Who is Mister Orange? And why is this quiet, moving book named after him?
Written by award-winning Dutch author and editor, Truus Matti, and beautifully translated by another award-winner, Laura Watkinson, Mister Orange won the Netherlands’ 2012 Silver Slate Pencil Award and the American Library Associations’s 2014 Mildred L. Batchelder Award.
The story begins in 1943 New York City, when Linus’ oldest brother Albie has just enlisted to fight in WWII. With Albie gone, Simon, the next brother down, will take over his job. Thus Linus will have to step into Simon’s shoes, literally and figuratively: literally because the family passes each precious pair of shoes down from one child to the next and figuratively because Linus is about to move into Simon’s old job of making deliveries for the family’s green grocery delivery service. Albie and Linus get along well with each other; Simon, not so much.
Linus is an imaginative kid who loves comic books—a relatively new genre that began in the 1930s—as does Albie. Before Albie leaves for boot camp, he entrusts Linus with the huge sum of two dollars to buy the next volumes in their favorite series while he’s away at war.
As the story unfolds, Linus delivers groceries, deals with his worries by conjuring up his alter ego (a comic book hero named Mister Superspeed) and ponders the role of art and imagination in a brutal world at war with itself. These are big issues for a 12-year-old to have to face. Along the way we learn about boogie-woogie, the future and a mysterious artist. But unless young readers or their parents already know about Mondrian and the name of his painting, Victory Boogie Woogie, though, they won’t discover who Mister Orange is based on until they read the lovingly detailed, excellent back matter.
So just who is Mister Orange? Modeled after renowned Dutch artist Piet Mondrian—who spent the war years in New York before dying of pneumonia in 1944—Mr. Orange is the family’s newest customer, who ordered a weekly crate of oranges from Simon right before Linus took over the route. (Since Simon did not get the customer’s name down on the order form clearly, Linus mentally christens him Mr. Orange.) They become unlikely friends of a sort, sharing an orange and a chat with each week’s delivery. Mister Orange tells Linus at one point, “If imagination were as harmless as you think, then the Nazis wouldn’t be so scared of it.”
Saying anything more would spoil this gentle, coming-of-age book.
By Truus Matti
Translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson
Enchanted Lion Books, 2013
About Truus Matti (b. 1961)
About Laura Watkinson
About Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)
*2014 American Library Association’s Mildred L. Batchelder Award
*USBBY 2014 Outstanding International Book
*Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of 2014 (Outstanding Merit)
Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of over 40 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French and Italian into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Her latest translations, Luisa: Now and Then (Humanoids, 2018) and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas (First Second, 2017) were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens.