Larger Realities from Smaller Perspectives

Jul 29, 2013

Investigative reporter Leah Samuel says journalists would do well to emulate the curiosity of children.
Credit Courtesy PublicSource

Freelance reporter Leah Samuel writes about social and environmental issues for PublicSource and others. As a journalist, and as a reader, she finds the lessons of history are best learned from the margins.

Philip Beard, "Dear Zoe"

Striking in its characterizations and brilliantly precise in its dissections of both adolescence and human nature, "Dear Zoe" deftly juxtaposes a national catastrophe with personal tragedy. While acknowledging mass suffering, it also reaffirms the need of individuals to give and receive love. In his precociously wise but profoundly vulnerable narrator, Philip Beard creates a character of superb nuance and unusual depth. "Dear Zoe" is both a realistic portrait of troubled youth and a work of artistic and philosophical significance.


Albert French, "Billy"

Albert French lights up the monstrous face of American racism in this harrowing tale of ten-year-old Billy Lee Turner, who is convicted of and executed for murdering a white girl in Banes County, Mississippi in 1937. "Billy" is about the deaths of two children, one girl, one boy, the girl's death an accident, the boy's a murder perpetrated by the state. Though the events "Billy" records occur during the 1930s in a small Mississippi town, the range of characters, emotions, and social forces, and the inexorable march to doom of a ten-year-old boy and the society that dooms him, catapult the story far beyond a specific time and location. Narrated by an anonymous observer in the rich accents of the region, constructed in a series of powerfully lean vignettes, "Billy" imparts an intensity that is nearly unbearable. It is a tour de force of dramatic compression. Albert French evokes with cinematic vividness the picking fields and town streets; the heat, the dust, the unrelenting sun, the poverty of 1930s Mississippi. High-spirited Billy; his mysterious and passionate mother, Cinder; his friend, Gumpy; and other characters black and white are realized with depth and authority. Told in classic, unrelieved terms yet with remarkable compassion and restraint, their story is an unsentimental and ultimately heart-rending vision of racial injustice. "Billy" is, quite simply, one of the most powerfully affecting novels to come along in years.

Arnold Lobel, "Frog and Toad are Friends"

It's April, and Frog is looking forward to a whole year of happy times with his best friend, Toad. If only Toad would agree to wake up from his long winter nap! In the first of five short stories, clever Frog finds a way to rouse his sleepy friend. And as children will soon see, theirs is a marvelous friendship. When Frog doesn't feel well, Toad tries to tell him a story. When Toad loses a button, Frog helps him look for it. When Toad goes swimming in his funny bathing suit, Frog tries not to laugh, and when Toad is sad because he never gets any mail, Frog knows just what to do.

Named a Caldecott Honor Book for its appealing green-and-brown illustrations, "Frog and Toad Are Friends" invites beginning readers to celebrate the wonder of friendship in happy stories they can read by themselves. Among Caldecott Medalist Arnold Lobel's many books for children are three others about Frog and Toad, including the Newbery Honor Book "Frog and Toad Together."