Hats off to 4 new picture books

By Stephen Barr
Illustrated by Gracey Zhang

By Kate Hoefler
Illustrated by Jessixa Bagley

The true story of Mae Reeves, designer of hats and history
By Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
Illustrated by Andrea Pippins

By Daniel Pinkwater
Illustrated by Aaron Renier

Why Stephen Sondheim, the greatest lyrical musical theater of all time, used the word hat so much, from a song asking if anyone still wears them to “Finishing the Hat,” a mission statement for the soul in “Sunday in the Park With George”? No deeper meaning there, Sondheim insisted, after a reviewer noted the recurrence: “It’s the casual tone and the ease of rhyming that attract me,” he wrote in “Look, I made a hat”, his second volume of annotated verses.

Well, sure, hat rhymes with plenty of satisfying words, including fat, flat, mat, splat, sat, and cat, as explained by Dr. Seuss, a huge hat lover who gave Bartholomew Cubbins 500 hats. . The rhymeability alone makes it good material for a picture book as well as a musical. But a hat can also be deeply symbolic, as Sondheim well knew (in “Sunday” it represents nothing less than art itself). Jon Klassen showed it in his famous Hat Trilogy, as did a quartet of barbers from new books in very different tones.

In “The Upside Down Hat,” a rocking story by Stephen Barr with exquisite illustrations à la Bemelmans by Gracey Zhang, a hat becomes a little boy’s entire support system. He is anonymous, though the names of his two suddenly absent best friends, Henry and Priscilla, and the surroundings of palm trees and pillars suggest he once occupied a world of lush privilege. Waking up one morning, he finds all of his belongings, including bright orange stilts, missing except for this crucial accessory.

What is the essential function of a hat? To protect the head, what does this one do: from the beating sun and from the rain. But in an instant, it topples over, like the famous optical illusion that shows a young or old woman depending on the point of view, and becomes a container: for drinking water, for cherries, for begging coins. After a long day of ingeniously coping with his reduced situation, the boy climbs to the top of a mountain, sleeps and dreams, falling into a sort of valley of shadow where his lost things are returned to him, and yet are no longer what is really necessary. When he wakes up, he will have new reasons for optimism. With streaks of “The Little Prince” and magic carpet colors, even adults will be thrilled.

“Courage Hats”, by Kate Hoefler, with illustrations by Jessixa Bagley, seems less universal but could be useful for children fearful of travel or the unknown. Nervous about taking a train through the woods (“bear places”), a mysterious unaccompanied minor named Mae decides to dress up as a bear by cutting up a paper bag and putting it over her head. Meanwhile a young bear, fearing a journey that passes through cities (“people places”), did the same thing in reverse. They find each other and comfort each other on the train, where they enjoy tea, snacks and views and gaze through a glass ceiling at the birds: “It’s like flying.”

It’s a puzzle, solved only on the last pages, why these two creepy bears aren’t in actual air but on that sadly antiquated but comfortable mode of transportation, which few but Alfred Hitchcock have found a bad omen.

“Courage Hats” wants a little too forcibly to guide us to “deep” places where we will pull back our hidden hats to reveal our true selves – abstract concepts for the literalizing peewee set. When it comes to reassuring train bears, alas, it’s hard to top Paddington and his red sou’wester.

Another Mae, a real-life character, stars in “Mae Makes a Way,” by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, with art by Andrea Pippins. Published to accompany a permanent exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, it is a biography of Mae Reeves, a renowned milliner from Philadelphia who died at age 104 in 2016 and received a distressing obituary cover. . In addition to telling her story, “Mae Makes a Way” is also a pointed lesson in the limits of integration in cities where “black women were often treated as if they were invisible,” as Rhuday-Perkovich writes. to his favorite. “The hats were a way for these queens to be SEEN, highlighting the dignity they always had.” There’s a special tribute to the ladies of the church who kept Reeves’ business going long after fashions had moved on.

Told in a largely linear scrapbooking style and complemented by interviews with Donna Limerick, the milliner’s daughter, and Reneé S. Anderson, collections manager at NMAAHC (where Reeves’ boutique was painstakingly recreated), “Mae Makes a Way ” is a beautiful introduction to a determined pioneer. It’s mostly facts, with occasional forays into modern jargon (“living their best life”, “building a better tomorrow”) and jabs of poetics (“sparkly hats, shimmery hats, snappy hats and happy hats”) ). The tantalizing close-ups of tulle, feathers and other furbelows call for an edition with paper dolls.

On the contrary, creating a vaguely familiar but timeless aesthetic, “Kat Hats”, by Daniel Pinkwater, with illustrations by Aaron Renier, plunges us into a geography of the absurd. The hats that Matt Katz sells in his shop in snowy Pretzelburg are not decorative and uplifting but warm. In fact, they are not hats at all. They are cats.

It doesn’t matter that, with rare exceptions, you can’t train a cat to do anything. “Kat Hats” sends the familiar directive to wear a hat because “90% of body heat is lost through the top of the head,” proposing that if topped correctly, one “could even visit the North Pole in pajamas. summer and stay comfortable.”

When Katz’s friend Old Thirdbeard’s good mama witch disappears up a mountain without her pointy hat, sucking on blueberry and avocado ice cream (hats and mountains are eternal pairs in literature for children), she is stricken with a brain freeze, aka “frozen”. think-muscle. It’s up to Thermal Herman 6⅞ths, Katz’s inventory showboat, to shape herself into felt, hitch a ride on a moose’s antlers that double as a hatrack, and rescue her. With jovial maximalism and Shrinky Dinks undertones, this is a book that invites children to take their thoughts away, relax, and revel in pure silliness.

About Joey J. Hott

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