Illustrator in shadows

more boxcar illustrationThe first thing we learn about the four siblings in The Boxcar Children is that “No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from.” So it seems completely appropriate that all of the illustrations in this first book of the series are done in a shadow/silhouette style.

Illustrator L. Kate Deal does a nice job with this format, providing just enough pictures to enhance the story, but not so many that it feels like a picture book.  Young readers can readily see that this is a chapter book, one that they have to read to know what’s happening in the story. Ms Deal shows a nice level of detail in her black and white drawings so that we have a good idea of the children’s relative ages, how they dress, how they take care of themselves and each other. Though we see them only in the dark, it’s obvious that there is nothing shady about them.

boxcar children illustration

I’m afraid I can’t say the same about L. Kate Deal. Not that I know anything to her detriment – it’s just that I can find little about her anywhere.  And by “anywhere” I of course mean “online through my typical practice of googling everything I want to know about.”

I have become so accustomed to casually typing in key words and instantly finding multiple references to every little thing I have questions about, I’ve been a bit put out by my lack of success in finding out any personal information about this woman. The sum total of my findings about L. Kate Deal – she was an illustrator. Seems she mainly did children’s stories – but who knows?

book twoWhat I do know is that besides The Boxcar Children, Deal provided illustrations for Child Library Readers, Book Two (1925) by William H. Elson, one of the authors of the “Dick and Jane” readers that helped so many of us in our early days of reading. I was so annoyed that I couldn’t find out anything online about L. Kate Deal that I bought a musty old copy of this reader, in which someone penciled in neat cursive “Lime Ridge Grade.” A quick search told me more about Lime Ridge than I found about our illustrator. There’s a Lime Ridge in Pennsylvania and one in Wisconsin, either of which might have had a grade school in the 20s – and then there’s an elementary school in New York state that is on Lime Ridge Road, which looks even more promising. Anyway, this little reader was helping young kids learn to read 90 years ago, which is nice no matter where it was doing its job.

The introduction to this reader assures us that “the stories have been selected for their child-interest and wholesome ethical content. Kindness, helpfulness, contentment, industry, promptness, gratitude, love of Mother, and obedience are attractively portrayed in interesting stories, yet without any of the atmosphere of preachiness.” (Perhaps the stories aren’t preachy, but there seems to be a bit of sermonizing in the introduction.)

We are told the illustrations by L. Kate Deal and others “are not mere decorations, but are so drawn as to present in visual form the unfolding of the narrative.” And here we see a couple of examples of her narrative-unfolding skills. A pleasant, old-school style.

girl with fairy

“If you meet a fairy”

peter rabbit

Peter Rabbit and family.

One interesting aspect of these illustrations is that as far as I can tell, various illustrators worked on the Reader in a general way, because illustrations within a single story are sometimes from different artists. All of the drawings are stylistically similar, but there are a few distinctive signatures. For example, let’s look at two illustrations from “The Magic Ladder” by Jay T. Stocking – a title/author pairing that strikes me as funny – makes me think of British women complaining of damaged pantyhose.

But to get back on topic, here we have two very similar drawings from the story that have different artist other illustratorsignatures. Early in the story, we see Jack and “the funniest little man that you ever saw” who hopped out of a grandfather clock. And here’s a closeup of the signature:


Later on, Jack is in the same room talking to the same funny little man, and this picture shows with a fairythe signature of our mysterious illustrator, L. Kate Deal.


You can clearly see that the pictures show the same room, same characters, but if you compare, you can see the differences in style.

I wondered if maybe publishing companies just commonly had – or still have – a sort of team of illustrators that pitch in wherever they’re needed. But in searching for publishing practices and illustrations for school readers in the 1920s, I got pretty much nowhere. If anyone knows about such things, I’d be happy to hear about it.

dorothy lake gregoryAll in all, I didn’t find out much about our Boxcar Children illustrator – but I do think her style suits the story better than those of the illustrator of the first publication. Nearly 20 years after the original version, Gertrude Chandler Warner revised the book to make it more accessible to young readers – which evidently was the right thing to do, judging by the never-ending popularity of the series.

The earlier illustrations by Dorothy Lake Gregory are lovely, but this is a story about runaway orphans living rough – these kids look a bit too refined and elegant. I like the shadowy kids better in this context.

Another cool reason the simple black and white illustrations work for this book is that in20170624_144016 her role as grade school teacher, Gertrude Chandler Warner used to draw silhouettes of all of her students, like this one:

I wonder if any of my elementary school teacher friends plan to add that activity to their busy school day….


boxcar children








Impossible things

I recently finished The Boxcar Children, and I was surprised to find myself wondering, “Is this believable?” Just what I was questioning, I’ll address when I review the book, but the question itself turned my thoughts toward a rather important feature of much of children’s literature – the possibility of the impossible.

It’s one of the things I love best about children’s lit – the idea that pretty much anything might happen. The story might be about a family you could imagine living next door to you, or a family that lives undetected under your floorboards, or a family of mice (or rabbits or badgers or fairies) dealing with challenges that, strangely enough, you might be facing yourself. Or it might be about someone who seems to have a life much like your own but unexpectedly finds a cricket that chirps classical music or a wardrobe that leads to a different land.

Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White speaks beautifully about the challenges and rewards of writing for children:

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.

220px-A-dressing_the_White_QueenThis is the one of the pleasures ahead of us as we take on some of the best of children’s novels – we’ll get to practice believing impossible things. According to a certain White Queen (who looks suspiciously like a chess piece), if we do it for half an hour a day, we can work our way up to believing six impossible things before breakfast! Although frankly, I prefer to believe my impossible things after breakfast – otherwise it just seems like sleepiness or hunger-induced delirium.

As much as I look forward to reading and discussing the Top 100 Children’s Novels with kids of various ages, and as much as I hope that lots of kids will join us in reading them, there’s a sense in which I really don’t like thinking of them as children’s books. Most of the books on our list that I’ve already read, I read for the first time as an adult – and I enjoyed them as much as my children did, maybe more. I find that human struggles and successes, dilemmas and discoveries stand out sharp and clear against the backdrop of a magical or alien world and what I learn from them is more memorable because of the contrast.

As children, we’re encouraged to read to exercise our imaginations, expand our horizons, to believe that anything is possible. Then somewhere along the line, those encouragements turn to exhortations to get our heads out of the clouds, face facts and live in the real world. The longer we do that, the harder it becomes to “suspend our disbelief” – which is kind of a dull and pretentious way to talk about relaxing and enjoying impossible things.


So, while I read through these books, my suspended disbelief will take the shape of the Cheshire Cat’s head after its body fades away – but floating just over my shoulder so that as my imagination gets a workout, my critical thinking skills can reach out and tap me with a paw to remind me of important points to bring out when it’s time to write my reviews.





Let’s hear it from the kids!

Welcome! My name is Patti, a mom who has been an avid reader since childhood, as well as a committed read-alouder who has raised two avid readers, aged 33 and 18 (and who still reads aloud to a husband who would otherwise never read fiction.)

Some young friends and I are embarking on a reading adventure and our mission is to read and review the Top 100 Children’s Novels, as compiled by the School Library Journal. 

Five years ago, I started a completely similar project with my daughter, hoping we could get through the list together by the time she graduated from high school. It was a great idea and really fun, but we got through fewer than 10 books before school, sports, interest in other books and adolescent life in general pushed the project to the side. My daughter still loves to read, but she just graduated from high school and will soon be – quite appropriately – busy with college textbooks.

BUT – even though we haven’t posted anything for five years, our blog still receives visitors nearly every day, and folks still optimistically click the “follow” button, hoping that we will post more reviews.

So, I’m back with a crew of avid readers who range in age from 8 to 12 (and I’m still recruiting!). Together we plan to work our way through this list of fabulous books and provide detailed reviews from the parental perspective (that would be from me) and – more importantly – from the point of view of the intended audience: elementary to middle-school kids.

Reader reviews are so helpful, especially when you’re looking for books to feed your kids’ reading habit, but too often the reviews are written by adults who have fond memories of the book from childhood. And don’t get me wrong – those are valid reviews. (I know, because I’m full of reviews like that.) And adults should absolutely share their book thoughts with the kids that they know. Think about it – it’s how most of us became book lovers in the first place. I know you remember the adults who shared books with you when you were younger.

But let’s face it – hindsight is not 20/20. It is colored by fond or not-so-fond memories and  – let’s face it – forgetfulness and/or the fact that we grew up in a very different decade. Our goal here is to provide a kid’s eye view of books written anywhere from just a few years ago back to the 19th century, letting parents and kids know what to expect when they open those pages – with a bit of help from an adult who either knows the book well or may be reading it for the first time (again, that would be me).

This project is exciting to me because a lot of these books, I never read until I had kids of my own. Out of the 47 that were available when I was a child, I read only 7 while I could still be considered a child — and I still remember all of them fondly.

In reading many of these books as an adult, I have discovered that a great book is simply a great book – you’re not supposed to “outgrow” it.  It will just keep getting better,  revealing new depths, new insights when you re-read it – which is basically why it is considered a classic.

So here we go – our first review will be for The Boxcar Children, published in 1924 by Gertrude Chandler Warner. Prior to the reviews, I will post a bit of information about the author and illustrator — and anything else that might occur to me before my panel of experts finish their reviews.