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Books in Brief: The Downstairs Girl, Dr. Seuss's Horse Museum,

YOUNG ADULT

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee; G.P. Putnam's Sons, 366 pages ($17.99) Ages 12 and up.

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Stacey Lee, a fourth-generation Chinese American, casts a vivid spotlight on the post-Reconstruction South and the rank injustice and cruelty inflicted on newly freed blacks and on Chinese immigrants in this beautifully written, illuminating novel set in 1890 Atlanta.

As the novel begins, outspoken 17-year-old Jo Kuan is fired from the job at a milliner's shop that helps support her and "Old Gin," an elderly Chinese immigrant who has cared for her since infancy. The two have lived secretly for years in the basement below a newspaper print shop, a former Underground Railroad hideout accessed through a trapdoor on the property.

Forced to return to work as a maid for the ill-tempered daughter of one of Atlanta's wealthiest men –  in the household where she grew up  and where Old Gin has always worked as a groom – Jo finds an outlet for her frustration by writing an advice column under the pseudonym "Miss Sweetie." The column draws an influx of new subscribers to the struggling newspaper, but as "Miss Sweetie" tackles ever-more daring topics, the risk grows that Jo's identity will be revealed. Meanwhile, all Atlanta is abuzz over a charity horse race, the social event of the season.

The downward slope that led to Jim Crow is vividly depicted, through the everyday humiliations inflicted on people of color  -  a new law segregating streetcars,  a reference to the past lynching of a Chinese immigrant in a case dubbed "the Rabid-Eyes rapist," the insults Jo puts up with on a daily basis. Particularly interesting is the hostility of "enlightened" white suffragettes toward Jo and her black friend at a meeting.

Jo's sharp tongue makes hers a lively narrative voice: "The streetcar carries us off in our unnatural silence. I sit still as a bottle, attuned to every curbed whisper, every tight glance. Atlanta has always had her rules, but tonight, someone has planted a foot on her back and yanked the stays even tighter."

In an author's note at the end, Lee notes that Southern planters tried to replace black slave labor after the Civil War with Chinese immigrants but the Chinese refused to tolerate the terrible conditions and ran away to the cities.

 

PICTURE BOOK

Dr. Seuss's Horse Museum by Dr. Seuss, illustrated by Andrew Joyner; Random House Books for Young Readers, 75 pages ($18.99)

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Children love Dr. Seuss books for their antic energy, their buoyant rhymes, their subversive message, their invented words ("oobleck" for example), the distinctive drawings of humans, animals and invented creatures (the Lorax, anyone?).

This latest posthumous entry in the Seuss pantheon – illustrated by Australian artist Andrew Joyner based on sketches Theodor Geisel left with the unfinished manuscript in a box in his studio – is not a brilliant flight of fancy but rather an amusing and useful introduction to art appreciation, examining different ways artists see the world.

Joyner adopts a bit of the Seuss drawing style (Horton the Elephant, the Grinch and the Cat in the Hat make cameo appearances) as he depicts a lively parade of visitors (a girl in a hijab, a baby in pajamas plus a knight in armor) trooping through the "Horse Museum" past color reproductions of a glorious variety of horse-themed works of art over the millennia, inviting them to reflect on what the artist had in mind, from cave paintings to a horse sculpture from the northern Wei dynasty to the winged horses of Greek mythology, the realistic paintings of Raphael and Rosa Bonheur, the Impressionist horses of Manet and Seurat, the Cubist horses of Picasso to the abstract images of Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock. (Pondering French artist Ernest Meissonier's intent in 1807 painting "Friedland": "Horses to him were something necessary to carry generals into battle. He loved to paint generals going into battle. To him the horse was a Jeep in the days before the Jeep was invented.") The section on modern art was missing from the manuscript, so the missing text here was supplied by Dr. Seuss Enterprises and editors at Random House.

A detailed publisher's note at the end reports Geisel is believed to have written this book in the early 1950s around the time he wrote a script for an educational television show titled "Modern Art on Horseback." Also included with the publisher's note are color reproductions of some of Dr. Seuss' original sketches for the book and of Dr. Seuss' surrealistic "Midnight Paintings," featuring images of cats.

 

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