Some Few Books to Be Chewed and Digested

Below we offer a rundown of three titles to share with loved ones, and, given the givens of 2020, not a one deals with sleigh bells or other traditional trappings of the season. Yet each is a reminder that hope remains a powerful antidote to overwhelming despair. Hang in there folks, and stay safe.

For young adult fans of historical fiction: The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party, by Allan Wolf, Candlewick Press, 416 pages, $21.99.

From the author whose previous books explore, among other things, the sinking of the Titanic and a teenage murderer, you may be wondering how on earth this title makes an appropriate holiday gift. Trust me when I tell you that this chillingly poetic account of the ill-fated 19th-century Donner Party expedition is perhaps one of the most intriguing and expertly crafted stories to appear between hard covers this year. With the voice of Hunger serving as a sort of Greek chorus interspersed among multiple narrators, there’s more to this tale than mere hunger pangs–it is a bone-chilling examination of love, ambition, and blind faith in manifest destiny, all based on Wolf’s near-obsessive research on the subject, as evidenced through the accompanying historical notes, biographies, and further resources. No detail is spared, while middle-grade readers will finish the book pleasantly surprised that they devoured a novel written almost entirely in verse.

For adult offspring: Offerings: A Novel, by Michael ByungJu Kim, Arcade Books, 288 pages, $24.99.

Michael Kim’s debut novel draws heavily from his thirty years of experience in the world of international finance wherein a brilliantly woven narrative explores the simultaneous pull of family loyalty versus duty to one’s profession. Here, during the throes of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Korean-American immigrant and now genius investment banker Dae Joon–known as Shane to his American compatriots–is summoned to his birthplace in a bid to save the country from financial ruin. As the family jangnam, or first-born son, Dae Joon was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the ranks of academia, but the siren song of Wall Street proved irresistible. While Dae Joon toils relentlessly to save the Korean economy from collapse–and, as it turns out, unravel a sordid tale of financial corruption–a mysterious illness threatens the life of his father. Throw in a mysterious romantic interest, and there’s plenty competing for Dae Joon’s time and attention, each creating a cohesive story that’s all but impossible to put down. Offerings has–dare I say it?–a cinematic quality to it, no easy feat for a writer. Here’s hoping there’s a second offering in the works.

Courtesy of the Folio Society

For lovers of the great outdoors: The Complete Flower Fairies, by Cicely Mary Barker, forward by Roy Vickery, Folio Society, $149.95. Orders for Christmas delivery must be made by December 10 and 17 for standard and express delivery, respectively.

Struck with epilepsy as a child, South London native Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973) was homeschooled and honed her artistic talents via correspondence courses. By 1911, her watercolors and drawings were gracing postcards, and in 1923 the first book in a series illustrating seasonal flora appeared as Flower Fairies of the Spring. The internationally bestselling Flower Fairies eventually encompassed eight charming volumes that, nearly a century after their first appearance, are now being offered as a limited-edition set by Folio Society. Botanist and Honorary Secretary of the Folklore Society Roy Vickery provides a nuanced explanation of why this collection extolling the virtues of the great outdoors remains a perennial favorite, even among cooped-up urbanites worldwide.

Kitchen Work

Perhaps you already kicked off the holiday season with an impressive Halloween yard display. Others of you may consider Thanksgiving the traditional start to a seemingly never-ending buffet of open houses and cocktail parties. With that in mind, I humbly submit a little literary hors d’oeuvre: the Fall 2017 edition of Kitchen Work, a new, print-only quarterly journal focusing on what and how we eat and drink.

Read all about this tasty new treat and where to find it on the Fine Books Blog.

On Saturday November 28, while a chilly rain fell outside, beloved author and illustrator Jan Brett arrived at the Northborough, Massachusetts Wegmans market in her massive tour bus and talked about the inspiration for her latest book, The Turnip, while also offering young fans a drawing tutorial.

A group of nearly four dozen children waited eagerly in a roped-off area of the market, surrounded by seasonal holiday items, while parents stood in the nearby dairy section. Brett arrived wearing turnip colors: a purple-velvet blazer with a jade green rooster brooch and banana-yellow pants. A Hedgie the hedgehog purse draped across her shoulder, holding the Prismacolor translucent markers that would be employed later in the program to create Badger Girl, one of the characters in The Turnip. Brett’s husband, Boston Symphony Orchestra Bass player Joseph Hearne checked Brett’s microphone and set up her easel.

Before the art demonstration, Brett introduced her husband and her pets, a rooster and a chicken who travel with her wherever she goes. The poultry were surprisingly calm and appeared unfazed by the throng of people. Next, she discussed the inspiration for this book. She and Hearne had traveled to Russia, and upon passing a rural farm, Brett was reminded of a folk tale where peasants attempt to unearth a giant turnip. “I loved the story, but why not turn the peasants into a family of badgers?” she explained to the children. “I think badgers are so expressive, don’t you?” The children, who, until that moment had been transfixed into silence, heartily agreed. Brett started outlining the face and body, and then stopped. She told the group that children often write to her asking how to draw expressions, and she always told them that the eyes are the most important feature. “I have a mirror next to my easel, so that I can make faces and sketch what I see.” To demonstrate, Brett covered her face, leaving only her eyes visible. Happy, mad scared–the children guessed correctly each time.

After adding the badger’s body parts, Brett added color, all the while offering tips on shading and outlining. Though this single sketch took less than forty minutes, Brett acknowledged that a single page spread often requires a week of steady work. “I know I’m finished with a drawing when I feel as though I could jump right into the page,” she said. The New York Times bestselling author offered encouragement to the group too. “To get better, you must draw, draw, draw! And be sure to sign and date your work, so that you can follow your progress.” Though some children may lament that their work doesn’t come out looking like Brett’s, she insisted that budding artists stick to it. “The more you draw, the better you get.”

Brett signed copies of The Turnip after her demonstration. Wegmans staff organized fans by ticket number, and though lines snaked through the aisles, order reigned. My daughter and I waited patiently with my mother, a longtime Brett fan who had orchestrated the outing, and when we reached the signing table, the author charmed us with her sweet inscription. Naturally, we had toted along a second book, The Night Before Christmas, which Brett happily inscribed as well, adding a reindeer portrait alongside the date.

Famished, my daughter inhaled a slice of pizza after the book signing. As I waited in line for a cup of coffee, I spoke with a woman I recognized from the event. She brought her seven year old son, though they had just moved from Virginia days before Thanksgiving and were still unpacking. “My son will only read Jan Brett books. They’re magical. So we had to come,” she explained. Another woman, a teacher at Seven Hills Charter School in nearby Worcester, brought eleven of her 21 students, and raised funds so that every child in her class could have their own copy of The Turnip. “Jan [Brett] has a way of inspiring and encouraging these children. It means so much to them.”  Powerful words to remember during this holiday season, when we’re bombarded with ads for gadgets we don’t really need, and when children are so easily distracted by gimmicks and flashing doo-dads. Books, beautiful books, are magic.

The Turnip, by Jan Brett; Putnam Books, $17.99, 32 pages, ages 4-7. (November 2015)

Jan Brett will be visiting 23 cities and towns on this tour.

The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower, or John Howland’s Good Fortune, by P.J. Lynch; Candlewick Press, $17.99, 64 pages, ages 7-10.

Here’s a Thanksgiving story that fully examines the adventure, faith, luck, and unity that defined the Pilgrims’ early days in America. Award-winning author and illustrator P.J. Lynch’s latest children’s book focuses on the life of John Howland (c.1591-1672), an indentured servant who sailed aboard the Mayflower and eventually became the executive assistant to John Carver, New Plymouth County’s first governor. Told in the first person, the fictionalized account of Howland’s crossing takes on a dramatic sense of urgency–England’s Separatist church members (they weren’t pilgrims yet) were being jailed and harassed, and though they had found religious asylum in Holland, church members feared a war with Spain would again put their community in peril.

Lynch details a journey that seems doomed from the get-go (the Mayflower’s sister ship, the Speedwell, never even crossed the Atlantic), and at times it looks like the group won’t make it. (Re-read the title. Howland actually fell off the Mayflower during a storm. That historical nugget inspired Lynch to write the book.) Though originally headed for Virginia, fierce storms bobbled the ship two hundred miles off course, to Cape Cod, where the weary travelers set ashore, where another adventure of survival awaited. Lynch’s gouache paintings expertly capture both the squalor of London and the wilderness of New England. (This is the first book Lynch has both written and illustrated.) Samoset, Squanto, and the great Wampanoag sachem Massasoit are also richly rendered, highlighting the peace these groups enjoyed throughout Howland’s long life. The feast scene is particularly warm, especially after reading about the unforgiving first winter. (Nearly half the settlers died, and lodgings were little more than canvas stretched wooden frames.) The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower also provides surprisingly relevant food for thought in our current debates over refugees seeking religious asylum. The author’s notes and bibliography offer further resources for learning more about this pivotal moment in history.

Thanksgiving Quick Pick

The holiday rush begins early, so here’s a bright book that will keep little ones entertained.  

“Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox: The Great Pancake Adventure,” by Matt Luckhurst; Abrams Books for Young Readers, $17.95, 48 pages ages 4-6. 

Matt Luckhurst’s debut children’s book spins a classic North American folktale about the giant man and his equally enormous blue ox by weaving joyful hand lettering with bright gouache illustrations.  The adventurous duo travels across the country on a gastro-quest that leads them to reshape the Rockies and carve the Grand Canyon. Luckhurst’s research, which the author discusses in a lovely end note, informs a story that stays true to to the myth of Paul and Blue.  The book is an ode to insatiable appetites and reminder of those early Americans whose pluck and ingenuity helped shape the country, two timely themes to consider as we celebrate Thanksgiving.