I like urban picture books that take us back in time. There is nothing romantic, of course, about having to work hard in order to scrape by, nor is that phenomenon confined to the past. However, I simply like the way these books get us thinking about lives other than our own.
Inspired by stories of her grandfather as a young boy, Elisa Bartone transports us to a turn of the century Mulberry Street tenement in her book, Peppe the Lamplighter. Young Peppe's father is ill and with no mother, Peppe must work to support his eight sisters. Peppe works hard and finds joy in lighting the street lamps and feels important. Unfortunately, Peppe's father does not approve of his job as a lamplighter, accusing him of taking a job that is beneath him that will never lead to anything. However, as is often the case in many a story, a crisis arises, whereas the resolution depends upon the validation of the protagonist's labor.
In short, Peppe's father comes around.
Ted Lewin's Caldecott Honor illustrations are perfect for this story. His color palette of browns, blues and yellows makes the streets of New York's Little Italy come alive, but keeps it suitably somber. It is hard to forget the people on the city streets live a life of struggle. Urban interiors like butcher shops, bars and tenements are suitably detailed and seem like noisy, well-lived in spaces. Streets are lined with buildings on which the details like shutters, iron work balconies, open windows and hanging laundry team up with vertical telephone poles to create a crowded but spirited atmosphere.
After reading Peppe the Lamplighter, there are a lot of themes to discuss: acceptance, hard work, the trials of immigrants, devotion. However, the best reason to read it might just be to learn the real life names of Peppe's eight sisters.
Visit Ted Lewin's website.
Learn about Little Italy at the Tenement Museum.
Read another book which features Little Italy (along with Chinatown), Henry and the Kite Dragon.
Big Kid says: What were the lamps made out of? What did he light to get the flame? Gas?