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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

LEVI STRAUSS gets a BRiGHT IDEA, written by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Stacy Innerst. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Allen & Son, 2011. $19.99 ages 5 and up

"Well, they didn't exactly lose them. The pants just disintegrated. They were that flimsy. Corduroy, wool, tweed, flannel, burlap, velvet, worsted, serge: they didn't last long in the gold fields. Right quick they got worked down to the size of a handkerchief."

Tony Johnston names this 'a fairly fabricated story of a pair of pants'. She spins a yarn that is full of fun, and a touch of truth. The rush to California created a dilemma that may not have been foreseen by those who headed west with the first cry of  'GOLD!' Life was tough for them as they prospected in the rivers and hills. Their pants didn't stand a chance of weathering all that hard work. Soon, they wore thin and were useless to the men. The artist shows them dressing in barrels, or nothing at all when those pants took their last breath.

Levi Strauss didn't make it to California in time to find gold, but he did see a golden opportunity for himself when he noted how quickly miners found themselves without pants. He pondered a solution with all the skills of a master inventor. Finally, using the durable and plentiful 'tent' material that he constructed shelters with for the men, he made his first pair of Levis. They were just what those hard-working miners needed and they liked them so much they didn't want to take them off.  To Levi's great delight, that called for a second to wear and one as a spare. His financial success was guaranteed.

It takes a skilled and imaginative writer to weave the few known facts about Levi Strauss' role in making the first blue jeans into a hilarious and homespun tall tale such as this one. Tony Johnston does it with panache. In her most capable hands inventive language and humor provide entertainment for readers young and old:

"Pretty soon, each miner had a spanking new pair of tent-pants. Then weren't they just beside themselves! In comfort, they sluiced and panned and rocked their cradles for the bright yellow stuff. They rushed, rushed, RUSHED. No harm came to those pants."

DANG! She's a good writer.

Ms. Johnston is not the only inventive one. Stacy Innerst painted each of his double-page spreads straight onto denim. The textures are perfectly scratchy and rugged to give readers a feeling for life in the Old West, when pants were hard to come by and needed to be long-wearing and almost indestructible. Every spread is worth a second look! So, take your time and enjoy this 'pur-dee fabrication'.

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