Remembering tragedies

These sensitive picture books memorializing somber subjects can help begin candid conversations about difficult parts of history that should not be forgotten. See also Five Questions for Marcie Colleen and Aaron Becker about Survivor Tree; Five Questions for Carole Boston Weatherford about 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Book Unspeakable, illustrated by the late Floyd Cooper; and for older readers, Don Brown’s graphic-format nonfiction book In the Shadow of the Fallen Towers and Brandy Colbert’s nonfiction book Black Birds in the Sky.

Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
by Jeff Gottesfeld; illus. by Matt Tavares
Primary, Intermediate    Candlewick    32 pp.    g
3/21    978-1-5362-0148-2    $17.99

“In life we were our mothers’ sons. / In death we are faded photos on the mantel, / empty chairs at Thanksgiving, / prayers in the dark before dawn. / We are known but to God.” The remains of unidentified soldiers from World Wars I and II and the Korean War are interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, representing the “countless unknowns” buried in other cemeteries in the United States and around the world. Gottesfeld’s poetic text is in the voice of the first Unknown Soldier, borne by a horse-drawn wagon to Arlington in 1921 and, after a twenty-one-gun salute, laid to rest on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at the eleventh hour (the time the WWI armistice was signed in 1918). Tomb Guards, devoted to the “Sentinel’s Creed” (the text of which opens the volume), guard the tomb around the clock every day. Published to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, this book is a gorgeous and reverent tribute both to veterans and to the Tomb Guards. Tavares’s illustrations, rendered in pencil and painted digitally, variously show battle scenes, views of Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and portraits of the Tomb Guards at work. A brief afterword adds more information. DEAN SCHNEIDER

A Day for Rememberin’: Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day
by Leah Henderson; illus. by Floyd Cooper
Primary, Intermediate    Abrams    40 pp.    g
5/21    978-1-4197-3630-8    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-68335-560-1    $15.54

Through the eyes of a formerly enslaved ten-year-old boy, Henderson recounts the story of what some consider to be the first celebration of Decoration Day, currently observed as Memorial Day. In 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina, Papa has been rising early to do “man’s work.” Eli, who would rather be with Papa than go to school, can only imagine what kind of important work Papa and the other men are doing. When pressed, all Papa says is, “We were diggin’, and buildin’, and paintin’.” At last, Eli discovers that Papa and the men are converting a racecourse, once used as a Confederate jail, into a monument to the Union soldiers who had fought for freedom of the enslaved and died while imprisoned. Eli and his schoolmates help by painting a fence. The next day, a mile-long parade of neighbors, singing tributes to the unknown Union soldiers, marches to the site and spreads flowers among their graves. Henderson’s affecting narrative resonates with reverence, and Cooper’s prolific use of muted browns and yellows creates a solemn yet celebratory tone. An image of the family backed by an enormous setting sun conveys freedom and hope as Eli declares, “Me, Mama, and Papa can’t never be sold away no more…we will never forget what [the Union soldiers have] given of themselves for the priceless gift of our liberty.” This worthy title offers another little-known fact about African American contributions that are an imperative part of America’s history and traditions. Back matter includes an author’s note, a timeline, source notes (acknowledging the contested history of the holiday), and a bibliography. PAULETTA BROWN BRACY

All Hands on Deck!: A Deadly Hurricane, a Daring Rescue, and the Origin of the Cajun Navy
by Robert Neubecker; illus. by the author
Primary    Knopf    40 pp.    g
6/21    978-0-593-17689-4    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-17690-0    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-17691-7    $10.99

“The little boats come from all over the coast, one by one. Bass boats and airboats and rowboats, fishing boats and speedboats and skiffs all answer the call, captained by everyday people coming to help.” Neubecker’s colorful and engaging picture book provides readers with a vibrant telling of the formation of New Orleans’s Cajun Navy in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Readers are introduced to various watercraft, including Bennie the airboat, Sal the speedboat, and Bubba the bass boat (each given eyes and a smile that Mike Mulligan fans will recognize, appropriate in this nod to Virginia Lee Burton’s classic vehicle books), which all play important roles in the nascent Cajun Navy’s rescue efforts. Throughout, the traits of the distinct crafts prove important to the various situations (“Bennie thinks: ‘With my fan and shallow draft, I can go where no one else can’”). Cartoonish watercolor, pencil, and digital illustrations lighten what could be a harrowing topic for a young audience. Neubecker’s detailed double-page spreads depict rescuers and survivors of various skin tones, accurately conveying the diversity of New Orleans. Back matter includes general information about hurricanes and hurricane safety, an overview of Hurricane Katrina, and more about the Cajun Navy. ERIC CARPENTER

This Very Tree: A Story of 9/11, Resilience, and Regrowth
by Sean Rubin; illus. by the author
Primary    Holt    48 pp.    g
5/21    978-1-250-78850-4    $18.99

This is the story of an extraordinary Callery pear tree, told in the voice of the tree itself. Planted in the 1970s, this early spring bloomer thrived in the bustling downtown Manhattan cityscape, providing shade for workers and a haven for birds — until September 11, 2001. The simple text states, “It was an ordinary morning. Until it wasn’t.” Several pages of progressively darker, but not overly graphic, sequential art capture the devastation that followed on that fateful day. Weeks after the attack, workers pulled the badly damaged but still-alive pear tree from the rubble. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation took charge of the rescue and replanted it in the Bronx, where it was nursed back to health over nearly a decade. The tree’s recovery from the physical and emotional trauma is mirrored by the city’s resilience and regrowth and the development of an oak forest on the 9/11 Memorial grounds. “Between the trees, they saved three empty spaces. Two spaces remained where the towers once stood. They would stay empty forever, because nothing could fill them.” The third space was reserved for the “Survivor Tree,” which was returned to the World Trade Center in 2010, offering visitors peace, hope, and the first blossoms every spring. Rubin’s lively and energetic paneled art takes the focus quickly from destruction and desolation to growth and renewal, and the spare, moving account is perfectly suited to young audiences. A volume that could be part of any unit on 9/11 for children, or a lesson on resilience. LUANN TOTH

Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued
by Peter Sís; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate    Norton    64 pp.    g
1/21    978-1-324-01574-1    $19.95
e-book ed.  978-1-324-01575-8    $17.48

At the end of 1938, when the Germans invaded the border region of Czechoslovakia, a young Englishman named Nicky arranged for the transport of 669 children from there to England, where they were settled with families to live out the war. In this remarkable book, Sís weaves Nicky’s story with that of Vera, a Czech child who was one of those Nicky saved. The story does not end with the transport but includes the post-war years as Vera returns to Czechoslovakia in search of her parents and cousins (none survived) and returns to England for good; and as Nicky’s quiet, productive life unfolds. Sís tells this multi-stranded tale in prose that is as understated as Nicholas Winton (as Nicky is eventually identified in the back matter) was himself and in illustrations that capture the complexity and heartbreaking emotion of the tale. For example, Vera kept a diary during the war, and Sís illustrates the years during which Vera lived with her foster family against a grid of diary pages; small squares include drawings such as a child with a violin, fish and chips, and a radio, all representing her years growing up in England. On subsequent pages, text overlays more journal pages, these covered with minuscule handwriting as time passes and Vera searches for family. In a final spread, when an elderly Nicholas Winton is publicly recognized for his quiet heroism and introduced to the adults he saved as children, each adult faces a seated Winton, and, inside each outline, Sís has drawn the child they were when they left Czechoslovakia. This is an exceptional story told with a powerful combination of words and pictures to engage both those who know some history of the Holocaust and those new to the topic. An appended note tells more about Nicholas Winton and Vera Diamantova. MAEVE VISSER KNOTH

From the September 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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