THE BOTTOM HAT
By Stephen Barr
Illustrated by Gracey Zhang
By Kate Hoefler
Illustrated by Jessixa Bagley
MAE MAKES A WAY
The True Story of Mae Reeves, Hat & History Maker
By Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
Illustrated by Andrea Pippins
By Daniel Pinkwater
Illustrated by Aaron Renier
Why did Stephen Sondheim, the greatest lyricist musical theater ever know, use the word? hat so much, from a song gloomily pondering whether anyone is still wearing them to “Finishing the Hat,” a mission statement for the soul in “Sunday in the Park With George”? No deeper meaning there, Sondheim insisted, after a critic noted the repetition: “It’s the happy tone and ease of rhyming that attract me,” he wrote in “Look, I Made a Hat,” his second volume with annotated verses.
Well, hat rhymes with many satisfying words, including fat, flat, matte, splat, sat, and cat, like Dr. Seuss, a great lover of hats who gave Bartholomew Cubbins 500 of them, made it clear. The rhyme alone makes it good material for both a picture book and a musical. But a hat can also be deeply symbolic, as Sondheim well knew (in “Sunday” it stands for nothing less than art itself). Jon Klassen showed this in his acclaimed Hat Trilogy, and so does a hairdressing quartet of new books with vastly different tones.
In “The Upside Down Hat,” a soothing story by Stephen Barr with beautiful, Bemelmans-esque illustrations by Gracey Zhang, a hat becomes a little boy’s entire support system. He is anonymous, although the names of his suddenly absent two best friends, Henry and Priscilla, and the setting of palm trees and pillars suggest that he once inhabited a world of lavish privilege. When he wakes up one morning, he finds that all of his belongings, including bright orange stilts, are gone except for this one crucial accessory.
What is the essential purpose of a hat? To protect the head, which it does: from the setting sun and the rain. But in the twinkling of an eye it flips, like the famous optical illusion that shows a young or old woman, depending on your perspective, and becomes a container: for drinking water, for cherries, for begging coins. After a long day of being resourceful confronting his limited circumstances, the boy goes to the top of a mountain, sleeps and dreams, falling into a kind of valley of the shadows where his lost things are restored to him, and yet are no longer what is really necessary. When he wakes up, he has a new reason for optimism. Contrails from “The Little Prince” and magic carpet colors will transport even adults.
Kate Hoefler’s ‘Courage Hats’, with illustrations by Jessixa Bagley, feels less universal, but can be helpful for kids afraid of travel or the unknown. Nervous about taking a train going through forests (“bear places”), a mysteriously unaccompanied minor named Mae decides to disguise herself as a bear by cutting up a paper bag and putting it on her head. Meanwhile, a young bear, fearing traveling through cities (“people places”), has done the same in reverse. They find each other, and comfort, on the train, where they enjoy tea, snacks and views and stare at the birds through a glass ceiling: “This feels like flying.”
It’s a mystery, solved only on the last pages, why these two fainthearted are not in the air, but on this sadly outdated but cozy form of transport, which few but Alfred Hitchcock found ominous.
“Courage Hats” wants to lead us a little too forcefully into “deep” places where we’ll do our hide-and-seek to reveal our true selves – abstract concepts for the literal peewee set. Unfortunately, when it comes to reassuring train bears, it’s hard to top Paddington and its red southwestern.
Another Mae, a real life character, stars in Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s “Mae Makes a Way,” with illustrations by Andrea Pippins. Published on a permanent display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, this is a biography of Mae Reeves, a famous Philadelphia milliner who died in 2016 at age 104 and received disturbingly few obituaries. In addition to telling her story, “Mae Makes a Way” is also a focused lesson on the limits of integration in cities where “black women were often treated as if they were invisible,” as Rhuday-Perkovich writes at her best. “Hats were a way for these queens to be seen, shedding light on the dignity they always had.” There’s a special shout-out to the church ladies who kept Reeves’ business going long after fashion evolved.
Narrated in a largely linear, scrapbook-esque style and augmented by interviews with Donna Limerick, the hatter’s daughter, and Reneé S. Anderson, the head of collections at the NMAAHC (where Reeves’ store has been painstakingly recreated), “Mae Makes a Way” a nice introduction to a determined pioneer. They’re mostly facts, with the occasional foray into modern slang (“living their best lives,” “building a brighter future”) and poems (“shiny hats, shiny hats, spunky hats, and happy hats”). The tantalizing close-ups of tulle, feathers and other furs just scream for a paper doll edition.
By contrast, creating an aesthetic that is vaguely familiar yet utterly out of date, “Kat Hats,” by Daniel Pinkwater, with illustrations by Aaron Renier, plunges us into a geography of the absurd. The hats Matt Katz sells in his shop in snowy Pretzelburg aren’t decorative and uplifting, but warming. In fact, they are not hats at all. They’re cats.
It doesn’t matter that, with one rare exception, you can’t train a cat to do anything. “Kat Hats” sends the well-known guideline to wear a hat because “90 percent of body heat is lost through the top of the head”, and proposes that if one is properly covered, one can “even reach the North Pole.” in summer pajamas could visit and stay comfortable.”
When Katz’s friend Old Thirdbeard’s good witch-mom disappears up a mountain without her pointy hat, sucking on a blueberry and avocado ice pop (hats and mountains are regular combinations in children’s literature), she is struck with a brain freeze, aka” frozen brain.” It’s up to Thermal Herman 6⅞ths, the showboat of Katz’s inventory, to transform herself into a fedora, hitch a ride on a moose’s antler that doubles as a coat rack, and rescue her.With cheerful maximalism and Shrinky Dinks hues. is a book that invites children to take off their thinking caps, relax and indulge in pure silliness.