November for me is Gratitude Month. It seems good to go into the winter with a full basket of gratitude to call on when the cold, the ice and the dark arrive. This year, especially, has occasionally required some searching to fill up that basket. Not today. Today I am grateful for picture books about sharing, about empathy, about kindness. These books are also joyous. They are not didactic in any way but give us a world that we want to step into, give us the energy to make our world more like these places.
“When the Babies Came to Stay” (Viking, 2020; $16.99) written by Christine McDonnell and illustrated by Jeanette Bradley, begins with the arrival of babies on an island. The first arrived on the mail plane, two came on a ferry, “tucked in a carryall left on the seat.” A fisherman found the fourth “on a pier asleep in a pile of nets, smelling faintly of mackerel.” Everyone wondered where they came from. The Mayor quickly says, “Return them to the mainland.”
But they come with notes: “Please keep this baby safe.” “Please raise these babies well.” “Please give my child shelter.” And the librarian decides to make a home for these babies above the library where she lives. (I love that this story reminds us of what we already know — librarians are heroes.) The islanders help her by making cribs from lobster traps, coverlets from sails, and curtains from fishnets. The librarians gives the babies names — Agatha, Bram, Charles and Dorothy, and tells them that their last name will be Book.
Years go by and the babies grow up. The island is their home. They knew “marshes, inlands, coves, and flats, the scent of low tide, the crunch of sand.” When school kids ask where they came from, why they all live together above the library, Eleanor Book, the librarian, tells them the story of their coming to the island and reminds them that “not all families look alike.”
Christine McDonnell has said, “This is a story about welcoming the stranger, about taking care of people who need our help.” And it is a story of the joy of lobster trap cribs, exploring an island, caring and love. Readers will never tire of this family.
Bear needs help in “Looking for Smile” by Ellen Tarlow and illustrated by Lauren Stringer (Beach Lane Books, 2020; $17.99) “Bear and Smile were always together.” Every morning, “Bear woke up stretched out wide across his bed. Smile woke up too stretched out wide across his face.” They like the same things, splashing, adventures, especially honey.
“Then one morning Smile didn’t come.” Bear looks under his bed, in his closet. He calls for Smile. Rabbit tries to help with suggestions about where to look. No luck. Smile doesn’t even show up for a big pot of honey. Then Bear’s friend Bird comes along and asks what’s wrong. When Bear says he is looking for Smile, Bird sits down next to Bear. Eventually, Bird starts to hum ... and Bear joins in. Eventually they fill their forest with their music ... and, you know the rest.
This is a beautiful and satisfying story and Stringer’s illustrations perfectly capture Bear’s joy of good adventures, sweet honey, companionship, as well as the sadness of losing Smile. This is a book that will reward many readings.
Caring for others
I have always loved “A Hat for Mrs. Goldman” (Schwartz & Wade, 2016; $17.99) written by Michelle Edwards (who lives in Iowa City) and illustrated by G. Brian Karas. I don’t know why it has taken me four years to review it. Mrs. Goldman makes hats — “hats for the tiniest babies. Hats for small, medium, and large friends and neighbors.” Young Sophia makes the pom-pons. “‘Keeping keppies warm is our mitzvah,’ says Mrs. Goldman, kissing the top of Sophia’s head. ‘This is your keppie, and a mitzvah is a good deed.’”
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But Mrs. Goldman doesn’t have a hat. She’s given them all away. Sophia worries about Mrs. Goldman’s keppie. It must be so cold. When they walk together with Mrs. Goldman’s dog Fifi, snow falls on Mrs. Goldman’s head. “Her ears are bright red.”
Mrs. Goldman has taught Sophia how to knit. She knows just what to do. She knits and knits on this surprise for Mrs. Goldman. But “the hat is lumpy and bumpy. There are holes where there shouldn’t be holes …. It looks like a monster hat.” She cannot give this scary hat to Mrs. Goldman. And she can’t give any of her old hats to Mrs. Goldman. Too small. Then she remembers her talent — making pom-pons.
The next day when Sophia, Mrs. Goldman and Fifi go out for a walk, “Mrs. Goldman wears her Sophia hat. Her keppie is toasty warm. And that’s a mitzvah.” This happy story of intergenerational friendship makes me want to go to Mrs. Goldman’s and make hats with her and Sophia, makes me grateful for the many mitzvahs done for me and my family.
Here’s to more mitzvahs, finding more smiles, more helping the people who need help, and more great reading.