new work
Ronald Himler illustration from The Lily Cupboard

The Lily Cupboard

The Lily Cupboard

Illustrated by Ronald Himler
1992, HarperCollins

In the early 1970s my husband was a Fellow at NIAS, the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study. One afternoon we had tea with the woman who was the Assistant to the Director, Madame Van Loon. The conversation turned to the Second World War. Both Holland and Belgium were invaded by the Germans in May 1940. My husband had been in the Belgian Army and was taken prisoner at the Battle of the Albert Canal.

Mrs. Van Loon told the following story. During the War her parents' estate became a way station for children on their way out of Holland. When arriving, each child chose an animal to care for; kittens, cats, dogs, puppies, rabbits, ponies, donkeys, ducks, and on and on. This image stayed with me for fifteen years and finally The Lily Cupboard was "born."


Oppenheim ( Waiting for Noah ) tackles the delicate topic of the Holocaust, chronicling the experiences of two families--one Jewish, one not--in war-torn Holland. As the German occupation intensifies, Miriam's parents fear for their daughter's safety and send her to live with a non-Jewish family. In her new home a secret crawl space behind a wall panel becomes the girl's refuge should the soldiers approach. Although the text sometimes tenderly conveys Miriam's anxiety about separation and adjustment, this story ultimately does not ring true. The earnest, somewhat adult tone and occasionally artificial dialogue may limit the book's appeal. Children will have difficulty comprehending the scope of this ugly period in which "many died a hideous death" and when "there were many heroes." However, Miriam's ordeal is sure to provoke further discussion and may serve to introduce the themes of war and racism. Himler's cozy Dutch farmhouse and verdant countryside provide a gentle, comforting backdrop for the somber drama and serve as a reminder that brutality can touch idyllic settings and innocent people.
-- Publisher's Weekly

In first-person present-tense narration, a young Dutch girl tells how her parents send her to the country to hide from the Nazis. Her homesickness and fear lessen when the farmer's son gives her a rabbit of her own. When soldiers come, her concern for her pet almost brings discovery, but the farmer successfully hides both child and animal. This moving story is beautifully illustrated with watercolor and gouache paintings in which warm earth tones depict the Dutch family and their home. While the text is simply worded and childlike, the picture-book format and frightening subject matter seem somewhat at odds. Children without prior background on the Holocaust may find the threat from the unseen soldiers hard to understand, despite the opening and closing statements that act as a conceptual prologue and epilogue. Used with similarly formatted World War II stories such as Amy Hest's The Ring and the Window Seat (Scholastic, 1990) or Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche (Creative Ed., 1986) in a classroom setting or by parents, this could provide a memorable introduction to the suffering and bravery of individuals during the war.
-- School Library Journal

The author of Appleblossom (p. 20), a Passover story set in Eastern Europe, re-creates a more somber chapter from the Jewish experience. Miriam, about five in Himler's tender illustrations, tells how her parents hid her when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940. Opening with a brief but explicit summary of the danger (``Jews...were sent to concentration camps, where many died a hideous death''), Miriam's narration focuses on her parents' love and care for her, the sorrow of all three at their parting, and the kindness of the farm family that takes her in. They have a hidden cupboard that opens when a painted lily is pressed; there she is to hide at need. Miriam's grief is not easily assuaged, but a pet rabbit offers some solace; in a final, dramatic scene, she almost doesn't make it to the hiding place in time because she is determined to protect her new pet. Oppenheim concludes there, pointing out the heroism of the many host families like Miriam's but leaving open the question of whether she or her parents survived--a wise, honest decision that avoids either telling more than is appropriate for young children or contriving an unrealistically happy ending. The carefully honed text includes some exquisitely touching details: asked to choose just one of her three dolls to take with her, Miriam replies, ``No dolls...they have to stay together.'' Himler's lovely, understated watercolors beautifully evoke the setting and the warmth of the relationships. An exceptionally sensitive and effective portrayal of a difficult subject.
-- Kirkus Reviews (a Pointer Review)