You know how much I love picture books. When my kids were small, I wanted to celebrate every holiday with beautiful picture books. But I struggled at Thanksgiving almost as much as I did at Pascha. The kind of Thanksgiving picture book I wanted just didn’t seem to exist. But it does now. The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower is fabulous.

P.J. Lynch, Illustrator Extraordinaire

The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower is written and illustrated by P.J. Lynch. That’s a name you should know if you love picture books. Like Jerry Pinkney, or Jan Brett. If you see a book with his name on it, just get it.

Lynch has never won a Caldecott, which surprised me. But the Caldecott is restricted to artists who are citizens or residents of the United States. And as it turns out, Lynch is not an American. He’s from Dublin, Ireland.

Lynch has won numerous other awards for his work. He is Ireland’s Laureate na nÓg, the laureate for children’s literature. He won the Kate Greenaway Medal twice and the Christopher Medal three times. The Kate Greenaway Medal is the British equivalent of the Caldecott. And the Christophers honor books, films, and other media that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.”

So, given all that about the artist, you’d expect the art to be amazing. And it is. The watercolor and gauche illustrations are all worthy of being framed and hung on the wall.

The Story Behind The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower

The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower is the first book that Lynch wrote as well as illustrated. And the story is every bit as impressive as the art. It is is exactly the kind of story that I wanted for my children. To start with, it’s true. I never cared for books that depicted the Pilgrims as chubby-cheeked cherubs. I don’t like books that disregard the roles that the Native Americans played. And I find books that disregard the religious aspects of the Pilgrim story odd indeed.

If you tell a historical story, you owe your readers something true.

Apparently Lynch didn’t like stories about the Pilgrims, either. He found them dull. Which, of course, many of them are. But then he ran into the story of John Howland. Howland was an apprentice who was taken on the Mayflower by his master when the Pilgrims left Holland to go to the New World. And John Howland really did fall off the Mayflower in a storm, and the sailors really did rescue him. That alone is an amazing, exciting, and true story.

And Lynch doesn’t sugar-coat the hardships faced by the Pilgrims on the ship or after they landed. No plump little Pilgrims with chubby cheeks and sparkling eyes. The Pilgrims faced sickness and sorrow, hunger and hardship. And death. More than half the people who had left Plymouth, England, on board the Mayflower died before the end of the first winter in the new Plymouth. Including John Howland’s master and mistress. Their deaths left him a free man. Free to stay in the New World, free to return to his family in England. Free to choose.

The Indians and the Pilgrims

One of the things that make so many Thanksgiving stories problematic is the way they treat the Native American people. If that’s not something you’ve been aware of, you may want to spend some time on Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature.

Reese hasn’t reviewed The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower, but as best I can tell, Lynch gets the part of the story that includes the Native Americans right.

The Wampanoag people in the story are appealing characters, as solid and real as any other people in the book. They matter. And their backstories, their history, is included in the story that Lynch tells. That adds richness and depth to the tale.

What’s Missing

So there’s no problem with what’s in the story, as it relates to the Indians. There is a problem, though, with what’s left out. The book ends by saying, “the peace between the Wampanoag and the English settlers endured throughout John Howland’s long life.” Which is true enough, and a fitting end for the story.

But the author’s note at the end of the book tells a bit about what happened after the end of the story. It says that John Howland married Lizzy Tilley, that they had 10 children and 88 grandchildren, and that millions of people living in America today are their descendants. That’s cool to know.

But the author’s note doesn’t say anything at all about what happened after the end of the story for the Wampanoag. Nothing about Squanto, or Massasoit, or their descendants. I think, if Lynch was going to give an epilogue for the Pilgrims, he should have done the same for the Wampanoag. He should have mentioned Massasoit’s son, who was known as King Philip. He should have mentioned the tensions that arose between the English and the Wampanoag as a result of the relentless English demands for more and more land. He should have mentioned King Philip’s War. Because of that war, there are not millions of Wampanoag people living in America today. That should have been said.

Who Should Read It?

The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower would be a great choice for children from fourth grade through middle school and even beyond. It’s got more words and a more complex story than you’d typically read to a child in lower elementary school. If you have older kids who think they’re too old for such a lavishly illustrated book, you might point them to the back matter. It includes a bibliography and suggested reading for younger readers – meaning, of course, that this book is for older readers. Like them. Like me.

Read More

Picture Books Are for Grownups, Too: Eight reasons that adults should read picture books.

Picture Books Can Change the World: Picture books may be small, but they are powerful tools for shaping a better world.

Traveler Tales: Two Picture Book Reviews: These two delightful stories are told by a Traveler storyteller, allowing children and adults alike to learn more about Traveler culture.

Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine's Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
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