Parrots, Pugs, and Pixie Dust

I am a low-maintenance kind of gal when it comes to my appearance – I get my hair cut for about $10 at a walk-in salon, wear almost no makeup, and my closet contains only black clothes. So I can’t really explain why one of my secret wishes is to someday glide into Cartier or Harry Winston and spend hours trying on rings and necklaces and earrings with absolutely obscene price tags. Big, glittering baubles of blue and red and green and pink and white… sigh, you get the idea. That’s one of the reasons I just love this picture book biography of Judith Leiber, the fashion designer who became a superstar for her spectacular, whimsical handbags, many of which were carried by the likes of Queen Elizabeth, Mamie Eisenhower, and Greta Garbo. She designed handbags shaped like ice cream sundaes and frogs and butterflies, and for two first ladies, bags shaped like their pets. Leiber said her petite creations were only meant to hold a lipstick, a $100 bill, and a credit card, but what they lacked in size, they made up for in extraordinary detail done entirely in crystals (up to 13,000 per bag). But the sparkles aren’t the only or even the best reason to laud this book; the most powerful aspect of Leiber’s life story is that she didn’t just survive unimaginable strife but thrived on the other side of it. As a young woman, Leiber left her native Budapest to study in London, but war erupted in 1939 while she was home on a break and she would remain there. Initially training in a handbag house, she – with her family – would be forced to sew Nazi uniforms instead. They would eventually have to go into hiding in a basement, emerging at last in 1945. Leiber married an American soldier and came to live in the States with him. A sculptor and painter, he helped her manage the handbag house she was finally able to open. Leiber would continue designing bags until 1998. What a triumph Leiber’s life was: she pursued her passion for handbag design, beginning with sweeping floors in a Budapest shop, making bags from scraps at night after she had labored during the day for the Nazis, persisting in bringing loveliness to life in the face of ugliness, and becoming a legend for it. Blumenthal’s narrative has a fairy tale tone, making it a good fit for reading aloud. D’yans’s illustrations are stunning; bright, rich colors reflect the happy days of Leiber’s life while the impact of the Nazi occupation is represented by dark blues, browns, and greens. Dyans employs the wet-in-wet watercolor technique for much of her artwork, but she utilizes tiny dots of paint to mimic the crystals of Leiber’s handbags to a most charming effect. This picture book biography is about so much more than a fashion designer who made pretty accessories; it’s about refusing to let the darkness extinguish one’s light.

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