Two Children's Books: Seeds of Freedom & The Cats Pajamas

Feb 23, 2015

Title: Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama
Author: Hester Bass
Illustrator:  E. B. Lewis
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Pages: 28
Price: $16.99 (Hardcover)

Title:  The Cat's Pajamas
Author & Illustrator:  Daniel Wallace
Publisher: Inkshares: Crowdfunded Publishing
Pages: 28
Price: $18.00 (Hardcover)

It has not been the custom to discuss picture books or children’s books in this space, but these two arrived nearly simultaneously, are so visually elegant in their different ways and so coincidentally linked in theme, that the project became irresistible.

“Seeds of Freedom” is the more conventional. Bass and Lewis have collaborated previously, on a children’s book/biography, “The Secret World of Walter Anderson,” which won awards for both the text and the watercolor illustrations.

Bass, who lived in Huntsville for 10 years, has created a story to be read to children: accessible, but not simplistic, inspired, the Author’s Note tells us, by a pair of historical markers commemorating the September, 1963, integration in Huntsville schools.

One concerns the Fifth Avenue School and the other “reverse integration” by twelve white students at St. Joseph’s Mission School.

Integration in Huntsville was not without strife, but black and white civic leaders and downtown business owners met together to carefully and peacefully integrate the downtown. Policemen kept watch, to prevent trouble.

By comparison, less than 100 miles away and only a week after school integration in Huntsville, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed.

Jim Crow was not eliminated overnight, but Bass’ text and E. B. Lewis’ paintings emphasize the positive. Students, even mothers and pregnant women, sit in at a lunch counter. Black churchgoers quietly boycott the clothing stores and celebrate Easter Sunday in blue jeans. While George Wallace speaks in the park, balloons bearing the message “Please Support Freedom in Huntsville” are released. These are the seeds of freedom. Where they land and flourish, freedom can grow. Rejecting violence, Huntsvilleans can enjoy “the taste of sweet fruit homegrown from the seeds of freedom.” The text is effective; the watercolors are beautiful. There is a temptation to razor them out and frame them.

Illustrator E. B. Lewis does research into the clothing of the period, sometimes uses models, sets up his shots—street scenes or children in a classroom—photographs them, and then later creates the paintings in his studio. He had great cooperation in Huntsville and he says even stopped traffic to do a little reenactment.

The facial details are astounding and remind me of Norman Rockwell’s portraits of ordinary Americans.

Both books demonstrate the human need for the fullest expression of the self. Where “Seeds of Freedom” celebrates a historical moment and the importance and beauty of change (the rationale for the continuance of Jim Crow was “Just the way it is”), “The Cat’s Pajamas” explores individualism and conformity. Using fanciful line drawings filled in with watercolors, Daniel Wallace, author of “Big Fish” and four other novels, has created a fable.

Once upon a time cats lived just like people do now. They wore clothes, lived in houses, went to work. All the young cats wore the same clothes: shorts, t-shirts and shoes.

Imagine that! A society where if you saw dozens of youngsters walking along they would all be wearing the same style shorts, oversized T-shirts and flip flops except on days when they all switched to black leggings, and sneakers, Uggs or paisley rubber boots.

One young cat, Louis Fellini (Fellini, get it?), wants to be himself, to be different. He shows up at school one day in a cape and beret with stars on his shoes.

“He looked GOOD, if he did say so himself.”

Within a week, all the cats are wearing that outfit, pleased with their collective boldness. The same happens when Louis appears in sunglasses, purple leather jacket and green boots. He rails at them: “You’re all just a bunch of copy cats!” One day, waking late, Louis arrives at school in pajamas. You guessed it. It was the beginning of the end for cat civilization. Perfectly comfortable, they abandoned all productive effort and played: knocking around crumpled bits of paper and sleeping in the sun.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”