Category Archives: Reviews and Discussion

Here’s one about winter: Ice Palace by Deborah Blumenthal, illustrated by Tony Rand

It just got really cold at my home (actually, I’m cold right now as I type this). So I thought I’d talk about this story. It’s about a girl who helps her town get ready for a winter carnival. It’s about that cozy feeling that comes from people working and celebrating together during the chilliest days of the year.

Some of those people are men from a nearby prison who help build the a huge ice palace, brick by brick. The girl’s Uncle Mike is with them.

As the girl’s father says in the story, the work is brand new to these men. This aspect of the story highlights one way in which the book is a bit different from other picture books. It is not the child who faces a new job or adventure, but a grown-up relative instead.

On the other hand, the girl, too, faces challenging new thoughts. She begins to think deeply about what it must be like for her uncle back in prison. She wonders about the future. Both she and the adults in her family are left to ponder the possibilities, both sobering and hopeful.

In picture books I like to look for a smattering of descriptions, details, and metaphors in the writing. The story starts with a meeting in a café to plan for the carnival; I loved how Blumenthal mentions the clicking sound of a ballpoint pen and describes the coldness of the wind outside. Blumenthal continues to offer details and description as she moves on to the tools workers use to cut up ice, the parade that shows the town’s friendly way of life, and the ice palace and fireworks. The story is written as a free verse poem, which is especially nice for reading aloud. The words seem to tumble, pause, and flow down the page in a neat pattern.

The ending is cheerful but a little sad in the same time. The girl hopes for the best but doesn’t know how events will turn out, what her uncle will do when once he’s free. The carnival ends, the season changes, and life moves on. Its an unusual ending for a picture book, even if this book was written with slightly older kids in mind.

The paintings by Tony Rand look real and not cartoonish, but they are also not too real. Some lines are a bit rough, a bit fuzzy or splotchy, which can make the snowy town and lake feel more welcoming. The info page for this book says that he used “water and acrylic paint.” Through the combination of pictures and text, I could imagine what it might be like to sit in the warm, bright cafe or in a bare prison cell, to stand by the edge of the parade or by a wall of ice.

Although this book is not quite new and seems to be out of print, I bet that many libraries have it.

Blumenthal, Deborah. Ice Palace. Illustrated by Tony Rand. New York: Clarion Books, 2003. Print. ISBN 0-618-15960-6

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A literary rationale for appreciating the Winnie-the-Pooh books

Continuing my reflection on the Pooh books, I took a look through my collection of books on children’s lit. Most of them were acquired second-hand, so they tend to be a bit out of date (or, at least, older editions of titles). But they are definitely useful for my own private research … and for the picture that they give of certain classics at various points in time.

So are Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner among the really special classics? May Hill Arbuthnot, in Children and Books, called them “different from anything that has preceded them” (page 358). That’s a big claim … but I think it might be true on some levels.

The books do still seem to be read. (By the way, they were very popular when they came out—according to Lewis M. Terman and Margaret Lima, they “required thirty-four printings in the first month they appeared” [page 137]. I’m not sure whether this refers to the U.S. debut, or if this means that both books came out at around the same time in the U.S. or not.) What is it then makes them popular? Pooh and his friends don’t ever leave the Hundred Acre Wood. There isn’t a huge variety in scenery. Neither is there a highly obvious dramatic impetus such as somebody’s death looming over the chapters, as in E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. Although this is mostly due to a difference in format, it is of some note that the climax to a particular chapter often involves rather ordinary-sounding things … like “Extract of Malt” (Milne, page 200). (Then again, I’ve never had any. Does it have something to do with malt balls? Or malted milk? Or am I just saying that because I’m an American with a sweet tooth?)

It seems to me like it is primarily the characters that make the unique humor, the more understated theme and dramatic buildup, and humble yet colorful world stand out the way it does. Milne and perhaps a few others deserve a lot of credit for the way their unique personalities come across. (According to critic and writer John Rowe Townsend, who wrote the entry on Milne in In Twentieth Century Children’s Writers, Milne’s wife gave the characters “individual voices” (page 548) early on—In 1913, Milne had married Dorothy de Selincourt (547). Townsend also believes that Ernest Shepard’s illustrations play a very large part in establishing the characters (548).)

In terms of the writing in the books, there are perhaps a few rough spots, technically; Edward Bear, Winnie-the-Pooh’s formal name, is introduced in the second-chapter, and that chapter keeps alternating between using “Bear” and “Pooh.” I’m not exactly sure why … though it’s not a huge problem. Part of the charm of the books is that they sometimes imitate a spontaneous sort of storytelling. It’s a bit different from the style used by, say, E. B. White in Charlotte’s Web. I find the technical aspects in other spots very good, especially when it relates to the timing of the humor, and those more elusive, reflective moments. Generally, all that stuff has to do with the characters. (A side note: is Pooh the only character to have a traditional name from his home country and to be named after both a real-life swan and a real-life bear?)

There’s perhaps another question, though. Some of the characters are really simple … maybe even a little too simple sometimes. Townsend, who in the above mentioned entry on Milne, says they “are drawn with two or three simple strokes” (page 548). I think this could be applied to Rabbit, Owl, Tigger, Kanga, and Roo. However, I think Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, and Christopher Robin could be seen as a bit more complex than Townsend’s statement might imply, due largely to their early introduction and, in some cases, the number of roles they end up playing throughout the various stories and chapters.

I would like to go a bit deeper and discuss individual characters in subsequent posts. One last thing I want to go into a bit more here is the setting. Although they never leave the Hundred-Acre-Wood, I think that the changing seasons and the various little locales that are described …like the gravel pit and the bridge over the stream with its lower and upper rails … make up for that. Also, because of the characters, the Hundred-Acre-Wood comes across as a very warm and comforting place. Unlike the world in, say, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, it’s not mired in issues of class. No racism either. It’s really about a community, that, during some triumphant moments, can manage to come together, like a family. An example would be the Blustery Day episodes, which certainly offer more evidence of togetherness than the catastrophe at the end of the first book. I don’t mean to downplay the character’s very real vices. But Milne does offer hope, despite the gloom and gluttony from various quarters.

Hope to post sooner next time, about the fascinating complexity of Edward Bear himself.

Please let me know what you think!

References

Arbuthnot, May Hill. Children and Books. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1964. Print. Page 358.

Milne, A. A. The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 1994. Print.

Terman, Lewis M., PH.D., and Margaret Lima, M.A. Children’s Reading: A Guide for Parents and Teachers. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1931. Print. Page 137.

Townsend, John Rowe. Twentieth Century Children’s Writers. Ed. D. L. Kirkpatrick. New York, St. Martin’s Press. 1983. Print. Pages 546-48.

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A fragment to share

This is an excerpt from a poem that touches on brittleness and courage, and, unfortunately, tragedy: “Paul’s Fingers,” by  Mary O’Neill, from her collection of children’s poems Fingers Are Always Bringing Me News. While not part of any longer storyline, I think this poem still relates to fiction writing in terms of the depth of emotion that can be found in a simple theme and expressed from a child’s vantage point.

“My fingers have held a fallen baby bird,

And felt fright jump under its skin,

And felt the hope of rescue,

And living begin again.

As its claws, weak as threads,

Clamped my fingers. Brave, but

too hurt, too weak, too thin” (lines 25-31).

O’Neill, Mary. Fingers Are Always Bringing Me News. Illustrated by Don Blognese. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1969. Print. Pages 18-19.

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