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Culture Children's Books

Stories of the past

Children’s Books

Stories of the past

Four historical picture books

Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford: Poet Weatherford tells in a series of poems the true Job-like story of Henry Brown, a slave who shipped himself in a wooden box to freedom. Heart-wrenching details and evocative language power the narrative: “My parents, brothers, sisters, and I / Flung apart as if dandelion puffs.” Masters betray their promises to Brown, yet Weatherford shows his hope: “The good Lord anchored me and Nancy in the Word.” After a harrowing 27 hours, the box arrives at the train station in Philadelphia: “Hours pass, and no one greets me. I pray this crate will not be my coffin.”

The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, illustrated by G. Brian Karas: Longfellow’s poem begins: “Under a spreading chestnut tree / The village smithy stands.” Karas sets the poem in modern times with mixed-media illustrations depicting a blacksmith with a pickup truck. He wears modern eye protection. The illustrations highlight the poem’s themes: honest work, worship, and community. On three pages he’s at church. Others show him at his forge: “Week out, week in, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow; / You can hear him swing his heavy sledge, / With measured beat and slow, / Like a sexton ringing the old kirk chimes / When the evening sun is low.”

A Ben of All Trades by Michael J. Rosen: Starting with snippets from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, Rosen imagines details and dialogue to depict the creative mind of young Ben Franklin. Though he’s at the age to become an apprentice, Ben gets bored doing one thing all day long. His father seeks out different trades for Ben: candle making, joining, boot making, and woodworking. He finally settles on printer—a perfect fit. Matt Tavares’ realistic illustrations show the world in which young Franklin grew up.

Jefferson Measures a Moose by Mara Rockliff: This book is about two things: Jefferson’s love of numbers and the French scientist Buffon, who believed Europe superior to America, especially when it came to the size of its animals. Jefferson heard Buffon’s bluster and wanted to prove him wrong. Illustrations in the style of Punch drawings capture the humor in Jefferson’s quest to find a large animal—a moose—to send to France. Could the moose change Buffon’s mind? Rockliff ends on this note: “Some people have a hard time saying ‘I was wrong.’ Some people would rather DIE. That’s what happened to Buffon.”


Published in collaboration with the Globe Theatre, ­William Shakespeare’s The Tempest by Georghia Ellinas (Candlewick, 2020) offers a simplified retelling of the play with Ariel the Sprite as first-person narrator. Beautiful watercolor illustrations by Jane Ray help tell the story of Prospero, a magician and the rightful duke of Milan, who lost his dukedom due to his brother’s trickery. Prospero and his daughter Miranda end up on an enchanted island where he plots revenge. Ellinas ends the story with a simple moral: “Prospero showed that forgiveness is greater than revenge. And from that day he gave up magic forever.”

Riccardo Guasco’s wordless homage to modern art, What a Masterpiece! (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2020) shows elements from famous modern paintings and sculptures on every page. A boy sleeps in a Van Gogh bedroom. He wakes up to Dalí elements draped over chairs. He exits a streetcar into the street on the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. It’s a combination hidden picture and “I spy” game with art. A reference page gives more information about artists and pieces. —S.O.