February brings blizzards in Maine. It is a perfect time of year to read William Steig’s book Brave Irene. Every page is graced with enchanting illustrations that remind me that beauty is powerful. The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “Beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend for the hearts of men.” In our fatigue or disillusionment with life, beauty can capture our hearts, even for an instant. We can’t resist the lure of a sunrise over Otter Point at Acadia National Park or Winslow Homer’s seascapes or the New World Symphony by Dvorjak. Humans are hardwired to appreciate beauty, for it defines that spark of divinity within us in our search for a transcendent God.
If beauty is a battleground for the hearts of men, all the more should we nurture love of beauty in our children. How is this possible? Surround them with classic literature, play Beethoven while sweeping the floor, take them to art museums and science centers. Read aloud to them before bedtime. Beauty will sneak up on you. Suddenly you are a little less tired, a little more hopeful. It is important to read aloud to your children, especially classic books like Brave Irene, written and illustrated by William Steig.
Our heroine is Irene Bobbin — a little girl and daughter of a seamstress. As a dangerous blizzard bears down on Irene and her mother, they are in a pickle and a serious one at that. Mrs. Bobbin must deliver a ball gown to the duchess that night, but she can’t. Influenza confines her to bed. Irene tucks the dressmaker’s box under her arm and wades out into deep snow. Menacing winds and blinding snow do not deter our heroine. She is powered by love for her mother.
Steig’s watercolors stir the heart, fully matched by his artful storytelling. Here is a sample:
By the middle of the pasture, the flakes were falling thicker. Now the wind drove Irene along so rudely she had to hop, skip, and go helter-skelter over the knobby ground.
Covered in snow and chilled to the bone, Irene accomplishes her mission and is happily reunited with her mother.
Brave Irene is a 1986 New York Times Book Review – Best Illustrated Book of the Year.