Book Bag: ‘What’s New, Daniel?’ by Micha Archer; ‘Monkeyface’ by Judith Podell


Staff Writer

Published: 02-23-2024 2:18 PM

What’s New, Daniel?
Written and illustrated
by Micha Archer
Penguin/Random House

In the last several years, Leverett illustrator and children’s book author Micha Archer has been gaining increasing attention for her eye-catching art and for stories that celebrate the natural world, including the wonder children can find in it.

A former kindergarten teacher who studied multicultural education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Archer works with a range of materials — paint, ink, collage, and handmade paper — to create colorful, layered artwork that helps spur that sense of wonder in children.

A couple years ago, she won a Caldecott Honor for “Wonder Walkers,” a story in which children explore the world around them and ask questions about their connections to it. She’s also published two books centered on a young boy, Daniel, who finds poetry and good vibes in his neighborhood.

In her newest book, Archer brings Daniel back as the youngster seeks some answers to the general question, “What’s Up, Daniel?” during a visit in early spring to a city park with his grandpa. So when grandpa poses that question to Daniel, he says “Um, I don’t know yet. I’ll go find out.”

Daniel heads off exploring, asking a huge boulder he’s sitting on what’s new. “Not much,” Rock answers. “Just been sitting right here soaking up the sun for a million years … what’s new for you?”

Daniel explains that he can now whistle — and at that moment he hears a redwing blackbird, whistling overhead, telling him winter is over.

Soon Daniel is exchanging greetings with ducks, cattails, polliwogs, snakes and more, with all his friends sharing what’s new with them. The snake, for instance, has just shed its old skin, and the butterfly tells Daniel it’s resting: “Just flew a thousand miles.”

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Daniel is happy to share his news, too: that his legs are growing, letting him run faster than ever, and that he’s just lost a tooth.

“What’s New, Daniel?” is a “beautiful invitation to spring for the curious nature lover,” writes Kirkus Reviews. “Stunning illustrations rendered in acrylic ink and patterned paper collage depict a bright and richly textured world … [and] the book ends with a dynamic backdrop of park goers … on a path beneath a tree canopy.”

But not before Daniel gets one last word. “Now it’s your turn, Grandpa … what’s new with you?”

By Judith Podell
Brook Hollow Press

It might not qualify as a complete, tell-all memoir, but in “Monkeyface,” Judith Podell does reveal some very painful chapters from her past, from the loss of her husband to her struggles as a parent to the difficulty of growing old alone.

But Podell, a Connecticut abstract painter now in her 80s, also brings a bright and often funny, disarming voice to her memoir, published by Brook Hollow Press, a small Hatfield company that publishes a variety of titles.

She relates a story that considers her Jewish heritage and being the child of European immigrants who escaped the Nazis, her success in the male-dominated world of sales in the 1970s, and her rediscovery of her love of art after her husband, David, passed away.

“Monkeyface” was a nickname her mother gave her, an affectionate title that spoke to her blond curls as a girl and her mother’s sense that her youngest daughter was the one who would “fulfill all her hopes and dreams.”

It wasn’t to be, Podell writes. Growing up in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s, she eventually grew apart from her mother, a native of France who’d had a harsh, poverty-stricken upbringing that lacked love; she brought that unhappiness to her own marriage and her role as a mother.

And, Podell writes, she inherited some of that: “Of all the roles I’ve filled, the most important one, mother, is the one I did least well … I try and atone for my past inadequacies by being a better grandmother.”

Perhaps nothing hurt more than watching her youngest child, Daniel, a son she had during a brief failed marriage with an Israeli man, unravel as an adult from mental illness and petty crime.

“Articulate, with an incredible vocabulary, he is brilliantly funny, loving, and vicious. We communicate via email, as I have blocked him from my home phone which I changed to an unlisted number after too many late night phone calls … What kind of mother does that?”

But the author also writes of a full life, from living and working on a kibbutz in Israel, doing other kinds of work, and reconnecting with and then marrying David, her childhood sweetheart from New York, and having a lasting relationship with him despite their very different personalities.

“Did I deserve him?” she writes. “No. Did I appreciate him? Absolutely. Was it idyllic? Absolutely not. We were so different, in our tastes, our experiences, our ways of dealing with conflict.”

And yet their marriage succeeded, Podell says, “because we liked each other and were happy in each other’s company. That affection continued long after the honeymoon phase.”

Her memoir is presented as a series of short essays, and Russell Steven Powell, the founder of Hollow Brook Press, writes that Podell’s ability “to communicate deep ideas and feelings, often in fewer than 1,000 words, takes her memoir to another, highly entertaining, level.”

“[S]he tells her stories with honesty and wit, describing growing up in New York City, the joys and perils of parenting … and the complex emotions of growing up Jewish in America. Judy candidly describes her one true love (and the men she didn’t sleep with), her sometimes difficult relationships with her siblings, and her fears and failures as a parent.”

Podell doesn’t lack for joie de vivre or doing things outside societal norms. She loved fishing with her father when she was growing up, and she’s had a long love affair with cars, one that exists somewhat awkwardly alongside her concern for the environment.

As she writes, “For most of the summer and even in winter, I love driving with the roof open, the heater blasting. I’ve been told it’s very inefficient and wastes gas, but I don’t care.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at