others who are different from us. Strictly No Elephants, written by Lisa Mantchev and illustrated by Taeeun Yoo is about the travails of a boy who does not have a dog, or a cat, or a bird for a pet. His pet is a tiny elephant, whom he takes for walks, helps when the tiny elephant is afraid, and generally loves. On Pet Club Day they head to apartment building No. 17 with other kids leading their pets. But elephants are not allowed. The boy and his tiny elephant are sad, until they meet a girl with her skunk. Skunks were not allowed into Pet Club Day either. So the boy and girl start their own club. Soon they are joined by a girl and her giraffe, a boy with a hedgehog, and others. This group will “never leave anyone behind” since “…”that’s what friends do.”
Considering the difficult year that has just passed, focusing on the moon and on friendship feels wonderful.
The third is a remarkably illustrated nearly wordless book The Wanderer by Peter Van Den Ende about being brave in the face of vast calamity. Folded of paper by a boy and a character with a crescent shaped head and exotic uniform, a little paper boat roams the worldwide seas. This intrepid vessel encounters natural and man-made dangers, mysterious anthropomorphic creatures, in depths and heights that swarm with energy.
In Peter Van Den Ende’s ink drawings myriads of elements, be they sentient or otherwise, are rendered in endless varieties of textures in black and white hatching. The effect is overwhelmingly attractive to the viewer.
Look closely and see the innumerable tiny lines the artist used to create his fabulous world. How can one resist the mesmerizing pull of millions of hatched lines creating a universe of intense variety and intricacy?
He does not use cross hatching, where layers of lines would cross over one another, nor stippling which involves only tiny dots to create different values. Throughout the 96 pages of this book Van Den Ende employs only hatched lines of various lengths and density to create his amazingly textured panoramas.
Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen, which was the last book I read this past year, echoed the themes of these three picture books while describing the author’s traumatic childhood, which inspired the survival stories this author is known for. Paulsen’s memoir, set to be released January 12th, is about respect for the natural world, bravery in the face of a world of adversity, and the courage to find one’s own way.
Intriguingly written in third person, the story begins when “the boy” is barely five years old. He sings in bars with his mother to attract men to her. When his loving grandmother realizes his situation, she makes arrangements. He is to travel alone by train, along with wounded soldiers, from Chicago to far northern Minnesota to stay with an aunt and uncle. His alcoholic mother is a man-chaser incapable of caring for him and his absent father is off fighting in World War II. The boy’s arrival at his destination is abrupt, but Aunt Edy and Uncle Sig open their hearts to him. He experiences the life on their farm and in the woods and waters of Northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. The boy is there long enough to feel woven into the tapestry of his loving uncle’s and aunt’s hearts, when his mother suddenly appears to whisk him off to Manila, Philippines to be with his father. There the boy witnesses much of the horror of war and the antagonism between his parents, fueled by alcohol, that renders his childhood nightmarish. He finds refuge in the woods, in the hidden boiler room of his apartment building, and at the library where a kind librarian lends him the first book of his life at age thirteen. She gives him a pencil and notebook into which he writes the story of a deer, a precursor to his future career as the Newbery award winning author of Hatchet, and other coming of age in the wilderness stories. The boy at age thirteen runs away to work at farms and the circus, then by sixteen has decided to enlist for a three-year stint in the army.
Paulsen’s choice of third person in describing his engagingly vivid experiences bonds the reader to this beleaguered child as a character coping with survival rather than as an autobiography of a man in his seventies. The book is variously described as being for ages 8-12 and 12-18. His is a story driven by harsh, gut-wrenching reality as well as independence and volition.
This review of Gone to the Woods was based on an advanced reader’s copy through Netgalley, not a final edited book.
Moon: A Peek-Through Picture Book by Britta Teckentrup, 2017. Little Tiger Press, Doubleday, Penguin Random House.
Strictly No Elephants, written by Lisa Mantchev and illustrated by Taeeun Yoo, 2015. A Paula Wiseman book, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
The Wanderer by Peter Van Den Ende. October, 2020. Em Querido book published by Levine Querido, distributed in the U.S.A. by Chronicle Books. Originally published in the Netherlands.
Gone to the Woods by Gary Paulsen. January 12, 2021. Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers. 288 pages. Ages 8-12 (12-16).