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Kaethe Zemach Biography (1958-) - Sidelights

book review question character

Given her family history, it is no surprise that Kaethe Zemach chose to create children's books for a living. Her parents are Harve and Margot Zemach, a noted children's book author and illustrator, respectively. In collaboration with them, Zemach received her first publishing credits—on the short story collection The Princess and Froggie—at the age of fourteen. Since then, Zemach has illustrated books for other authors and created several self-illustrated titles, including The Character in the Book, The Question Song, and Just Enough and Not Too Much.

The Character in the Book is just "a wisp of a story," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, but Zemach's "exuberant art" gives the book "a robust vitality." The Character in the Book, a jester-like boy with striped hose, actually inhabits his book. But then his aunt invites him to come visit her in her book, so the Character has to find a way out of his. The only way out, he discovers, is to get to the end of the book, so he sets out to do this as quickly as possible—by "skipping and hopping and running" on one spread, "whirling and twirling and spinning" on another, and finally jumping clean out of the book.

The Question Song is a simple, rhyming story about two preschool children who encounter minor domestic disasters (spilled juice, missing toys) and ask their parents "What are we going to do?" On the facing page, the adult outlines a simple solution to the problem, and then declares, "That's what we will do!" Zemach's illustrations for The Question Song received a great deal of attention. She used a nineteenth-century technique called "theorem painting," which involves cutting scores of small stencils and using them to apply oil paint to velvet. She first encountered theorem painting at a historical crafts fair near her home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and was instantly smitten. "It certainly isn't simple," Zemach said on Time Warner Bookmark, "but I love the results!" Critics loved the technique as well. A Kirkus Reviews critic praised Zemach's "soft and expressive edges, lively colors, and charming use of pattern," while School Library Journal contributor Anna DeWind Walls noted that the illustrations' "soft, blurred lines . . . give the book an old-fashioned yet timely look."

The concept of greed, and the unhappiness that often accompanies it, is introduced to children in Zemach's book Just Enough and Not Too Much. Though he only owns a few things, Simon the fiddler has everything he needs for a simple, comfortable life. One day, however, Simon decides that his possessions number too few, so he goes about acquiring new ones. Soon his small house becomes so crowded that he can no longer entertain his friends with his fiddling skills. Disappointed, Simon decides to invite all of his friends and ask them to choose a gift for themselves from his newly acquired but unsatisfying things. Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper thought that Just Enough and Not Too Much offered young readers "a wonderful message wrapped in a honey of a tale," while School Library Journal critic Wendy Woodfill found the "rich watercolor-and-gouache illustrations . . . full of movement and joy."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Zemach, Kaethe, The Character in the Book, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1998.

Zemach, Kaethe, The Question Song, Little, Brown (New York, NY), 2003.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, February 15, 1998, Linda Perkins, review of The Character in the Book, p. 1021; June 1, 2003, John Peters, review of The Question Song, p. 1782; November 1, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of Just Enough and Not Too Much, p. 508.

Horn Book, August, 1980, Virginia Haviland, review of The Purim Goat, p. 411.

Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2003, review of The Question Song, p. 813; September 15, 2003, review of Just Enough and Not Too Much, p. 1185.

Publishers Weekly, May 9, 1980, review of The Purim Goat, p. 57; June 10, 1983, review of The Traveling Men of Ballycoo, p. 64; December 8, 1997, review of The Character in the Book, p. 71; June 2, 2003, review of The Question Song, p. 51; December 22, 2003, review of Just Enough and Not Too Much, p. 59.

School Library Journal, March, 1989, Louise L. Sherman, review of The Funny Dream, p. 172; April, 1998, Barbara Kiefer, review of The Character in the Book, pp. 111-112; August, 2003, Anna DeWind Walls, review of The Question Song, p. 153; October, 2003, Wendy Woodfill, review of Just Enough and Not Too Much, p. 143.

ONLINE

Time Warner Bookmark, http://www.twbookmark.com/ (November 5, 2003), "Kaethe Zemach."*

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