Showing posts with label 70s. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 70s. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 8

Who, Said Sue, Said Whoo?

written and illustrated by Ellen Raskin  
Atheneum  1973  

As Sue drives her jalopy she encounters any number of creatures that say any number of things, but the chitter-chatter mystery sends them running for cover.  And then there's that moral...   

In this cumulative story a young woman drivers her car across the landscape encountering any number of sounds. Each page answers the mystery of the sound from before while adding a new one to the coda that asks "The who, said Sue / Said chitter-chitter-chatter..." Throughout it isn't always obvious for readers to guess the animal making the noises – a cow says moo, but a goose goes "quitter-quatter," sounds mostly chosen for their rhythm within the story. In the end it turns out the chitter-chitter-chatter was coming from the engine compartment of the car... and made by a skunk, which sends the collected animals and Sue running.  

Were the book to end there it would be serviceable, certainly no worse than any number of picture books put out today, but Raskin leaves the reader with an interesting parting thought in the form of a moral. As the skunk drives off in Sue's car accompanied by a chimp with a cold the words "Moral: Words aren't everything" hang above the illustration. If the book's central question was in understanding the sounds different creatures made, only to discover that sometimes there are much greater mysteries afoot, what are we to make of the chimp and skunk taking off together? It's clear the implication that the chimp cannot smell the skunk and thus has nothing to fear, but were we supposed to be afraid of these unusual noises before discovering their origin?  This isn't clear, and the disconnect between this last line, the rest of the text, and the imagery is confusing at best.  

Raskin again provides textured line drawings and bold colors surrounded by a lot of white space, in addition to the smaller 7 by 8 inch size. The book is intimate and cute but in its efforts to moralize comes up short and unsatisfying.

Monday, June 6

Spectacles

 written and illustrated by Ellen Raskin 
Atheneum  1976   

When a girl named Iris begins mistaking the fantastical for everyday items an eye exam is on order in a picture book by the author of The Westing Game...

Iris starts out by telling the reader that she didn't always wear glasses, but then one day a dragon showed up at her door.  Then came the pygmy nuthatch, the Indian, the chestnut mare. What Iris saw were the general shapes of different things that would come together to create something her brain could make sense of. The dragon, for example, turned out to be her Aunt Fanny standing against a tree, a house, and a trail that made the whole look more menacing by the sum of its parts. Finally, Iris goes to the eye doctor who gives her the bad news: she needs glasses. Iris fights all of her options when they are described by color and shape, but when her mother re-frames the question – "Would you like to look older or younger, sweeter or smarter, like a scholar or a movie star..." – Iris is instantly more interested in glasses. In the end Iris is happier wearing her spectacles but still takes them off once in a while for a glimpse at the spectacles she used to see.

Spreads feature Iris on the left side in a line drawing with what she sees done up in pointillist shading against a solid color, followed in the next spread by the same arrangement but this time with the scene clearly delineated and in full color. Ignoring that many of the things Iris sees would hardly remain stationary enough for her to hold these shapes, to say nothing of items like a TV which she couldn't have confused, there is still a bit of squinty-eyed whimsy at the way Iris approaches life. Too young perhaps to realize she's having eyesight problems (it happened to me in third grade so I can relate) she is fairly good-natured about the whole experience until she finds she has to wear glasses.

The concept has been done since, by Suzy Lee in particular, and perhaps before Raskin did it, but for a thirty-five year old it doesn't feel too dated or stodgy. Change "Native American" for "Indian" and I think it would be fine. 

There is something very 1960s mod in her style of illustration, and very approachable. In fact, what initially startled me was that it was small for a picture book. At just under 6 x 8 inches – one-fourth the size of many picture books today – the book's intimacy draws in a reader's attention. Almost as if the book had been designed with a nearsighted reader in mind. But it raises an interested question today as many publishers point out the high cost of producing picture books: why not simply make them smaller? Not every book needs to e lap-sized, and an argument can be made for picture books to be manageable for younger readers. Just a thought.

I only discovered this week that Raskin was also an illustrator and began her career (as many illustrators do) working on other's books before writing and illustrating her own. In fact, she is responsible for the iconic woodcut illustrations for the New Directions edition of A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, a book I've owned and replaced without ever making the connection. A quick Google search for Ellen Raskin illustrations yields a number of surprises, including book covers I have seen before including adult titles like A Passage to India and a Nathaniel West collection.

Monday, February 14

Who Need Donuts?

Story and Pictures by Mark Alan Stamaty  
Knopf 1973     

Sam wants donuts for his birthday, more donuts than his parents could ever afford.  He wanders from his suburban home to the big city and discovers there are some things more important that donuts.  

Once Sam hits the city he finds a man named Mr. Bikferd who is a donut collector, wandering the city hunting for donuts and hauling them all over in his giant wagon.  Sam tags along helping collect donuts until one day the wagon breaks down.  Seeking help, Sam locates a woman who collects pretzels in a wagon of her own, and when Pretzel Annie and Mr. Bikferd lock eyes it's all over for the donut collector.  Sam now has a wagon full of all the donuts he could ever want... and he doesn't want them.  

Popping up throughout is a sad old woman whose prophetic announcement at the beginning of Sam's adventure – "Who needs donuts when you have love?" – finds her life in danger when the coffee company above her sad little basement apartment encounters a runaway bull and coffee spills everywhere.  But it's Sam and his donuts to the rescue, and the realization that, indeed, there are some things more important than donuts.  

Stamaty, an illustrator who for many years wrote the alternative political cartoon in the Village Voice called Washingtoon, crams so much information into his line drawings a reader could easily spend hours on each page studying what is there to find.  Absurd conversations, surreal animals, people whose fashion defies logic, there are more visual treasures to find per square inch than any other books except maybe Where's Waldo and Waldo is tame by comparison. Picture book readers of varying ages will discover different gags in the illustrations depending on experience.  Newspapers bare headlines like "Convicted Felon Receives Paragraph From Verbose Judge" probably play more to adults who would get the puns, but visual gags like a Conestoga wagon being driven by a horse in a suit who is a passenger in a convertible are accessible for all.  

(I do believe you can get an approximate sense of the experience by double clicking on the image above for a larger size.)

What does any of this have to do with the story?  Nothing.  At least on the surface.  These jam-packed illustrations serve as a parallel charm to the book's otherwise simple message that sometimes wanting something can sometimes blind you to what you already have or what you might really want.  It's no mistake that all of this takes place in a hectic city full of people who are blindly going about their business, oblivious to the wonders of the crazy world around them, including an obliviousness to love.  

Out of print for a long time, Who Needs Donuts? was reprinted in 2003 and can still be found. 

Wednesday, September 22

Hoddy Doddy

by Jack Kent 
Greenwillow / William Morrow 1979

Three folksy tales of the town fools in an Old World unnamed Danish town.  An interesting window onto a slightly politically incorrect beginning reader by the creator of the King Aroo comic strip. 

In a little Danish town, where these stories are all set, we see three small portraits of hoddy doddy's, or what Kent calls "foolish fellows." The first is a baker who, when told a Norwegian ship has arrived, goes to the harbor because he's never seen a Norwegian before.  When he arrives at the dock the ship is empty except for some stray lobsters that have fallen out of nets, and the baker assumes these are the Norwegians.  In the second tale, the town has learned that the enemy is approaching. In their panic to save the town clock, their most powerful possession, they dump it into the harbor where no one is likely to find it... including the townfolk.  In the last tale a town-proud miller spends his free time admiring how much better his homeland is than others. Upon hearing a contest between cuckoos of neighboring town, he decides to climb the tree and help his town's cuckoo win the contest.  For this he gets a statue erected in his honor as a town hero.

There is little denying the amount of story Kent manages to pack into these brief tales – and their illustrations take on the sort of Old World charm reminiscent of Paul Coker's work with the Rankin Bass animated holiday specials that also mined this territory – but there's something off kilter about identifying the residents from this town as being from Denmark.  The matter of fact presentation and definition of the phrase hoddy doddy makes it seem as if we are reading regional folk tales, but I've recently become aware of the phrase through The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in which it's defined as "all ass and no body," which itself was slang to describe short, clumsy people.

I can't presume that the late Jack Kent, whose visual work strikes a nostalgic thrum in me, was attempting to make fun of the Danes deliberately.  It may be that he'd heard the phrase and its meaning divorced from its original use and was simply using it as a peg on which to hang a set of fool's stories.  But it may also have been that its offensiveness went unnoticed until after publication, which may explain why it appears to be no longer in print but not why it's still readily available in my town library.  There's also the chance that I'm being overly sensitive, but it really jumped out at me from page one.

Had Kent not singled out "a town in Denmark" all I would have been able to talk about was his skill at condensing three vignettes into an enjoyable beginning reader with humor and an economy of language.

Monday, September 13

Killing Mr. Griffin

by Lois Duncan 
Dial 1978 

A group of high school kids decide to teach their hard nosed English teacher a lesson in humility by kidnapping him and threatening to kill him.  Hilarity ensues. (Not!) 

As a "light reading" choice among the other required reading for one of my daughters this summer I decided she might enjoy Killing Mr. Griffin.  She has an odd sense of taste and humor, and my recollection was that this story would be a nice respite from some of the heavier reading she was doing (i.e. The Book Thief, her new favorite book of all time).  When the book came home from camp at the end of summer with a bookmark a third of the way in I was confused.  Did she not have time to read it?  Was it too dark?  "I just didn't like it," said the girl who finished practically everything she picks up.  So I decided to reread for the first time in maybe decades.  

I understand now what happened. 

Though this sort of story has proven to be popular over time – the movie Heathers probably owes some debt of gratitude to Duncan, as does Michael Northrop's Gentlemen – what probably kills this book for a contemporary reader is the language.  I can't tell if it's a question of style, a book of it's day, or if Duncan was trying for something Gothic in tone, but all throughout she uses words and phrases that would strike a modern reader to be stale as opposed to of an era.  There were words that nicked and jabbed at me as I read, then on page 30 I was stopped dead.

      He put a pan of water onto the stove to boil and opened the cabinet where his mother stored foodstuff.  There were two boxes of Jell-o, cherry and banana.
     "Good old mom," he muttered resignedly.

The word "foodstuff," the stiffness of "Good old mom" and the tortured dialog tag "he muttered resignedly," these didn't just tumble clumsily in my head, they were actually hard to read aloud without stumbling. I probably should have sensed it coming from the beginning when a character Susan "told herself vehemently" and "thought wryly."  I could accept that the English teacher in question, a pompous ass who gave up college level teaching in order to show the high school world how it's done right, would speak formally and in drawn out, stilted phrasing, but to have a teen thinking (much less speaking) in such obvious SAT adjectives should have tipped me off.

At the story level, coming out in the late 70's as it did, I'm not surprised by the troubled-kid-leads-the-others-astray morality summation.  I don't think it would have been possible to write this as the lark of well-intentioned kids gone haywire back then; books for teens still needed to justify themselves beyond entertainment.  The problem is that it takes an unsympathetic character like Mr. Griffin and tries to get us to like him by making him a victim when, in fact, he was a terrible instructor with no interpersonal skills and should never have been teaching in the first place. 

My daughter never got to figure that out, though.  She gave up on it possibly because of the language and possibly because there were no characters she could identify with.  The good characters are weak, the bad characters are whiny, and the title character is a jerk.  A lesson here on making sure you fully remember (or reread) older books before handing them off to younger readers today.

Wednesday, October 28

Punch and the Magic Fish (with video bonus)


A Grimm Brothers' Tale Retold
by Emanuele Luzzati
Pantheon / Random House 1973

Luzzati's retelling of the Grimm's "The Fisherman and His Wife" get overlaid with the Punch and Judy comedy of the hapless hunchback and his shrew of a wife. Not as opulent as some of Luzatti's other illustrations, the story melds the two stories fairly well until the end when it veers a little and the magic fish from the original ends up in the frying pan.

I've done coverage on the original Grimm story long ago when I was doing that sort of thing more often with my Grimmoire series. Basically, Punch the fisherman finds a fish who, in exchange for his freedom, grants the fisherman a wish. His wife Judy sends him back repeatedly to upgrade the wishes even though Punch is perfectly happy with his life at every stage of the story. Finally the wife goes one wish too far and the fish returns them back to their poor life with a family of hungry kids.

Luzatti is usually very bold with his colors, but here everything is set against open fields of white and it doesn't work for me the way his other books do. Still, the mix of torn paper collage and sketchy marker give it that whimsy that I like about his work.

As an added bonus, I was able to find a video Luzzati made around the same time that features Punch and the music of Rossini. It isn't "The Fisherman and his Wife" but it shows another side of this illustrator's work. The darker elements of a traditional Punch and Judy story are here - the beatings, Punch's journey to hell - but I think this could still work for kids today. Some kids. Anyway, enjoy.

Wednesday, October 14

When It Rains.. It Rains


by Bill Martin, Jr.
with pictures by Emanuele Luzzati
Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1970

Much like last week's Martin/Luzzati collaboration, When It Rains.. It Rains is another small book that deals with repetition and familiarity to hold a young reader's attention. It didn't occur to me before, but these small books with their childlike illustrations and simple texts were precursors to the board books of today.

Here the pattern is established in the title. Each spread deals with a different type of meteorological event like rain, snow, and fog before moving into the emotional territory of age and temper. There is more of an attempt to bring in images of non-white children which speaks to its age, though their representation tends toward the Small World variety of stereotypes: a white-turbaned Indian boy beneath a palm tree in the heat, a Mexican boy in a sombrero and blanket poncho. Nothing too egregeous for the modern age, but as with Whistle, Mary Whistle, probably enough to keep it from ever being reprinted.

But, again, my draw to these books was the illustration. The pictures contain the same innocent qualities of another Martin collaborator, Eric Carle, with a warm use of vibrant color. Luzzati, along with Nicolas Sidjakov, The Provensens, Mary Blair, and M. Sasek all have that mid-century modern look illustrators had that I'm just a sucker for. Inky outlines and loose crayon against solid blocks of color. There are a few modern practitioners (who might be surprised to be considered part of this group) like David Ezra Stein and... well, now I'm drawing a blank. I think Jeremy Tankard is doing some great work in digital that is along the same lines in terms of boldness of color and naivete of spirit. And there is an artist I've been following since she was a student in animation school (on her blog, I'm no stalker!) named Lorelay Bove who has landed a job illustrating Disney's newest Golden Books and whose work reminds me so much of Mary Blair.

What was I saying? Oh yeah.

Taking a couple more looks at this it slides in nicely alongside Bill Martin's other books. No more and no less sophisticated than Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and its ilk.

Wednesday, October 7

Whistle, Mary, Whistle


an old jingle adapted by
Bill Martin, Jr.
with pictures by
Emanuele Luzzati
and handlettering by
Ray Barber
Holt Rinehart, and Winston 1970

Yes, as a matter of fact, there are some books I do read for the pictures.

One of the lasting after effects of wanting to grow up an be an animator is that I still keep an eye open for blogs and news about cartoons and animation, especially from the pre-digital era. It's also no secret that I hold a fondness for mid-century modern illustration, and anything else that feels like my childhood. So when these things all come together in one place, or in this case a book, my curiosity is piqued.

Emanuele Luzzati was an illustrator, animator and graphic artist whose work has a very familiar look that carried a lose, childlike feel to it. When coupled with Bill Martin Jr. in a small picture book the hook is irresistible. But what we land when the hook is reeled in is a bit odd to these adult eyes.

"Whistle, Mary, whistle, / And you shall have a..." is the text on the verso page, with the last word being an object promised to Mary id she will whistle. On the recto Mary offers up her reason why she cannot whistle, surly a made-up excuse, which always rhymes with the first part of the verse. It's a fairly typical call-and-response sort of text whose repetition takes on the sing-song qualities of a playground rhyme or an old folk song.

But the punchline is that the thing that makes Mary whistle.
"Whistle, Mary, whistle,
and you shall have a man."

Tweet, tweeet, tweeeet, tweeeeeeeet, tweeeeet,
I just found out I can.
"
Uh, yeah.

This was 1970? Was this Bill Martin holding on to the traditional verse, or Bill Martin holding onto Victorian ideals in an age of budding feminism? Obviously this book would not pass muster today, and I don't believe it's been in print since originally published.

Visually, Luzzati's work had a playful joy to it that I would still like to see in books today; it's loose, playful, and childlike in a way that is inviting to young children. I find many books today with computer generated images have fine texts but are otherwise cold and sterile. The inclusion of hand-drawn letters (and a title page credit) is something I think would be welcome over the font choices made today. Even when alternative fonts are used today they too often feel like the office temp making posters for the employee kitchen using Microsoft Word. Cold images, cold fonts... reading should be a warm and inviting experience. If this makes me sound like a crusty old man, so be it.

Saturday, February 9

Rumble Fish


by S. E. Hinton
Delacorte 1975

Did I really reread this? Did I need to? Man, this thing didn't age well.

Rusty-James thinks he's the the world on a string. Kid brother to the infamous Motorcycle Boy, RJ walks around honestly believe he has his older brother's smarts, looks and charisma to run the gangs of their midwest town. But RJ isn't any of those things, and where his brother used the gangs as a creative foil for his twisted genius, and then moved to disband them, RJ thinks he's inherited some sort of crown that allows him to be cock of the walk.

Motorcycle Boy left to see the sea, to expand his horizons, but two weeks later he's back. He saves RJ from a knife fight (probably not the first time he's bailed out the kid) and spends his days reading and drifting off into a half-deaf semi-trance. There's a local cop who doesn't like Moto Boy and threats all around that one of these days he's going to bring him down because the young punks in town look up to him. It doesn't matter which side you're on, when you see the Buddha on the road, kill it.

The book is framed with RJ on a beach in California running into an old friend Stevie from back in the day. They've both escaped the confines of their small town lives -- Stevie went to school and was planning on becoming a teacher, RJ fresh from the reformatory has finally made it to the beach his older brother never saw. In talking to Stevie RJ is forced to remember and relive those last days five years earlier when his brother was gunned down while setting free the animals in the pet shop. It was a last, desperate act of a person who was so smart he "could have done anything, but nothing interested him" as his drunken father points out. The curse of the big fish in the little pond (or in this case, the Siamese fighting fish in a separated tank). At the end, once RJ has recalled it all he tries desperately to forget. But he cannot, and that's the burden he carries.

Okay, aside from the dated references and slang, two things really stand out: first, the movie Francis Ford Coppola made out of this book is both brilliant and such a brilliant adaptation of this story that it practically eclipses it in relevance; second, are there any kids out there who are going to care about RJ enough to want to finish this book?

Seriously, RJ is a tragic figure in that he hasn't got a clue but he gives the reader all the clues they need to know that he's an idiot. The Motorcycle Boy is only mythic in the way he's viewed by his little brother; aside from being a pacifist with a death wish it's hard to get the read on his genius everyone else sees in him. As a picture of gang life in Tulsa the thing reads like a throwback to West Side Story, only without any social commentary. It's difficult to understand why this book has premained popular -- unless it's because it's short, has entered the YA cannon, and reluctant boy readers will read anything that has fighting as it's focal point.

That said, the movie that Coppola made out of this film almost justifies the book's continued existence. I could talk about this film for days because what FFC did was locate the horrible truth that lay at the heart of the book, that is the secret heart of all stagnant life in America. The movie is about time, wasted time, stopped time, putting in time, doing time, passing time, all the problems an active soul encounters when there is nothing but time. Rusty James feels his time has come, the Motorcycle Boy has come to the end of his time, and everyone else is traped in time but is too blind to notice. Coppola makes all this time with time-lapse photography of clouds passing, clocks that speed up, a giant clock face on a truck with no hands on it... one could argue that it isn't subtle, but it's so artfully shot (in black and white, to match the Moto Boy's colorblindness) and poetically rendered that it plays like a running gag in a city that time seems to have forgotten.

I never thought much of the book until I saw the movie, saw what was possible with Hinton's blank canvas, and now I canot read the book with those images burned into my head.
Movies can certainly color a reader's impression of a book they haven't read, but it takes one hell of a movie to supplant all previous images if the book was read first. I'm not about to suggest that the book shouldn't be read, despite my misgivings after this recent read, but I wonder if it's passed its relevancy phase and is moving on into period piece curio.

I know there are plenty of good books turned into good movies, and good books turned into bad movies, but are there any other films out there that turn sub-par books into cinematic masterpieces?

Sunday, May 27

Feathers

Jacqueline Woodson
Putnam 2007

I've been floundering with this book for over a week now, trying to figure out what exactly it is I want to say. Twice now my attempts to review the book have quickly become examinations of the 1970's and why it feels like we're seeing more books set during that time and what, if any, relation all this has on our current political landscapes and whether younger readers really want to read about all this as "period" reading.

At it's simplest the story come from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks family. A boy with long hair transfers mid-year to the new school on the bad side of town, literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Being the new kid, the odd fish, makes him the easy target for the bullies and because he looks white and the other students are a rainbow of browns he is instantly viewed with suspicion. The Jesus Boy, nicknamed because of his hair and serenity in the face of his non-violent approach to life, causes unease because some of the kids begin to wonder if he isn't Jesus come back to test their faith. When finally pushed to the edge by Trevor, the class bully, JB finally lets lose a verbal assault that disarms Trevor but proves JB is like the rest of them, capable of cruelty and anger. JB's secret is that he was adopted by black parents who moved across the tracks because life wasn't any easier for them on the other side. Kids are egalitarian in their cruelty.

The story is told from the point of view of Frannie who, along with her deaf brother Sean, give us another perspective on being outsiders. Frannie doesn't feel she fits in with those around her who are more deeply connected to their church, and her brother Sean makes a connection between his deafness being a separate world that keeps disconnected. Frannie wants to believe as her friends do but she sees too many contradictions to settle her rational mind; Sean knows that no matter which side of the tracks he lives on he'll always be an outsider to the hearing world, a world he can never be a part of unlike his sister who can travel in his world through sign language.

The title comes from Frannie's book-long inquiry into a poem by Emily Dickinson which begins with the line "Hope is a thing with feathers." Indeed, it makes me wonder what Woodson herself hopes for both within the book and without.

Setting the story in the 1970's allows for a certain distancing from the idea of a segregated society, but the the ideas that lie beneath are as real today as they might have been 30 years ago. Somewhere between then and now American society has recreated new divisions and seems desperate to reclaim old one. Politics, religion and even music have moved to their respective sides of the track and don't take kindly to outsiders attempting to pass or blend in.

So why go there? Are we seeing an increase of writers who came of age during those times who feel the resonance so strongly with our current climate? The 70's are equally alive in Barbara Kerley's Greetings From Planet Earth so I'm wondering if this is a trend or a blip or just coincidence.

This perhaps moves outside the parameters of the review, but sometimes the universe sends a message and you have to puzzle it out the best you can. For a very long time now I've been wondering what to make of my particular generation, a shoulder generation who are alternately claimed as being either the tail end of the Boomers or the front end of Generation X. To my knowledge this generation is not formally recognized by marketers or the media and my experience has been that those born between 1958 and 1963 have a general sense of feeling left out. It was while I was at my wife's graduation ceremony this week that I had another old idea brought back to the surface. It was under the guise of referring to a graduating class as a karass, a term invented by Kurt Vonnegut, taken from Cat's Cradle (published in 1963 coincidentally), which is defined as "a team that do[es] God's Will without ever discovering what they are doing."

I'm beginning to feel as if my karass is making itself known in children's literature.