Book Review Wednesday: Pennies for Elephants

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Judge, Lita. Pennies for Elephants. Hyperion. New York, 2009.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that Lita Judge is a dear friend who I met when she was just starting in the world of children’s book illustration. In the following years, she illustrated covers, and picture books written by others. Most recently she has had a string of amazing, award winning picture books published (see awards listed here) that she both wrote and illustrated. Lita comes from a background of fine art which is crystal clear from her command of color and composition. She also comes from a science background and knows how to research a subject. Pennies for Elephants, shows-off Lita’s command of research and painting technique.

Pennies for Elephants is based on the true story of the children of Boston in 1914 who purchased three elephants for the Franklin Park Zoo. The story follows Dorothy and her brother Henry who earn and save pennies, nickels, and dimes to help make the purchase of the elephants a reality.

One of the most interesting editorial and design decisions for the book is the use of newspaper clippings to update the reader on the fundraising developments and provide information about the sale of the three elephants. These bits of newspaper are masterfully painted gray scale reproductions of the Boston Post by the author. This is where Lita’s research really shines. The newspaper clippings throughout the book and on the endpapers contain wonderful old ads (Children’s 49¢ rompers at 29¢, The Grant Car $495) that pull us right into Boston at the turn of the century.

The reader is immersed in setting and mood through the vibrant full color watercolors of Dorothy, Henry and their neighbors as they navigate Boston and the purchase of the elephants. I know that as reference for the people, Lita had a costume party for local kids in her New Hampshire community. The cityscapes reveal Lita’s research of clothing, style, automobiles and transportation, economics, and architecture.

The prose, told from Dorothy’s point of view is well written and engaging. While the text in the news clippings adds to the content, I found that while reading the book aloud, the clippings sometimes hindered the flow of the story.

The book recently received the 2009 New Hampshire Literary Awards as an Outstanding Work of Children’s Literature. Pennies for Elephants, like Lita’s One Thousand Tracings, and the newly released Yellowstone Moran, is a wonderful example of a literary nonfiction for children. Teachers and parents should make sure to visit the Pennies for Elephants webpage with young readers for wonderful activities, a book trailer with a Scott Joplin soundtrack, and old photographs from the era.

Thank you for such wonderful book, Lita!

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