Jeanette Winter Tells True Stories for Young Children

There are some things which are hard and painful to understand. Slavery. Skyscrapers exploding. War. Tsunamis. Even famous people's ordinary lives.

But in a true story, there may also be courage, hope, love, and determination. When Jeanette Winter tells her readers of historic events and people, she makes sure the stories carry not only the frightening pieces but the parts that leaven the misery as well.

Days of Slavery

The most amazing thing is that she manages to do this while telling stories for very young children. Follow the Drinking Gourd, a book she wrote and illustrated, is a gentle introduction to one of the hardest aspects of African American history: slavery. While slaves worked in the fields, they sang a song, "Follow the Drinking Gourd." The overseer thought it was just nonsense, but the song really gave directions that runaway slaves could use to find freedom

September 11

That terrible day in September, 2001, brought destruction and despair, but it also brought roses. In September Roses, Jeanette Winter found a sign of beauty and love in the midst of the disaster. In the days after the attack, over 2,000 exquisite roses appeared at Union Square, part of a memorial for those who died on September 11. Who gave them and where did they come from? Jeanette Winter found out and told the story very simply in her book.

To Save a Library

Cover to The Librarian of BasraWhen children ask questions about the war in Iraq, they may not so much want to know about the planes, the soldiers, or Saddam Hussein. They may want to know what it was like for the Iraqi people when the war came. The Librarian of Basra is the story of a woman who knew that she didn't have much time before the bombs began to fall in her city. She wanted to save the books. The government would not help her, so she and her friends worked together to save the collection, some of which was hundreds of years old. Again, this is a true story about a real woman who used her wit and courage to save something precious to her people.

Love Finds a Way

Mama: A True Story in Which a Baby Hippo Loses His Mama during a Tsunami, but Finds a New Home and a New Mama—well, the plot's pretty much in the title, but with simple illustrations and only two words: Mama and Baby—Jeanette manages to tell a bittersweet story which might be appropriate for children who have experienced a similar, devastating loss or were spiritually affected by a disaster.

A Warm Memory

The Christmas Tree Ship takes picture book readers back to 1887 when the captain of a schooner would ferry loads of Christmas trees from Michigan to Chicago. When the captain and his ship were lost in a storm, his wife and daughters decided to continue the tradition, "When the snows of November blew in again."

Not all of Jeanette's stories are so tragic. Some simply give readers a way to experience other cultures and other times. Klara's New World follows a Swedish settler family as they try to make their way in 1800s America. Elsina's Clouds introduces readers to a young girl in South Africa who has painted designs on her house as part of a prayer for rain. Angelina's Island is really a tale of two islands: Jamaica and Manhattan. Missing her home in Jamaica, Angelina needs a way to get past her homesickness and discover life on her new island. In addition to these stories, Jeanette has also written and illustrated short biographies of Georgia O'Keeffe, Johann Sebastian Bach, Emily Dickinson, and Beatrix Potter.

She has also used her simple, vibrant folk art style to illustrate other authors' works about many different cultures and times. Shaker Boy, by Mary Lyn Ray, tells the story of a child left orphaned by the Civil War who is taken in by the Quakers and learns their songs and ways. Day of the Dead by Tony Johnston tells of a Mexican family preparing to celebrate that special day. Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet, by Ann Whitford Paul, uses the names of historical quilt patterns as the basis of the alphabet. The patterns were often named for things the settlers did in their everyday lives, and the book explains them.

If you would like to read more about the author, these online sources are a good starting point:

Interview with Jeanette Winter: The Librarian of Basra
www.harcourtbooks.com/authorinterviews/bookinterview_Winter.asp
Jeanette tells how she came to write the book and the meaning of some of the illustrations. She also discusses her biographies and books set in Mexico

Jeanette Winter: Sidelights
biography.jrank.org/pages/661/Winter-Jeanette-1939-Sidelights.html
Discusses the author's works and has a lengthy, critical bibliography.

My Gen Book Club Q & A
www.post-gazette.com/pg/06276/726884-369.stm
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has made this interesting interview available online. Includes audio clips.