Have you noticed how often bookstore displays cater to titles that are both commercial and conventional — and therefore, utterly predictable? With Mother’s Day approaching, I’d like to suggest a trio of stellar books that will likely not be featured in shops or on those top-10 lists that keep spreading like ivy throughout our culture.
Heckedy Peg: Audrey Wood’s picture book is a modern classic, with a thrilling plot featuring a strong and loving mother who risks her life to prevent her seven kidnapped children from being devoured by the witch Heckedy Peg.
Like the bad guy in “The Wolf and the Seven Kids,” the witch tricks the children into disobeying their mother after she leaves for the market. The young ones let Heckedy Peg, who’s lost a leg, into their home, and she quickly transforms them into various foods. Don Wood’s expressive, detailed paintings are a marvel, depicting both the varying emotions of the children and the frightening aspects of their captor. In doing so, they beautifully evoke the Old World tone of this simple but enchanting picture book.
Tellingly, the mother is able to break the spell and save her children because she recognizes each one. And, dear readers, isn’t that true of love? Is it any wonder this story stirs deep feelings in both children and adults?
Despite the scariness of the witch and her evil spell, children have reason to feel reassured when the mother triumphs. Ms. Wood employs other well-honed narrative techniques as well, such as spicing the story with plenty of humor. Each child, for instance, is named for a day of the week. Those who read this aloud can make a game of asking the listener to guess, along with the mother, the identity of each child, in the attempt to rescue them.
Love, in fact, has saved many of us, has it not?
Mother to Tigers: George Ella Lyon’s lyrical picture-book biography tells the story of Helen Martini, the first female zookeeper at the Bronx zoo. Set in the ’40s, we learn that Helen first cared for a lion cub and three tiger cubs in her small apartment.
Ms. Lyon beautifully engages readers by asking them to imagine how they would feel if they were a lion cub placed in a box in the back of a car. From there, she launches into the intriguing story of this admirable woman.
Peter Catalonato’s appealing watercolors will win over cat lovers of all stripes.
Jubela by Cristina Kessler:
“Baby rhino played.
He tossed and turned,
squiggled and squirmed
in the cooling mud.
huge head hung low,
to protect her baby.”
But a poacher’s shot forces baby rhino Jubela to set off on his own. In the course of roaming the African savanna, he meets a kind and nurturing female rhino who adopts him.
Based on a true story from Swaziland, Kessler causes readers to care for the little rhino without being cutesy or preachy. Jubela illustrates that families come in a variety of configurations, but their common element is love.
Which books featuring moms do you recommend?
For older children, I would turn to the retold Greek myth Persephone, Little Women (of course) by Louisa May Alcott, and perhaps Sarah Kay’s “If I should have a daughter …” .