Monday, October 29, 2012

Picture Book Review - A Picnic in October by Eve Bunting

As I'm typing this, we're hearing about Hurricane Sandy hammering the East Coast, specifically the Northeast. So far it appears that all our friends and loved ones are safe, hunkered down somewhere and riding out the storm. It seems a little surreal to be writing about a book set in New York, knowing that so many are experiencing a day that's far outside the norms for October weather. Here's hoping everyone is doing well and reading books by candlelight!
And what's better to share as a family than a picture book by the always magnificent Eve Bunting? I've written before about how much I love her sensitive, thoughtful titles, and A Picnic in October is no exception. In this intergenerational story, we meet a family who is headed out to Liberty Island for a very special birthday picnic. Tony's not too thrilled about it, though it's a yearly tradition - he thinks it would be much better to do something else for Grandma's birthday, or maybe to have a picnic in the summertime. But "this is the way Grandma wants it," Tony's mom says, and so that's what the family does.

Gathering all their picnic gear, including chairs, blankets and loads of food, the family makes their way to catch the ferry to the Statue of Liberty's home grounds. Tony's cousins think this is a silly tradition too, especially since Grandma and Grandpa act so sappy in the ferry line. But all the way out to the island Tony can't stop thinking about his encounter with a lady and her family who were also waiting - with not much English, she didn't understand how the boat routes worked - and he's relieved when he sees that they made it on to the island as well, and are staring up at Lady Liberty. "The way they stand, so still, so respectful, so. . . so peaceful, makes me choke up." And suddenly Tony can see what his grandmother must feel, and why coming to this place is the only way she'll celebrate her birthday.

Once again, Bunting delivers a touching and heartfelt portrait of a family touched by immigration and their connection to their heritage. This is a realistic take on a family story -- it makes sense that the youngest generation wouldn't be as connected to the grandmother's feelings, but the representation of Tony seeing his grandmother's emotions personified in another family, from another place, is thoughtfully handled. The illustrations by Nancy Carpenter mirror the tone of the tale perfectly, as the soft brush strokes of the paintings reveal the emotions on every family member's face. Some spreads feel especially powerful - as we look down on the family picnicking in the sun at the statue's base, we get a sense of the enormity of this symbol in the lives of Tony's loved ones, and so many others.

This is an older title, as you'll note when you glimpse the NYC skyline, with the twin towers still very much in evidence. But the themes of family, patriotism and memory are perennial, and the story reads just as relevantly today as it did when it was first published, thirteen years ago. Share this with your kids for a discussion about immigration and identity - pair with books like Dan Yaccarino's All the Way to America or Jane Yolen's Naming Liberty for more stories about families coming to America but keeping ties to their past.

A Picnic in October by Eve Bunting, published by Harcourt Brace & Company
Ages 5-9
Source: Library
Sample: "The next ferry comes and we manage to squeeze on. I watch for the woman and her family, but they don't make it onto this boat. I hope they don't give up."

Bonus: a video interview with Eve Bunting from Reading Rockets

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