Two Picture Books

Although the overwhelming percentage of books that I have read to completion in the past decade are children’s books, I don’t blog much about them, nor do I expect to. However, two picture books that have come into our library this year are exciting enough that I wanted to tell you about them. Both hit that sweet spot of satisfying my desire to expose my children to interesting and beautiful stories while utterly delighting the children.

Betty Jean Lifton’s Taka-chan and I with photographs by Eiko Hosoe was originally published in 1967 and reprinted last spring in the NYRB Children’s Collection. It’s the story of a Weimaraner, Runcible, who digs a hole from Cape Cod all the way to Japan. When he gets there, he meets a little girl in grave danger. To save her fishing village from the Black Dragon, Taka-chan and Runcible must go on an adventure.

This book, with its affecting pictures of a huge, mellow dog and a sweet little girl slightly smaller than he, with blunt-chopped hair and innocent little dresses, is as worthy of attention as the equally affecting (but more perverse) The Lonely Doll. The back cover compares it to The Red Balloon which is also apt. Taka-chan and I, told from the dog’s point of view, is one of those gorgeous fables of a post-WWII world in which children roamed lonely, their pre-occupied adults busy elsewhere.

Lifton lived in Japan—with her dog, who plays himself in these gorgeous photographs—and her telling of the story of the fishing village under the thrall of the Black Dragon comes from her own study of Japanese myth, she says. It certainly has the ring of myth. The writing is clear and strong and utterly compelling. Amazing, too, how a photograph of a piece of molding in the shape of a carved wooden dragon can evoke just the right amount of dread.

 Utterly different but equally enchanting is Jonah Winter’s Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude which I found in the gift shop of The Steins Collect show at the Met. Calef Brown’s illustrations owe a lot (too much?) to Maira Kalman but it’s the silly Stein-inflected text that captures what’s awesome and fun and funny about Gertrude Stein. I particularly love how it handles her lesbianism—and my girls loved it, too. I won’t try to replicate the type, which bounces all across the page, mixing in with the images of Stein and roses, but is says:

            Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude.

            And Alice is Alice.

            And Gertrude and Alice are Gertrude and Alice.

            Well it’s like this. You walk up the stairs, and there they are.

Any questions? I thought not. They go together and that is that. Winter’s text puts them in chairs and one by one the people mount the stairs to come have tea--it's very Ruth Krauss, Maurice Sendak for a while. We meet a crowd, then we meet Picasso, “He just invented Modern art which is not the same thing as being angry.”

Later we learn that “while Alice sleeps, Gertrude is writing,” which is important, since just as Winter takes it for granted that Gertrude’s partner is Alice and that Gertrude and Alice are legendary hosts, he also shows us that Gertrude, too, is an artist and a genius. It’s silly and funny but it makes its point. When my girls (six and just about ten) think about books to share with their classmates, both of them think about this one. That makes me happy.