June Book Reviews: First-Rate Father Figures

By on May 26, 2011

Fathers can help us fashion who we are from our dreams. Choose from these great storybooks to celebrate the father you adore.

by Meribeth C. Shank


My Side of the Car, by Kate Feiffer, illustrated by Jules Feiffer.

Readers of this funny, quirky picture book see the difficulty Sadie has had trying to get to the zoo – her mom trips and they must go to the hospital, Pasha the dog gets lost and the family looks for him all day, the grandparents make a surprise visit and prefer the museum. But finally Sadie and her dad are on the way, having a great time, until her father notices it’s raining. “No, it’s not raining on my side of the car,” says Sadie, again and again, in answer to her father’s concern.

Modeled on a trip the author, Kate Feiffer, and her father, Jules Feiffer, the illustrator, once took to a nature preserve, the watercolor and pencil paintings explicitly capture images of a rain-soaked landscape in contrast to a bright sunny day, with the red car serving as the dividing line between. From Sadie’s comments, one is never entirely certain whether her observations are based in reality or hope. But the text and images complement each other fully; as it becomes clear that Sadie is determined, nothing will keep them from the zoo today.

When they finally arrive however, and Sadie gets out, she declares she doesn’t want her father to get wet from the rain on his side of the car. They make a big turn, and after passing some boring roads, her dad observes that it’s not raining on his side of the car now. The satisfying final scene is complete with them “going to the zoo. At last!”

(Appended is a comical discussion between daughter and father about the real-life event – it’s clear there is, to this day, no agreement about whether it was raining!) Candlewick Press, $16.99, Ages 4–7

These Hands, by Margaret H. Mason, illustrated by Floyd Cooper.

Using the “yes, I can” phrase, famous from Barak Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, as a refrain, the loving African American grandfather in this story tells about his life, subtly encouraging his grandson to develop his own skills. With a repetitive “Did you know . . . .?, author Mason’s lyrical language shifts the grandfather’s remembering from the simple art of tying shoes, and joyful singing at the piano, to card games and baseball, and the inequity of being prevented from making bread at the Wonder Bread factory because, “white people would not want to eat bread touched by these hands.”

In just a few brief phrases, the storyteller moves the reader from hands that “were only allowed to sweep the floors and work the line and load the trucks,” to hands that joined with other hands to write petitions, carry signs and raise voices together, fashioning changes that make it possible for any hands now, to “mix the bread dough, no matter their color.”

With his characteristic “erased” oil wash, an artistic styling which gives both depth and texture, illustrator Cooper also effectively suggests another era, by his choice of sepia tones and a soft focus. Hands are prominent without being dominant, and the expressive faces add dimension, structure and drive to the story.

This latter is especially true as the rhythmic language transfers to the grandson who, discovering what his hands can do now, brings the grandfather along to share the conclusion that “those hands can do anything. Anything at all in this whole wide world.”

An Author’s Note at the end shares some of the oral history of bakery factories, where workers, who joined together to fight for fair treatment in their jobs, established labor unions. Houghton Mifflin, $16.99, Ages 6-9

Passing the Music Down by Sarah Sullivan, illustrated by Barry Root.

When a young boy travels from Indiana to Appalachia mountain country, it’s to meet the old fiddler whose playing he admires. The two become fast friends, working in the old man’s garden, sharing meals, and playing fiddle tunes together. To strengthen the relationship, rooted in the music they both love, the boy’s family moves to a neighboring county.

Accenting the title by recurrent use of the phrase, author Sullivan, a West Virginian, like the musicians and the traditional folk music she admires, keeps readers connected to the characters by favoring a ballad-like storytelling style with poetic images – “Like a katydid in the spring, the boy’s heart dances.” Illustrator/musician Root’s sunlit watercolor and gouache images emphasize the mountain setting by liberal, yet delicate choices of yellows, oranges and greens, merging with the text for a timeless composition.

Inspired by the true story of Melvin Wine and Jake Krack, the combined talents of author and illustrator smoothly convey the power of a passion for great fiddling and long-lasting fiddle tunes to shape a bond between generations – the tradition of “passing the music down” in this lovely lyrical story.

Helpful back matter features an Author’s Note, explaining the remarkable story behind the book; A Note on the Tunes; and Resources, which include: Books and Articles, a Discography, Videos, and Websites. Candlewick Press, $16.99, Ages 5-8

Meribeth C. Shank is a Media Specialist at Miami Country Day School, an independent school in Miami Shores, Florida, she teaches classes on Writing Books for Young People, and earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College.

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