For Kids

November 01, 2000 10 min read

THE YELLOW STAR: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark, by Carmen Agra Deedy, with illustrations by Henri Sørensen. (Peachtree, $16.95; grades 1 to 3.) After listening to a compelling story, particularly one that’s tugged at their heartstrings, children want to know one thing: Is it true? Did this really happen? As they make their way in the world, youngsters want to figure out, as well they should, what is real and what isn’t.

The Yellow Star, then, is complicated. It’s about a real person, King Christian X of Denmark, who helped save thousands of Danish Jews from Nazi death camps during World War II, but the story is made up; it’s an oft-told tale that has attained—as the subtitle notes—mythic proportions.

Deedy’s version begins with this simple statement: “Early in the year 1940, in the country of Denmark, there were only Danes.” While there were many different kinds of Danes—stout, tall, silly, etc.—they were all, Deedy writes, loyal subjects of King Christian. The king was so beloved that he was able to ride his horse each morning unprotected through the streets of Copenhagen, the capital city. But when World War II erupted and Germany invaded, the Nazis decreed, as they had elsewhere, that all Jews must sew yellow stars into their clothing so they could be identified easily. Christian, according to legend, devised a plan to hide the Jews. He had a yellow star sewn into his clothing and then went out for his morning ride, hoping his subjects would see what he had done and follow his lead, which they did. “And, once again,” Deedy writes, “in the country of Denmark, there were only Danes.”

In an author’s note, Deedy describes how disappointed she was to discover that the tale she’d first heard long ago from a stranger was in fact not true-she had tried to verify the events but could not-and ponders why the story has such appeal. “Perhaps because we need it,” she writes. “The allegory of the yellow star used by the Nazis to divide and shame became in this legend a symbol of unity and hope. It is a story that should be told.”

Deedy is right to suggest that the story has moral weight. It embodies the kind of courage and nobility that we want children—indeed, all people—to embrace. Children tend to learn morality by watching adults, particularly those closest to them, but they also glean moral lessons from stories. This notion has been popularized in recent years by William Bennett, author of the best-selling Book of Virtues. In the introduction to his companion volume for kids, The Children’s Book of Virtues, he writes that time-tested stories “can help [youngsters] start to see what the virtues look like, what they are in practice, how to recognize them, and how they work. If we want our children to possess the traits of character we most admire—honesty and courage and compassion—we need to teach them what those traits are and why they deserve both admiration and allegiance.”

And yet, we have to be careful in our storytelling not to mislead children about humankind and the events of history. When the time is right, they need to know—deserve to know—the truth. And what’s true about the Holocaust is that noble leadership and acts of national courage and compassion were the exception. Should we be introducing young children to this genocide with a story about such an aberration, especially one that is fictitious?

As Deedy says in her author’s note, King Christian and many Danes did act heroically. Christian defied Nazi authority and was placed under house arrest. And many of his countrymen smuggled more than 7,000 Danish Jews in small fishing boats to safety in Sweden. Thanks to actions like these, the overwhelming majority of Jews were saved from the camps. Perhaps Deedy should have researched and written the real story instead of taking the Oliver Stone approach.

Still, for teachers who are looking for a way to gently introduce the Holocaust to their young charges—and are prepared to answer the inevitable questions children will ask—this little volume is a good starting place. It’s perfectly tailored for the early grades. The narrative is simple, clear, and inspiring. And Sørensen’s light-filled paintings capture the warmth of the story while hinting at horrors on the horizon.

WALKING TO THE BUS-RIDER BLUES, by Harriette Gillem Robinet. (Athenuem, $16; grades 3-6.) Set against the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1956—one of the seminal events of the civil rights movement—this deeply personal novel effectively combines historical fiction and mystery in a story that is both suspenseful and moving. (In an author’s note, Robinet describes her own experiences as a child growing up under segregation.) Twelve-year-old Alfa Merryfield, the protagonist and narrator, wants to go to college, then medical school. So in the back room of the corner grocery where he works, he spends his breaks reading biology textbooks and patching up injured animals. While he’s a student of science, he also has been deeply influenced by the philosophy of nonviolence he’s heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preach at the Montgomery Improvement Association meetings he attends with his 15-year-old sister, Zinnia, and their great-grandmother, Mama Merryfield.

Alfa and Zinnia, whose mother’s whereabouts are unknown, live with their great-grandmother. Although highly respected, the Merryfields are dirt poor, and all three work every job they can to come up with the rent. Unfortunately, money has been disappearing from its hiding place in their house. To make matters worse, Alfa, Zinnia, and Mama are doing cleaning work for a prominent white physician when $2,000 disappears from his house. After the doctor’s wife accuses the Merryfields of the crime, Alfa and Zinnia set out to solve the two mysteries, seeking to protect their rent money and clear their name.

Trying to play detective while adhering to the bus boycott and the restrictions placed on them in the Jim Crow South is no easy task. But Alfa and Zinnia rise to the occasion with the resilient persistence of private eyes in the classic hard-boiled style.

What distinguishes Walking is the author’s brilliant use of vignettes, which evoke a specific time and place as well as the accompanying tensions and struggles. The result is a heartrendingly accurate portrayal of “the System"—the author’s words—of white supremacy from the “colored” point of view. In addition, we experience a key moment of the civil rights movement through the eyes of a thoughtful, idealistic 12-year-old who’s trying to put into action what King, in the book, describes as “love power.” Other participants in the struggle, historical and fictional, pop up as well, including the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, one of King’s colleagues.

This is a fine historical novel and an entertaining mystery to boot. It makes an excellent introduction to the civil rights movement.

—Stephen Del Vecchio


THE COOKIE COMPANY, by Ross Venokur. (Delacorte Press, $14.95; grades 3-6.) Alex Grindlay is the unluckiest boy in the world. His repeated encounters with disaster have led him to give up on even trying to better his fate. And to make matters worse, today is his 13th birthday. After he arrives home, where, as usual, his father is obsessively watching game shows, an oddly dressed man delivers takeout Chinese food that apparently nobody has ordered. But mixed in with the moo-shu pork and veggie lo mein is a fortune cookie that magically transports Alex to a world where talking animals are enslaved by a power-mad game show hostess who seeks to control all living things through her TV shows. Thus begins an insanely witty roller coaster ride through absurd, yet logical, worlds. The Cookie Company is a blend of Daniel Pinkwater and Roald Dahl at their wackiest, with pinches of Dr. Seuss, Alice in Wonderland, and The Phantom Tollbooth thrown in. With this tale, Venokur has created a delightfully frenetic modern fable in which the hero learns to battle bad luck and resignation, take fate into his own hands, save the world, get the girl, and be back in time for breakfast.

THE FOLK KEEPER, by Franny Billingsley. (Atheneum, $16; grades 4-8.) This novel is a good example of how old tales sometimes yield fresh truths. In the ancient story of the Seal Maiden, sealfolk—creatures who are half seal, half human—take on human forms whenever they remove their seal skins. One night, as a female dances under the moon in human form, her skin is stolen by a fisherman who has fallen in love with her. Refusing to return the skin, he forces her to remain a woman and become his bride and mother to his children. Billingsley takes this story and infuses it with new life; her sealfolk are only one of a number of fearsome, magical species. The ancient tale is now a haunting meditation on a young woman’s struggle to know herself, to find her place in the world, and, hardest of all, to love someone without losing her identity.

FEVER 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson. (Simon and Schuster, $16; grades 6 and up.) It’s the summer of 1793 in Philadelphia, the capital of the new American republic, and 16-year-old Mattie Cook, like most adolescents, is struggling with issues of identity, rebellion, and responsibility. Mattie’s widowed mother is trying to find her daughter a respectable husband, while Mattie is looking for romance. But soon one of the worst epidemics in U.S. history strikes Philadelphia, and by the time it ends three months later, yellow fever has killed almost 5,000 people, 10 percent of the city’s population. In Anderson’s book, Mattie gives a harrowing account of the epidemic, opening a window to the grim necessities of survival in a time of plague. Historically accurate, and given depth by the fully developed characters and the bonds of love between them, Mattie’s story is a powerful testament to all that is worst and best in people.

MADLENKA, by Peter Sis. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $17; grades K-2.) Another small masterpiece from the author/illustrator of the stellar Starry Messenger, Madlenka follows the title character as she strolls around her New York City block telling everyone she encounters—mostly neighborhood shopkeepers and vendors—her big news: She has a loose tooth. For the child, this walk is like a journey around the world, since the people she meets come from different countries. There’s a French baker, an Indian shopkeeper, an Italian ice-cream vendor, and a little Egyptian girl. For each encounter, Sis has created an intricate, multifaceted work of art illustrating the person’s culture. Young students—and their teachers—will want to pore over every page.

EDWURD FUDWUPPER FIBBED BIG, by Berkeley Breathed. (Little, Brown, $15.95; grades K-3.) Children’s books don’t get much zanier than this. A Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and creator of the “Bloom County” comic strip, Breathed tells the story of an impish fibber whose long-ignored sister saves his butt when one of his lies draws the attention of the U.S. military and then the ire of an enormous three-eyed monster from the heavens. The only thing wackier than the story line is the author’s bold, full-color artwork. Kids will love it.

THE HINDENBURG, by Patrick O’Brien. (Henry Holt, $17; grades 1-3.) It’s hard to imagine a better introduction to this fabulous airship—once a wonder of the world but best known today for its fiery demise. O’Brien starts by tracing the history of dirigibles, presenting a slew of information about the people who built them, the way they worked, and how they were first used. But the Hindenburg, the largest thing ever to fly (it would have dwarfed the Goodyear blimp), is the main focus. O’Brien’s well-crafted text and eye-popping paintings—in particular the ones of the great zeppelin exploding into flames—will leave a lasting impression.

ARCHES TO ZIGZAGS: An Architecture ABC, by Michael J. Crosbie, with photography by Steve and Kit Rosenthal. (Abrams, $18.95; grades K-1.) With so many alphabet books on the market, do we really need another? In this case, the answer is a resounding yes, mainly because here the alphabet is not the focus but rather a device to introduce kids to neat architectural features—balcony, finial, gargoyle, quoin, and the like. Each entry includes a clever four-line verse by Crosbie—an architect himself—and a striking picture by the Rosenthals, who run a business specializing in architectural photography. Here’s what Crosbie writes for the letter “V": “A hole in the wall / To bring fresh air through. / Could this vent be home / To a small bird or two?” On the final four pages, each term is more succinctly defined, and readers learn where all 26 photos were shot. This is a top-notch primer.

—Stephen Del Vecchio and Blake Hume Rodman