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Different Drums: How Can a Fire Be Naughty?

Martin and Judy: Playing and Learning by Verna Hills BayleyThe Horn Book Magazine asked Elizabeth Law, “What’s the strangest children’s book you’ve ever enjoyed?”

When I was in nursery school, my favorite bedtime books were two my mother stole from the Unitarian Sunday School library, Martin and Judy, volumes II and III, by Verna Hills Bayley. I loved these books, about two friends who lived next door to each other, because each chapter contained a mildly dramatic story on a subject I could relate to, and each one ended with a lesson. (That’s right, a lesson—the same thing that makes me leery when I see one in a picture book manuscript today. But that’s because I don’t like instruction that tries to pass itself off as something else.) Judy and her brother get distracted while popping corn in the fireplace and forget to replace the screen, causing a fire. A tiny fire that burns a hole in the rug, but it seems scary at first. Judy and her mother sensibly discuss, “How can a fire be naughty? It has to burn the things that are in its way.” Another time, Judy gets her tonsils out in a story that ends with Judy remembering her father’s wise words, “Hospitals may not be much fun, but they are good when you need them.” So satisfying!

When I came across these books again in my twenties, I rolled my eyes at their all-white cast, their overstated prose style, and their obvious didacticism. But now I recognize what they did well. There’s real plot in each story, yet they are short and come to rewarding conclusions. They build a world and characters. Finally, each tale, from the rained-out picnic to the nickel that gets lost under the porch, is one a preschooler can relate to. And don’t many of our very best picture books today explore or celebrate the tiny things that loom so large in a child’s universe?

From the March/April 2013 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Elizabeth Law About Elizabeth Law

Elizabeth Law is a children’s book editor who has worked in publishing for more than twenty-five years.

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