Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Baby Love

There are special individuals in our midst who devote their lives caring for the youngest beings born into our world.  Their minds are focused through preparation and knowledge.  Their hearts have a huge capacity for patience and love.  They are known for their complete dedication and persistence in preserving what is best for those under their protection.

Most of them do this without any expectation of reward other than the happiness and well-being of those they foster.  One such person, a woman, who lived from 1912 to 1994 was Helen Martini.  Her life is fabulously depicted in Cubs in the Tub: The True Story of the Bronx Zoo's First Woman Zookeeper (Neal Porter Books, Holiday House, August 4, 2020) written by Candace Fleming with illustrations by Julie Downing. 

Helen and Fred Martini longed
for a baby.
A baby to bottle-feed and burp.
A baby to rock and soothe and croon
lullabies to.
A baby to love with all their hearts.

Fred worked at the Bronx ZooHelen was at home hoping to be a mother.  Her dream came true one day, but not in the way she expected.  Fred brought home a lion cub the lioness refused to acknowledge as her own.  Cuddling the cub, Helen named it MacArthur.

All her preparations for a child were used to care for this feline baby.  The cub grew and Helen kept track of his every accomplishment. The cub was exactly what Helen and Fred needed in their lives, and they were exactly what this cub needed in his life.  Soon he was large enough and healthy enough to be sent to another zoo.  After two months in their home, Helen was devastated by the loss of his presence.  But . . .

Fred came home one evening with three sickly tiger cubs.  Helen knew what to do, and she named them Raniganj, Dacca, and Rajpur.  After one week under Helen's watchful eyes, with Fred's help when he was home, the cubs improved.  They developed into separate individuals with separate characteristics.  After three months, Fred told her they had to go back to the zoo.  This time, Helen was going with them.

During the day, their enclosure open to the public was turned into a playroom.  That first night Helen stayed with them until they fell asleep, hurrying back the next morning.  No one seemed to pay any attention to Helen, so she put a plan into action.  What she had done was finally noticed, she was given the title of "keeper of the nursery."  This was a first for this zoo, a woman zookeeper.  Raniganj, Dacca, and Rajpur grew into adults, confined to a large enclosure outside of Helen's nurturing, but Helen remained to care for many more of the youngest beings born into our world.

Readers easily identify with the beginning Candace Fleming uses to introduce us to the story of Helen Martini.  We know what it is like to wish for something, prepare for it, and then have it disappear.  In this beginning she includes three details.  This rhythm of three is used throughout the book with facts woven into the narrative cadence.  Through her research, direct quotations, repetition of key phrases and adept writing Candace Fleming brings us directly into the world of Helen Martini. Here is a passage.

Helen cradled the baby close.
She marveled at the tiny buds
of his ears and the tender pink
undersides of his toes.

I'll name you MacArthur.

In looking at the images on the front (right) and back (left) of the open and matching dust jacket and book case, several words come to mind, playful, layered, and warmth.  Helen Martini, when the cubs were in her care in her home, allowed them to be themselves.  These illustrations show the blend of animal antics, and human-made items amid historically accurate settings, inside and outside. In each of the three pictures affection for the animals, and the love between Helen and her husband are clearly evident. 

On the back, left, are two horizontal pictures.  On the top Helen and Fred are positioned at opposite sides of the cage at the zoo housing the three two-year old tigers.  Helen holding a birthday cake with two lighted candles, is watching as Fred blows on a party whistle.  In the lower and larger illustration, we watch as Helen and Fred walk arm and arm through the gates into the Bronx Zoo.  

On the opening and closing endpapers the color used in the main title text on the jacket and case is the background hue.  On the title page the three cubs are in highly animated positions above, below and between the text.  The canvas looks like a light, two-toned delicately printed wallpaper.

Illustrator Julie Downing shifts her image sizes from full pages extending over the gutter, to pages of smaller panels, to full-page pictures, and dramatic double-page visuals. Some of her smaller images are wordless.  In several of her illustrations, elements break the border to add movement.  Two pages include a series of eight black and white photographs with black corners adhering them to a printed background.

Julie Downing's images are a mix of bold, darker colors, faded hues, and line drawings.  Her portrayals of the animals are realistic.  Fred and Helen are two people you would enjoy having as neighbors. In a word these illustrations are endearing.  

One of my many, many favorite pictures spans one and one-half pages.  A column of white on the far left is created for the text.  We are looking at a scene in the bathroom of the Martini home.  Pale delicate rosy wallpaper covers the upper walls.  The tub and sink are pink.  Pink towels with large M monograms hang from the sink.  Light pink tile is over the tub.  Pink boards line the lower wall around the sink.  Fred is leaning over the sink in a t-shirt and pajama bottoms, shaving as he looks in the mirror.  Helen in a purple bathrobe, her hair in curlers and a scarf is holding a towel near the tub.  Delicate hand washables hang on a line over the tub.  Two of the tigers are playing in the tub.  The third tiger has two paws resting on Helen.  Its back two paws and the back portion of its body break the frame.  This is an ordinary morning with extraordinary tigers in it.  Who could look at this and not smile?

Readers of all ages are going to enjoy learning about this woman and her achievements in Cubs in the Tub: The True Story of the Bronx Zoo's First Woman Zookeeper written by Candace Fleming with illustrations by Julie Downing.  The conversational narrative and charming images pair wonderfully in their presentation of information.  At the close of the book is a page plus a bit more of facts in a section titled A Quieter Kind Of Hero.  There is a Selected Bibliography and Source Notes.  This is an excellent title to use in a biography study, a focus on women pioneers, or women working with animals.  I highly recommend this book for your professional and personal collections.

To learn more about Candace Fleming and Julie Downing and their other work, please follow the link attached to their names to access their respective websites. Julie Downing has a wonderful page dedicated to this book on her website.  Candace Fleming has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  Julie Downing has accounts on Facebook, and Instagram.  At the publisher's website is an educator's guide.

Be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the title she selected this week, participating in the 2020 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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