May 27, 2012


On May 8 of this year Maurice Sendak died. His contributions to children's literature were acclaimed during his lifetime and have been recounted and regaled in the days following his passing. Rightly so.

The title most often mentioned as generating a seismic shift in the publishing landscape is Where the Wild Things Are. Decades before that was published, though, Sendak was making an even more substantial mark on children's illustrations in his collaborations with his mentor, Ruth Krauss.

In 1952 they published A HOLE IS TO DIG: A First Book of First Definitions. Look carefully at the characters in this tiny classic and you'll see Max in the early days, peeking out at us in line drawings, minus his white wolf suit. You can hear the story behind the changing vision of what a book could and should be, what children in books would look like, would have to say, in this interview with Sendak on NPR. This title was not met with rave reviews upon its release, but has since been recognized as timeless and inspired, a true game-changer.

Sendak's family emmigrated to the USA before World War II, but all relatives who did not leave Poland were destroyed in the Holocaust. The reality of that, of the suffering his parents felt as the magnitude of their loss became known to them, shaped him painfully for much of his life.
But some few people, young and old, did survive the concentration camps. Let the Celebrations Begin by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Julie Vivas (1991) is a surprisingly tender and upbeat story based on a most unexpected celebration. In the waning days of WWII, women and children in a concentration camp heard rumors of the impending arrival of American forces. Scrounging scraps from their own tattered clothing the women secretly constructed makeshift toys for the few children who remained, to be presented when they were finally released. Some of these very toys have been preserved in holocaust museums and inspired this telling.

Yet another child's-eye-view of the Holocaust can be found in Star of Fear, Star of Hope, by Jo Hoestlandt, illustrated by Johanna Kang, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti (1993). The mandatory yellow star Lydia's mother stitched on their clothing was seen by her friend, the narrator, as "pretty". All too soon these childhood friends were separated, never to meet again. This story is particularly effective in portraying the sheltered, unsuspecting world of the girls prior to the events of one tragic night.

For those who share powerful picture book titles such as these with older readers, Somebody, Please Tell Me Who I Am, by Harry Mazer and Peter Lerangis is a YA title you shouldn't miss. It moves the conversation into current times, in which soldiers who would have died in past conflicts are being saved, but changed in ways we are only beginning to understand.

Memorial Day is a much-loved holiday in the USA, the unofficial start of summer. Originating in the era of the Civil War, traditions call for the honoring of fallen soldiers with prayer, flags, parades.

It is said that wars are started by old men who send young men (and women) to die. But it is the children who have the most to lose: safety, security, the love of those who are lost or changed forever by war.

When Shakespeare provided Mark Antony's eulogy for Emperor Caesar he said:
"The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."

We would do well to remember that message this Memorial Day. The evils of war, and the pains inflicted by war, are impossible to forget. But good men and good women have stood strong to protect freedom and dignity, to put an end to evil, not only for their own country, but for the innocents of the world. And other good men and women have used their talents to speak the truth to children in picture books and beyond, to present reality in ways that they can understand- and learn from.

I choose to remember and honor all those whose efforts shape the world in which children grow to become tomorrow's society. Perhaps even one without wars.

That effort, that courage, should not be interred with their bones.

Here is a link to a Holocaust Educational Bibliography, one of many available.


  1. Okay, I'm crying here in a Memorial Day way. Thank you for bringing these topics together.

  2. Thanks for your note, Jenny. So many have earned our thanks, and more than just a day of remembrance. But one day is start.


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