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A Gift for Mama: Linda Ravin Lodding and Alison Jay

Book: A Gift for Mama
Author: Linda Ravin Lodding
Illustrator: Alison Jay
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4 to 8

When A Gift for Mama arrived, my daughter took one look at the cover and said: "We have another book about that boy." She wasn't strictly correct, but she did recognize that the boy on the cover of this book looks a lot like the boy from The Cloud Spinner, by Michael Catchpool. Both books are illustrated by Alison Jay, and she has a very distinctive illustration style. This works well, because of the tone of the two stories is similar.

In A Gift for Mama, a young boy in old-time Vienna buys a gorgeous yellow rose as a gift for his mother's birthday. Oskar thinks that the flower is "the perfect present" until an artist offers to trade a paint brush for the flower. Oskar decides that if he paints a picture for his Mama, that will be "the perfect present." But then a conductor needs the paintbrush as a temporary baton, and offers Oskar something else in return. And so on. Oskar's mood fluctuates as these trade keep occurring, some without his consent at all, but his innate optimism keeps him thinking that each thing is "the perfect present." 

An author's note at the end of the book gives brief historical context to the Viennese figures that Oskar has encountered, including the Empress Sisi and the artist Gustav Klimt. Understanding who these figures are transforms Oskar's story into a tour of Vienna in 1894. This information isn't really necessary to appreciate the book, but it does add another layer. 

In truth, my almost four year old was a bit baffled by this book, asking "Why does everyone keep taking the boy's things?". But this didn't stop her from wanting to read it again. Oskar is an appealing character, with his up and down moods, and his clear love for his mother. There's a scene in which Oskar experiences a particular disappointment, and my daughter could absolutely relate to his hunched posture (exactly the same way she hunches over sometimes when things don't go her way). 

Lodding's text is full of exclamations and drama, and uses relatively advanced vocabulary. Like this:

"With a tug on the reins, the carriage lurched to a roll.
"Mama's book!" cried Oskar. "It's ruined."

But as Oskar looked up, there was the Empress herself!
She held out a box. "Candied violets," she said kindly. "To say sorry for your book.""

Oskar bower. "Thank you Your Highness!"
The dainty, delicious sweets were the perfect gift for Mama!"

Here Oskar's words as he declares the book ruined, as well as "the perfect gift for Mama" are in slightly larger text, encouraging the adult reader to emphasize those sections. I like books that give cues like this for read-aloud. 

But what I love are Jay's sepia-toned illustrations. They have faint jigsaw lines across each image, like one would see on a very old painting. The people are a bit rounded, wide in their waists, and the use of perspective emphasizes Oskar's powerlessness as the large (and famous) adults manipulate him. 

A Gift for Mama is going on our "keep" shelf. Next to The Cloud Spinner, of course. The conbination of story and pictures leaves readers with a warm feeling. And the fact that there is a bit of historical knowledge hidden in the book adds a special bonus. Recommended for ages four and up for home or library use. 

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: March 25, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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