Some rain over the weekend finally brought the first faint tinge of green to this chill side of the world. As the lockdown continues, I will miss watching the parade of spring flowers that my family always enjoyed during the drive to school each morning. But we do have one very particular story – a last-minute borrow from the library – to paint an imaginary bouquet for us during this strange and difficult spring: Boxes for Katje, written by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen.
As the note in the back of the book relates, this tale of charity and friendship is based on actual events. I cannot help but repeat the first sentences of this story exactly as they are:
After the war, there was little left in the tiny Dutch town of Olst. The townspeople lived on cabbages and seed potatoes. They patched and repatched their worn-thin clothing, and they went without soap or milk, sugar or new shoes.
Amid this backdrop in May 1945, a girl named Katje is elated to receive an unexpected care package through the Children’s Aid Society. Sent to her by an American girl named Rosie, this little box (containing soap, socks, and a bar of chocolate) brings such excitement that Katje shares the contents with her mother and the postman. She writes to Rosie, thanking her heartily for the joy she had sent.
Rosie, moved by Katje’s simple and unassuming gratitude, surprises Katje by sending another box; this time with more specific goods that Katje had said she missed, and with enough to share. This time the delighted Katje shares with the family next door, and writes to Rosie again.
As the seasons turn, Rosie collects items from everyone in her town to send to Katje, who shares them in turn with everyone in her village in the Netherlands. The thoughtful donations from America address the needs of a war-torn populace, but also bring a little pleasantness to their ravaged lifestyle. The winter of 1945-46 was apparently exceptionally cold, and very hard on the battered people of Europe; but Rosie’s boxes provide hope and cheer along with coats and canned goods for the people of Olst.
Katje and Rosie write a sweet progression of letters back and forth, but in the spring after that terrible winter Katje wants to send her something more. What could the impoverished people of Holland send, in gratitude for so much aid? Katje knows, and the whole village contributes to send one very special box back to Rosie; a box that would bring her whole town joy each spring for many years to come.
This book is as bright as the fields of tulips on a sunny day. Difficult themes of war, hunger, deprivation, and parental loss (neither of the girls’ fathers are mentioned; we assume that either they did not survive the war or have not yet returned) are handled gently. The poverty of Katje and her countrymen is not minimized, but their own patient endurance sees them through it. Characters are joyful, ready to joke at themselves, and prepared to share whatever they have. (Postman Kleinhoonte is a particularly lovable sort.) Katje’s own goodwill is underscored each time she chooses to share her good things with her neighbors, and we feel instant pleasure at the obvious relief she brings to their quiet suffering.
The fun, playful illustrations match the cheerful tone of the book. Bright colors and homey textures have an inviting appeal. Patched clothes and bare feet fit right in among the tidy gardens and friendly smiles. We see families refusing to give way to the very real desolations threatening them. The handwritten letters that the girls send back forth are placed among depictions of each in her own home, working in her own world and thinking of the other. The end pages show the blissful change that Katje’s own precious gift eventually brought to Rosie’s little town in Indiana.
With so many people in our own time facing uncertainty and hardship, this message of sharing and beauty is one we cannot hear often enough. This is precisely how the best picture books work: with few words and simple pictures, they remind readers of all ages that when things are hard, choosing to do a little bit of good makes all the difference in the world.
I hope you can see many spring flowers from your window, and that you will choose to spread joy exponentially each and every day of your quarantine. May God bless and protect us.
If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Blueberries for the Queen, written by John and Katherine Paterson, and illustrated by Susan Jeffers