By Joan Eiseman
Illustrations by the author
31 pp.; paperback
Marble House Editions Rego Park
Time has a different meaning for children. Yesterday is, truly dead and gone. Their parents’ childhoods seem almost too distant to be real, those of grandparents even more remote. Joan Eiseman’s first work, The Tale of Jackie Berry , is an effort to bridge that gap by recreating a world that to today’s 6- through 10-year-olds seems well nigh incomprehensible.
The Tale of Jackie Berry opens, in time-honored fashion, with a request for a bedtime story. “We were lucky to have a black and white T.V.,” little Molly’s Dad explains as he tucks her in. Trying to imagine a world without computers, cell phones, the Internet or cable, Molly seeks something other than the hortatory tales of Pinocchio, the Ugly Duckling or the Gingerbread Man. “You tell me a story from when you were a kid,” she demands, and with “one of those ‘Little Jackie’ stories”, Dad proceeds to do just that.
Mr. Fuji is the terror of the children and not a few adults in Jackie Berry’s Brooklyn neighborhood. No one knows what goes on behind the locked door and dusty window of his run-down antique shop, which his mean, old dog, Fidelis, jealously guards. “The older folks said that Fuji used to send Fidelis out the door to chase away any children who even came near his window, but then the cops had put a stop to it.” But sometimes fancy looking strangers drive up in expensive cars and go into the shop, fueling rumors about Fuji’s mysterious doings. Is he buying jewels from thieves, selling artwork stolen by the Nazis or hoarding treasure from the sunken Titanic? No one knows for sure.
Lily Berry, Jackie’s mother, believes in confronting problems when they arise, so one evening when a breathless Jackie gasps out that Mr. Fuji is chasing him with an axe, she takes her son to the shop to get to the bottom of the matter. Mr. Fuji is really holding a chisel because he is sculpting a piece of marble, and the incident ends there.
Other matters besides the mystery of Mr. Fuji occupy Jackie, his mother and the rest of the neighborhood in 1950s Brooklyn that Eiseman evokes through her narrative and illustrations. Jackie and Lily live in a shabby old apartment above a corner candy store run by Ma and Pa Olson, who dote on Jackie. Lily, a widow, works as a cook for the wealthy Astor family and Jackie is the recipient of their barely used castoff toys. When Lily comes down with pneumonia and spends two weeks of the Christmas season in the hospital, Jackie stays with his best friend, Barton and for the first time in his life gets new toys for presents. When Lily comes home, a shadow has been cast on their relationship—Jackie’s wish that “his family was just like Barton’s and that he’d never have to get second hand presents.”
Jackie and his contemporaries are enthralled by the adventures of their favorite comic-book hero, Commander Centauri. His posters hang in their bedrooms, they crave Commander Centauri lunch boxes and the wait until the next Commander Centauri comic book comes out is interminable. The heights of ecstasy are reached when a movie about Commander Centauri’s adventures comes to the Rialto theatre downtown and Lily offers to take Jackie and some of his friends.
The Rialto, in the manner of all movie palaces of the 1950s, is the most beautiful theater in the world. For Jackie and his friends, of course, the glories of the crystal chandeliers and thick red velvet seats pale beside the wondrous exploits of Commander Centauri on the big screen. The high point of the picture, for Jackie, is Commander Centauri’s magic boots, winged footwear that let him fly as fast and as far as he wants.
Lily’s offer to treat the boys to soda and hot dogs after the movie is politely declined. The group can’t wait to get back to the neighborhood because they’re sure the magic boots will be sitting in the window of Mr. Fuji’s mysterious shop. Only Lily is surprised to see them there.
Lily is willing to forgo new furniture and instead spend the $50 she has saved on the boots for Jackie, but cannot get into the store and Mr. Fuji, whose phone number is unlisted, seems to have disappeared. One night she does, however, encounter him on her way home. Mr. Fuji has promised the boots to someone else, but after Lily breaks down and tearfully tells him of her troubles as an impoverished young single mother, he gives her a handkerchief and the boots—free.
The children, especially Jackie, are heartbroken to see that the boots are gone from Mr. Fuji’s window. Finally, the night before Jackie’s birthday, Lily gives him his present early. Lo and behold, it’s not one of the Astor children’s used trinkets. Jackie’s birthday present is Commander Centauri’s wonderful blue magic boots. Excited beyond words, Jackie puts on the boots and waits to take flight, like his hero. He remains earthbound, though, and drifts off to sleep. “Oh, well,” he thought, “they’re still beautiful boots.”
As it is in many other childhood stories—and more than a few for adults—sleep is the entry to the mysterious nocturnal world where wishes are granted, bed sheets become capes and magic boots give little boys the power to fly. In his dreams Jackie, wearing Commander Centauri’s boots, flies across the river and all over the sleeping city before he opens his eyes to find himself safely back in his familiar bed.
The story over, Molly is satisfied and goes to sleep. Dad checks his old trunk in the attic and there they are—the magic boots. “I have to take one last trip,” he says to himself, and Jackie Berry does—“right out the window, into the warm spring night, right above his street, all around the neighborhood, right across the river and into the city. And when he opened his eyes again, there he was, back in his own home.”
Eiseman has evoked the world of the Brooklyn of baby-boomers’ childhoods, especially through her illustrations. The Tale of Jackie Berry , especially for adults reading this book to or for their children and grandchildren, will find themselves cast back to the era of corner candy stores, when a trip to a movie palace was a journey to another world and the block was the center of their lives. Eiseman’s illustrations capture the feeling of the incidents they are depicting, especially through her use of color—bright primary shades for the lively streets and house interiors, darker blues and blacks for Jackie’s bedroom and the night skies, which are still provided with a friendly moon to guide Jackie in his flight. The interior of Mr. Fuji’s shop conveys exactly the air of mystery and almost-menace that an artist’s studio would have had for children still unacquainted with works in progress, while at its center the two adults, Lily and Mr. Fuji, are down to earth and substantial in their tackling of a problem very much of this world.
We found elements of the story unsatisfying. Children of the 6-to-10-age cohort still like their stories to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and The Tale of Jackie Berry leaves too many threads dangling. Who is the reclusive Mr. Fuji, really? How do Commander Centauri’s magic boots come to be in his shop window? In this era of play dates and organized games, merely mentioning tag and stickball in passing don’t begin to capture the enchantment of pickup games among friends. These elements needed more development.
The story’s lack of transitional elements disturbs the reader’s concentration. We go from hearing about mean Fidelis, trained on chicken blood, to the congenial streets and candy store, from Jackie depressed because of his secondhand gifts to the excitement of Commander Centauri with almost nothing to serve as a bridge between them.
In this era of video games, DVDs and iPods, the only occasions that some children may encounter the written word is through schoolbooks and the occasional gift of a work such as The Tale of Jackie Berry . The importance of children’s books as introductions to the way written language works cannot be overstated. Jackie Berry could have done with some copyediting. Jackie’s first quote in the story is not set off with opening quote marks. Ellipses are three dots in length, not six and a comma would better serve instead.
These cavils notwithstanding, The Tale of Jackie Berry has promise. We would like to see more of Jackie. A series of more tightly written books detailing one adventure at a time would be a welcome addition to the canon of children’s literature. We hope Eiseman will provide them and we thank Marble House Editions for introducing her and Jackie Berry to the world.