Seeing Barack and Michelle Obama get so enthused while reading aloud made me think about my favourite read-aloud books from childhood. The ones I remember best are the longer ones, perhaps because I connected more with the complex stories, perhaps because they were read to me when I was old enough to be remembering more in general, or perhaps because I returned to these books and read them to myself. I was surprised, a few weeks ago, to meet someone who, on learning my name, immediately asked, “Oh! Have you read Bronwen, the Traw and the Shape Shifter?” I did have a copy of this illustrated poem, which is quite long for a picture book: with a name like Bronwen, I was always looking for something with my name on it!
Among the longer books, a favourite was Maminka’s Children by Elizabeth Orton Jones, first published in 1940 by Macmillan. The book is a collection of stories, chronologically building up to Christmas but readable separately, about two little girls and a little boy, their mother and grandfather. The family is from “The Old Country” ie. Bohemia in the present-day Czech Republic, but as a child, it was unclear to me that they were living in the United States, even though a contemporary reviewer placed the book as a “valuable addition to the list of books about Americans from foreign lands.” As far as I recall, they don’t have any interactions with anyone who is not Bohemian as well, and the whole thing exists in a sort of misty alternate space, which maybe, to my young mind, was still somewhere in Europe, or maybe somewhere in Canada (I also read, around the same time, The Bells on Finland Street which is about immigrant communities in Sudbury, Ontario).
Like many favorite children’s books, the most attractive part of this book for most children may well be the detailed descriptions of many unfamiliar but delicious-sounding foods – perhaps we can call this Farmer Boy syndrome? Poppy-seed cake, cabbage, and the mysteriously named “good brambory soup” all play key roles in the stories. I never knew as a child that “brambory” simply meant “potato” and this lack of translation (both of nouns and proper names) seems to have been intentional on the author’s part, perhaps to increase the exoticism of the family?
For as you can tell from her own name, Elizabeth Orton Jones was not Bohemian (at least in the geographic sense!), and the “foreignness” of her characters was, if not a deliberate marketing ploy on her part, a definite selling point for the book. A survey of children’s literature published in The Elementary School Journal in 1945 praised Maminka’s Children among a group of books about “children in other lands,” a list which, included, I was interested to note, another childhood favorite of mine, The Good Master, published in 1935 and written about a Hungarian family. The reviewer (Grace E. Storm) noted:
It is partly in hope of arousing and increasing children’s sympathy toward other people that books about children in other lands are constituting a larger proportion of children’s reading. During the present war crisis, when international friendship is a big factor in world peace, the school should assume a big part of the responsibility for developing respect for, and neighborliness with, other nationalities.
The book’s other selling point was its illustrations, although I remember that as a child I thought them somewhat odd, since they were not in full colour, but instead in shades of beige, red, black and white.The image of the braided poppy-seed loaf was familiar, as my Dad used to make braided loaves of bread when he baked with us on Saturday mornings. Or perhaps we got him to braid the loaves in imitation of the picture? The illustrations of textiles in the book, from Maminka’s red kerchief that she wraps around her injured hand, to the endless knitted stocking that the little girls produce, are beautiful.
Orton Jones was, in fact, primarily a children’s book illustrator, who trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and won the 1945 Caldecott Medal. Those illustrations, plain though they seemed to me, were the result of a painstaking experimental print-making process pioneered by Orton Jones’ editors, Lilian and William Glaser (described further in this online exhibit from the University of Oregon Libraries.
The review of Maminka’s Children in the New York Times appeared on November 3, 1940:
Miss Jones, who knows children well, has told the stories with warmth and geyety and a lovely simplicity. The book is good for reading aloud and story-tellers will welcome it; boys and girls, however, will want to have it their own hands in order to look at the pictures over and over again.