Friday, February 26, 2016

Beatrix Potter & the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

Beatrix Potter really needs no introduction to readers.  Many, many children have read The Tale of Peter Rabbit or any of her other stories.  At this point in Potter's popularity, you can decorate a nursery with bedding and toys based on Potter's illustrations.  You can mention Mr. McGregor in casual conversation, and your listener will know about what that farmer did to Peter Rabbit.  Beatrix Potter crafted these whimsical little books with care and love, and that still shows through today.

Frances and Gloria both went through periods where they wanted to read tons of Beatrix Potter stories.  Surprisingly, we do not own any of the stories, but our library has a special boxed set.  We would check out one or two each visit.  Their tiny size, the charming illustrations and the stories contained within really captivated the girls.  So those memories of time spent with Potter's tales made the girls want to read Deborah Hopkinson's story about Beatrix Potter's childhood.

The story begins with a note written directly to the reader.  It helps set the stage for the story, but telling readers that Beatrix is a young girl at this point, and that her story might keep children from wanting to lend out their pets.  It's definitely an intriguing tactic.  Then Hopkinson goes on to explain that Beatrix (and her younger brother, Bertram) have a wonderful space for themselves in their house, which includes room for their art, their science experiments, and lots of pets.  Beatrix loved animals, and had a collection of them.  At various times there was a frog, a canary, a snake, a turtle, and many, many others.  It seems like a lot of pets, but it wasn't quite enough.  Because Beatrix liked to draw and paint these animals, and "she liked to paint them doing ordinary, everyday things, like reading the newspaper, working in the garden, or taking tea. (And why not?)"  And the problem then is that she wants to paint a picture of a guinea pig.  Of course, guinea pig was not one of the pets I listed above.  So Beatrix has to borrow one.

Beatrix borrows her neighbor's guinea pig, with extravagant promises to bring that guinea pig (whose name is Queen Elizabeth) back in the morning, after the posing is complete.  As Hopkinson comments "The sitting began quite auspiciously.".  Beatrix begins to do her drawing, but is called away to attend a dinner party.  She doesn't put Queen Elizabeth safely away, because she doesn't think she'll be gone long.  But in the time Beatrix is gone, Queen Elizabeth helps herself to paper, string, and paste - all of which are not good for a guinea pig.  When Beatrix returns and sees the mess Queen Elizabeth has made, she doesn't think twice about it.  Instead, she puts Queen Elizabeth back in her cage for the night.  When Beatrix wakes up in the morning, Hopkinson addresses the reader directly again, and points out that the paper, string, and paste are not good for Queen Elizabeth.  That guinea pig is no longer alive.

Beatrix feels terrible that Queen Elizabeth has died, and when she goes to apologize to her neighbor, she brings a painting of the guinea pig that she completed.  Even though the neighbor is so angry, she ends up keeping the painting.  All those years later, that illustration ended up being worth quite a lot of money after Beatrix Potter became famous.  Did it make up for the loss of the guinea pig after all?

First of all, I found the combination of author and illustrator in this book absolutely charming.  Charlotte Voake's illustrations are delicate and sweet, so they echo Potter's very nicely.  But they also have an added touch of modern sensibility and personality.  It is the same with Hopkinson's text.  It mimics Potter's tone, but it has that wink at the reader.  Hopkinson's voice pokes a little bit of fun at the situation.  Even when there is tragedy, such as the guinea pig dying, there is still a moment of brevity.  The format of the book also resembles the small white books that Beatrix Potter and her publisher created.  There are some clever design choices made here.

There are some other good choices made here - the choice to focus on Potter's childhood helps keep someone who is famous relatable to children.  Beatrix seems just like most other children, with their love of pets and wild animals.  There is a lesson told here, about taking care of the animals that you are responsible for, but it doesn't hit readers over the head.  Instead they will be taken by the combination of humor and creativity that are described in these pages.  Hopkinson also has included pages from Potter's own journal to illuminate the predicaments she allowed her pets to get into.  It helps attract a wide range of readers to the story as well.  

Finally, as always, there is some fantastic back matter.  There is a P.S. which gives more information about Beatrix Potter and the story.  Hopkinson also lists some websites where readers can find more pictures of the guinea pig drawing and other Potter artifacts.  Finally, Hopkinson gives notes on this particular story, mentioning what has been taken from other sources and what has been invented.  I think this is an important distinction, particularly in a picture book format.  It helps students who might be using this as a source be able to figure out what is true and what isn't.

I was so lucky to be offered a chance to review this picture book as part of Deborah Hopkinson's blog tour.  I have enjoyed this book very much, and I hope you'll pick it up and learn something new about Beatrix Potter.  We certainly did.

Beatrix Potter & the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig.  Deborah Hopkinson and Charlotte Voake.  Schwartz & wade Books. 2016.

Thanks again to Deborah Hopkinson for appearing.  For other stops on the Beatrix Blog Tour please check

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Catherine's Pascha

This fall, I was very busy reading for the Cybils panel on Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books (if you are interested in the outcomes, our recommended finalists are here and the 2015 winners will be announced tomorrow, February 14th!).  It was a stimulating, exciting experience.  I was lucky enough to be on the panel with Mia Wenjen, one of the founders of Multicultural Children's Book Day.  She connected me to the effort, and I was soon matched with a book.  I couldn't believe my luck to be matched with Catherine's Pascha!

You see, first of all, the name Catherine (spelled in just this way), has a great deal of personal significance for my family.  It was thrilling to see the name front and center in the title, and this coincidence definitely made Frances and Gloria eager to pick it up.  And my favorite holiday has always been Easter.  This is a holiday that again has great personal significance, and my middle name happens to be Easterling!  There are many special Easter traditions in my family, and I've created new traditions around this day for Frances and Gloria.  It was fascinating to see how Pascha is celebrated in the Orthodox churches.

Catherine knows that she will be up late on Holy Saturday, since they will be attending church very late at night.  Her younger brother, Peter, is way too sleepy to participate in the church service, so they bring along blankets and pillows to keep him comfortable.  They also bring the Pascha baskets to share with their church community after the service.  The baskets contain sandwiches and sweet rolls shaped like rabbits.

As the liturgy begins, Catherine notes the difference between the service she attended last year at her Grandma's church and this one.  But as she's thinking about what she likes best, Father Nicholas begins this year's Pascha service.  It begins with one of Catherine's favorite traditions - the lighting of the candles.  As she looks around, she notices that "the church is full of light".  Catherine's best friend, Elizabeth, is next to Catherine, and as their candles waver, they use the other's candle as support - they are sharing each other's light in the darkness of the church courtyard.

The group gathered together in the courtyard next processes in behind the priest.  The mass begins, with its celebration of the King of Glory.  Elizabeth and Catherine sit together during Mass.  At first the girls entertain themselves by playing with their candles, but Catherine's mom gets wise to their antics and quickly snuffs their light.  While Catherine pouts for a moment, she is soon distracted by the pageantry of the service.  Bells chime as the priest walks around the church, censing (distributing the smoke from burning incense around the church while saying blessings).

The Mass continues, but the girls (who are up way past their bedtimes) start to doze off.  They do rouse for Communion, and look forward to the feast that will conclude the night.  It truly is a celebration - Catherine's father even tells her that she doesn't have to choose any vegetables at the feast table!  So Elizabeth and Catherine load up their plates with all the sweets and snacks they can.  But all too soon the night is over and their families are ready to head home.  Catherine's brother, Peter, has slept soundly through both the service and the feast (missing the hot dog he had been looking forward to).  As the story ends, Catherine and her family drive home.  They are filled with joy, community, and good food.  Catherine dozes off again on the ride home, content.  As the sun comes up, though, Peter wakes, surprised and disappointed to have missed the whole celebration.

This is the plot of the story, but there are multiple layers to this book.  Most two page spreads have two sets of illustrations.  The larger background illustration showcases one of many Orthodox churches around the world.  Each of these larger illustrations includes a caption labeling the church in multiple languages.  It also gives the geographic location and the date the church was founded.  What I love about these larger illustrations is that they set this particular story in the larger Orthodox community.  People around the world are all celebrating Pascha together as one church.  I really enjoyed this idea of setting Catherine's story into context.

There is another, smaller illustration in the center of each two page spread.  This illustration goes along with the plot of the book.  Again, because this plot illustration is layered on top of the Orthodox churches of the world, the story of Catherine celebrating Pascha also feels centered in the global community.  This smaller illustration is set off by a frame which has additional text parading around the picture.  In the textual frame Riggle adds quotes from the liturgy, the story, or from the Bible.

What is interesting about the layout of this book is that there is a lot of information being given to the reader on each page, but the amount doesn't feel overwhelming.  The layout is thoughtfully done so that the book stands up to sustained reading.  Children can read straight through just paying attention to the main text.  But the additional text (the captions and frames) supplements the story so well and gives added insight into Catherine's participation in the Orthodox church.

Finally, there is terrific, helpful back matter.  There is a glossary with the Paschal greetings in all the languages of the Orthodox church.  There are also definitions for other unfamiliar terms.    On the last page there is a list of Frequently Asked Questions to help readers continue to learn.  These questions are carefully chosen to help illuminate some of the dialogue in the story.  This is another way Riggle has chosen to convey meaning to readers without making the reading experience too overwhelming.  It works very well.

I found this book so informative and really fascinating.  It is a great addition to any collection, and will be added to our Easter collection at home.  We love both Catherine's name and the holiday!

Catherine's Pascha: A Celebration of Easter in the Orthodox Church.  Written by Charlotte Riggle; illustrated by R.J. Hughes.  Phoenix Flair Press, 2015.

sent by the author in celebration of MultiCultural Book Day