May is the perfect time to visit a zoo. It's not too hot or crowded, and the animals are at their springtime best. If your kids are begging for pandas, then the National Zoo in Washington is the place to go, but there are some places about an hour's drive from our area where kids can get a different kind of beastly experience.
Leo Lionni was born into a family that appreciated art, and, from a very young age, he knew he wanted to be an artist. He loved nature and started keeping small creatures--minnows, birds, fish, and more--in his attic room in Amsterdam. He also created terrariums, and many of these natural details found their way into his later work. Like so many successful children’s authors, Leo Lionni was able to remember and tap into the things that were important to him when he was a child.
As his interest in drawing grew, he was mentored by his Uncle Piet, who was both an architect and an artist. Leo was very lucky to live just a few blocks from two wonderful museums. Further, as a child he had a special pass so he could go there to draw whenever he wished. He learned to draw details from great works--plaster casts of famous statues, and they made such an impression on him that many decades later he could still remember them perfectly, as he could with clarity recall so much about his tiny pets and naturescapes.
Upon first glancing at Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table, I very nearly put it aside to be reshelved. It was too beautiful. Huge and heavy--laden with photographs--and featuring a cover shot of something that looked as though it took a heck of a lot of time, money and energy to pull off, it didn’t seem like something that would work for me.
But first glances can be deceiving. Almost every recipe involves relatively normal if delicious ingredients. The techniques used are not difficult at all for someone who knows her way around a basic kitchen. These are the sort of recipes which will be made again and again--and be shared with demanding friends. Each is introduced very charmingly, in a way that conveys much about the author’s French experiences.
The Seventeenth Child, by Dorothy Marie Rice & Lucille Mabel Walthall Payne, sets down the memories of a childhood lived in the countryside of 1930s Virginia by a black woman who grew up before the Civil Rights Movement made so many gains. These remembrances are plain, soft-spoken and ring true to an age that was certainly different from the one we know. In some ways, it was a harder time as in her earliest years even basic food was very hard to come by and the sharecropping system made it difficult for all farmers, black and white, to get ahead or even stay afloat during the bad harvest years.
But it was the warmth of family, faith, shared hardship and simple joys that made those days good as well as difficult. The children worked, not only because their help was needed but because it was understood that working was a good thing in and of itself. They helped pull and tend tobacco, can vegetables, sew quilts, raise chickens, and shell corn. Lucille Payne tells of how hard it was to earn money. How sometimes her mother might not be paid much more than fifty cents for a hard day’s washing of filthy clothes in a dark and cold shed. Well, fifty cents and a hambone that might not be fit to eat without it being scrubbed, too, and sometimes not even then. But her mother said, “Well, you accept what they give you; next time it might be better.”
It wasn’t all about acceptance. Sometimes Lucille would see her mother spit in the water while she washed and she would ask her why she did that. “That helps to get them clean.” But I know she was just so angry because she had to survive. When you have so many children you have to survive the best way you can. Likewise, when white children rode the bus to their segregated school, leaving the black children to walk and even calling them names, the black children got a bit of revenge…and a chance to be better than their so-called betters with an act of charity.
It’s 1900, and lovely, smart Hilda Johansson is one of many immigrants working as live-in servants to rich households in Southbend, Indiana. In Jeanne M. Dams’ Death in Lacquer Red, Hilda has a pleasant if strenuous life, working hard to save money to bring her other family members over from Sweden. She is being courted by a handsome Irish fireman who won’t let the fact that their families wouldn’t approve--he’s Catholic and she’s Lutheran--get in the way of the romance. Even so, a dead body in the lilac bushes does put a damper on their day out together.
The recent movie War Horse, based on the book by Michael Morpurgo, succeeded in showing the strong emotional connections between horses and people. Indeed, this bond was much a part of human history and everyday life up to the middle of the 20th century. Tamsin Pickeral’s book, The Horse: 30,000 Years of the Horse in Art, is as much about history of this relationship as it is about art.
From Neolithic horse hunters’ vivid and probably shamanic cave paintings in France to portraits of proud aristocrats and royalty with their prized possessions to scenes such as the mournful “Ownerless Horse on the Battlefield at Mozhaisk in 1812,” by Adam Albrecht, the horses depicted are as much a projection of human feeling as they are simple studies in landscape or nature.
A century ago, 2,224 people boarded the grandest luxury liner of its time. Many were rich and stayed in fine rooms with every need beautifully met. Yet about one thousand of them were emigrants from Great Britain, hardly wealthy but likely just as eager for the voyage that would start new chapters in their lives. After that terrible night when the ship struck an iceberg and broke up, only 710 passengers survived. There were not enough lifeboats for the passengers, and those drifting in the freezing sea outside the boats soon succumbed to hypothermia.
Settlers started moving west as soon as the land by the eastern rivers was claimed. Wanting the right to expand into more territory was one of the factors in the American Revolution, including anger at the Proclamation of 1763 that restricted further settlement. Indeed, many veterans of the Revolution received land grants in the west for their service. In the late 1700s to the early 1800s, the West could mean Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts of Pennsylvania. As those places filled up, too, and immigrants kept on coming, they eventually spread across the plains and into the heartland.
There was more than one wide-scale genocide in the 20th century. In 1916, the Turkish Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha sent a letter to the government of Aleppo in Syria reminding them that all Armenians living in Turkey were be destroyed completely: “An end must be put to their existence, however criminal the measures taken may be, and no regard must be paid to either age or sex nor to conscientious scruples.” It was an order that was to be echoed by Adolph Hitler in 1939 in pursuing the end of “the Polish-speaking race.” Hitler added, “After all, who remembers today the extermination of the Armenians?”
Alvin Schwartz, writer of many books for children that collected and shared traditions from times past, first became interested in folklore as a child, although at the time he did not think of it as something to study. Folklore was just something that was part of his childhood: the games, riddles, rhymes, superstitions and scary stories. He grew up to become a journalist and also worked as an adjunct English professor. Later, his writing and research skills would play an important part in the job he eventually took on to make many types of folklore familiar to young readers.