Monday, October 30

Be Nice to Spiders

by Margaret Bloy Graham
HarperCollins 1967

A boy brings a box to the zoo and leaves it at the gate. A zoo keeper, finding the box, opens it to find a very quick spider, anxious to get out in the world. The zoo keeper thinks nothing more of the spider.

Meanwhile, in the zoo, the animals are plagued by swarms of flies. Suddenly the flies begin to disappear as the spider goes about making webs and feasting. The animals are happy. The zoo keeper is happy. Everyone is happy.

The mayor is set to come to the zoo. The zoo keeper orders his cleaning crew to go around and make the place ship-shape, including the removal of the spider webs throughout the zoo. "I thought spiders were good?" says one of the crew, but no matter, the place must look perfect for the mayor.

After the mayor's visit the zoo returns to it's old self, flies and all. The spider is returned and the boy who left the spider has come to visit. Everyone is happy to note that the spider's new nest now supports an egg sac, promising hundreds more spiders to help keep the zoo fly-free for years to come.

Stumbling onto this book the other day I had this sense of deja vu I couldn't quite place. It had the feel of the kind of book I read growing up and, indeed, the pub date indicates I would have been ripe for this book around the time it was released. But there was more. The illustrations were reminiscent of those Syd Hoff titles, but the predominant color was that shade of peach that characterized a lot of 1960's picture books. Where had I seen that author's name before...?

Harry the Dirty Dog. Margaret Graham was the illustrator and, much to my pleasant surprise, still very much alive as I had a chance to meet her this week. Naturally I discovered this book the day after I met her, and when I finally realized who she was I was a little dumbstruck. Not an unusual situation I find myself in; I've been prone to stammering whenever I feel a little uncomfortable in a social situation, it doesn't have to be anyone famous. Add to the fact that my puny little mind is thinking "Harry just celebrated it's 50th anniversary... I didn't think either of them was still alive!"

Either of them being Ms. Graham or her former husband Gene Zion who created Harry back in the mid 1950's. A little hunting around and I discover that Zion and Graham divorced in 1968, and Zion had died in 1975. Beyond that I can find little.

On the back flap of the dustj acket for Be Nice to Spiders is a black and white photo of Margaret Graham working at her table, possibly on a watercolor for the book at hand. The window in the background diffuses the scene into that soft winter look that sent my dreamy little California head into strange longing. From my flat Southern California vantage point what could be more exciting, more dynamic than a city of high-rise apartments filled with sophisticated artists and writers. These were the people who knew how to have holiday parades, who created the best picture books, who knew how to have urban adventures that involved underground public transit and massive bridges that connected boroughs and were filled with ethnic neighborhoods.

Having grown up (barely, it seems at times) and having relocated to New England I live a more practical world. Public transit is still magic to me, but my adventures are limited to commuting to work or shuttling kids toward their own adventures. In hindsight I have come to value the quiet neighborhoods I grew up in and couldn't imagine the disconnect of living in a high-rise. Parades have long lost their shimmer.

But these books from my childhood -- from the era if not specifically from my personal reading experiences -- they strike an odd nerve in me. They contain an innocence within them that seemed to cocoon my generation in a world of childhood. They didn't shield us so much as they presented the world as a real place within our own imaginations. A boy could leave his spider in a box for the zoo to find and the effect on the zoo would be dramatic. I look at picture books today and they seem to be trying so hard to connect with kids. Writers and illustrators need to take into account various cultural influences, they need to entertain on a level that competes with video games and cable television... or so they may think. Because the classics are still out there, still being bought, and kids are still responding to them.

Maurice Sendak once said, in his book Caldecot & Co. "Books don't go out of fashion with children. They just go out of fashion with adults and publishers".

Sunday, October 29

Old Man, Young Man, and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemingway
Scribner's 1952

The Black Pearl
Scott O'Dell
Dell 1967

In 7th grade I was asked to pick a title from among a list of Great American Literary Authors and write a report. I picked The Old Man and the Sea because it was the shortest.

These things matter when you're 13 years old and dubious about the merits of what adults call "good" and "classic" and "literature." The shorter the book the less time it will take to read it, which means the longer you can put it off; which means a shorter period of time to skim before the report; which means the less you have to write because, after all, it's the shortest book you could possibly read. "Sorry, my five page report came in at 3 and a half pages because it was a short book. Didn't you say it had been printed -- in its entirety -- in a single issue of Life magazine?"

What also mattered was that the book had been adapted into a movie starring Spencer Tracy, who my 7th grade English teacher truly adored, and I was hoping I could parlay that affection into some kind misty-eyed grade inflation. And when I announced my chosen title Ms. Beyers-Ott beamed and announced that she had planned to show that movie later in the term, and wouldn't it be interesting to see how my vision of the book compared to the film.

In the parlance of the time: Busted. Royal.

I tried -- and I mean I really tried -- to slog through those scant 140 pages, trying to find a reason to care about the old man and the sea, and the fish and the struggle, and the sharks and the old man's bloody hands. I remember propping my head up in the library as I struggled to maintain consciousness, even going so far as to risk what little cache of cool I had as a rebel by wearing my glasses in public to keep the words from blurring together. In the end I managed to retain the bare essence of the story but gain no insight, no thematic understanding, nothing but the most threadbare of summaries. When the time came for the movie in class I put my head down on my desk, jacket over my head in embarrassment as I realized my complete failure as a young reader.

I say all of this in preface to The Black Pearl as I have come to believe that there may be something lost in the teaching of classic literature, and much gained in letting young readers discover for themselves what is or should be a "classic" or even "literature." To be clear, I do believe in the need for a solid foundation in a shared literary tradition -- and one more inclusive than previously prescribed but nowhere near as rigid as the many Cultural Literacies out there -- but that the definition of that foundation should come from a collective space.

In the 4th grade my teacher, Mrs. White, took time every afternoon to read to us from the cannon of what has since become classic young literature -- Harriet the Spy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- but at the time were merely good books for young audiences. One of those was Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins and it worked in well alongside our studies of California Mission history. What a strange world California once was, with sea hunting Native Americans and not a trace of Hollywood on the horizon! Though one could argue that in the time between 4th and 7th grade my sophistication should have been prepared for the Hemingways and Saroyans, the Hartes and Londons and Twains on the shelves I would have been better served with the substitution of The Black Pearl for that Crusty Old Man and his Ridiculous Sea.

Ramon Salazar is a boy on the cusp of manhood, the son of a wealthy Baja pearl fisherman whose fleet regularly brings in the biggest and the best. Impatient Ramon dreams of the days he can join the boats and dive for pearls, and ultimately win the approval of his father. In the meantime he learns the details of the business: the weighing and appraising of the pearls. Before he gets the chance he suffers personal and family insults from Sevillano, the fleet's braggart, and vows one day to get even by catching the Mother of all Pearls.

But first he must deal with El Manta Diablo, the largest Manta in the Vermillion Sea.

The themes of manhood and of proving oneself are played out against the local mythology of a two ton killer manta who guards the sea beds containing the largest black pearls around. Ramon must defy and outwit his father to obtain the Pearl of Heaven -- a 62 caret flawless black pearl -- despite the wise old Indian who warns him that the Manta Diablo will not rest until his pearl is returned. Ramon must also later steal the Pearl of Heaven away from the church (where it was deposited to bless the town's fleets) and return it to the sea but not before being forced into a confrontation with the Sevillano the Braggart who cannot stand his most precious lies being bested by a boy.

Every chapter in this slim book delivers a twist, a sort of reverse cliffhanger where you feel everything is resolved by the end of the chapter only to skitter sideways like a crab at the beginning of the next chapter. Near the end when O'Dell has to tie everything together it all starts to feel formula-fed, but really there's no other way to end the tale. Questions are left unanswered -- What will Ramon do now that the family business is destroyed? Will he admit to having stolen the Pearl of Heaven from the church? Will he even bother to tell the tale of what he's seen and done to his family? -- bit these are exactly the kind of questions young readers like to ask and answer for themselves. Perfect for five page book reports.

Meanwhile, over in Cuba, an unlucky old man goes out on his boat, farther than he's ever gone before, and catches the largest marlin in his life. He struggles to catch the fish, suffering all along, then lashes the fish to the boat and struggles to bring it to shore while sharks eat away at his prize the whole way. He returns to his hut and collapses, his unlucky streak ended, the last great haul of his 80+ years a skeletal testament to his skill and undying spirit. The end.

Okay, I've simplified unfairly. I was merely trying to recall my own interpretation from 7th grade. Honestly, what does a 13 year old boy know of an old man's struggles, of an old man's fall from grace with his community? What does a boy know of regaining a shimmer of former glory he has yet to taste? More, what does a young boy in an English class understand of the symbolism of an old novelist in a sea of hostile critics suffering to land one last chance at relevance? Only later -- beyond college even -- did I come to understand the disappointments of adults and the idea of a noble battle against hostile criticism. As a teen I would have been better served to work through the issues of becoming and developing my personal sense of self through books like The Black Pearl rather than wrestle with the demons of a classic novelist who shot himself rather than continue to live a life in futility. What kind of a message did they think they were sending us back then?!

Am I advocating the removal of classic literature from the classroom? Not anymore than I am suggesting that we replace these books with the untested Harry Potter series. There's something to be said for the idea of introducing young minds to what is considered relevant to society and culture, and explaining that relevance. A high school sophomore ought to know who Steinbeck is, the general story behind The Grapes of Wrath and how it connects with the dust bowl and American farm migration in the 1930's... but a student is much better off deeply exploring Of Mice and Men for its literary merits.

[As an aside, about five years ago I picked up The Grapes of Wrath for the first time since high school and marveled at it. No way could I have understood or appreciated what that book had to offer until I'd had a bit of hardscrabble living of my own to measure it against. What an amazing piece of reportage. Where is our contemporary Steinbeck?]

My personal initiation into the adult world of literature happened when I discovered a collection of Vonnegut short stories hidden in the garage. My dad had hidden this and some other books he felt were just a bit too mature for me and my younger siblings to read. My teachers -- bless them -- raised an eye at my reading Vonnegut during free time but said nothing more. They certainly didn't call out the morality police to have me frog-marched out of school, or hauled my parents (and library) publicly across the keel, and for that they deserve praise. That initial act of forbidding sent me running to the adult section of the public library more than any introduction to classic literature in a classroom. Given how teens tend to run contrary to adult desires perhaps the best course is to give them more relevant (to them) literature and suggest they avoid certain classics.

Then again, if Ms. Beyers-Ott had given me The Black Pearl to write a paper about, instead of letting me hang myself on Hemingway, perhaps I'd have performed just as poorly. Perhaps instead of championing Scott O'Dell's coming-of-age tale set in La Paz I'd bemoan having not been introduced to Hemingway's Old Man at a young age.

There's just no pleasing some kids.

Thursday, October 26

The Nearest Book

Picking this up from Chicken Spaghetti
  1. Grab the nearest book.
  2. Open to page 123.
  3. Find the fifth sentence.
  4. Post the text of the next four sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
  5. Don't you dare dig around for that "cool" or "intellectual" book on your shelves. (I know you were thinking about it.) Just pick up whatever is closest.

Here's what I found:

"Dan, go look at yourself," she said. So I did. And as I stood there, staring at my reflection, here is what I saw: an individual in his thirties wearing sweatpants he got at the campus store during Freshman Orientation. Granted, they were a little tighter around the... everywhere than they used to be.
I am now trying to figure out his this landed on my TBR shelf.

Wednesday, October 18

Atomic Ace and the Robot Rampage

by Jeff Weigel
Albert Whitman & Co. 2006

Superhero Atomic Ace is called by NASA to break up a threatening meteor shower headed for Earth. Meanwhile, arch nemesis Roboconqueror is released from prison and sets out to destroy Atomic Ace. Using his mechanized robot army, Roboconqueror hones in on Atomic Ace's nuclear aura little realizing he's actually tracking Ace's son! When dad realizes the danger he races back to Earth, but is there another family member with enough superpower to defeat the robot army and save the day? Could it even be... mom, a retired superhero herself?

This rhyming picture book has the unique feature of running parallel story lines by telling Atomic Ace's story as panels culled from a comic book while the Earth-bound adventures fill the page with digitally-colored illustrations. Having two stories -- or even two illustration styles -- side by side isn't revolutionary, but they do have the advantage of supplying tension to there story which might not be there otherwise. As with all superhero stories, the peril is directly proportionate to what the hero (or heroes in this case) are capable of and in the end evil loses and justice prevails.

I don't get the current interest in superheroes. As I understand it, the appeal in good versus evil stories (and crimefighting in general) is that people like the idea of sympathizing with the bad guys until they go too far, then go looking for the "release" of this tension through the last-minute actions of the hero. If people aren't invested in the bad guys -- through personality, actions or ideology -- then no salvation from any hero is going to be satisfactory.

Every era has it's ideological heroes. During prohibition and through the 1930's people enjoyed gangster films because what they were involved with -- gambling, liquor, vice -- appealed on one level which allowed for those "baser" instincts to be expunged either through getting caught or going down in flames. Think "Top of the world, ma!" as Jimmy Cagney would rather blow himself up (symbolically sending himself through fiery damnation) than get caught and you can capture an audience in a sigh of relief knowing that justice has prevailed. Westerns took over as the law and the lawless squared off in lands where borders and territories where physical, emotional and philosophical. The science fiction that filled pop culture in the 1950's spoke to the cold war fears and the idea of nuclear attack and communist invasion played itself out against a backdrop of nuclear heroes (and villains) and the idea that political might makes right.

Out of this grows a comic boom culture that had been steeped since the late 1930 but doesn't come into its own until post-war Americans go looking for a new breed of hero -- the super hero -- to help address problems and issues that far outstrip the abilities or mortal men and governments. Despite their alien powers or advanced gadgetry the stories are little more than adaptations of the good versus evil scenarios. All that has changed is a growing angst that the evil has grown beyond the powers of individuals to conquer.

So what does it say to us now to have these superheroes step once again to the fore? Have we grown so uncomfortable with our faith that humankind can settle our differences and meet the world's challenges head-on? Do these superheroes represent our need to feel some fleeting sense of power over the powerlessness in our lives? Are we merely abdicating our personal responsibilities for the evils we see by suggesting that only super human beings are capable of righting such wrongs?

And what are we telling kids when we present them with picture books featuring a superhero dad on his way to work (for a government agency, no less) while former superhero mom stays home to go shopping and pick up the laundry? Are we finally resigned to the notion that even superhero families cannot manage to have two working adults and that life for superheroes is no different than any other family? Ah! But if that's the case, why do we need this lesson from superheroes at all? Moms and dads used to be heroes for everyday, mundane things like fixing a bike or saving the family pet. Now, nothing less than saving their child from a robot army will do for sending the message home to kids.

At the end of Atomic Ace there is a little update on the situation at home where parts of the robot army are salvaged and converted into domestics so that superhero mom can return to crimefighting. It's almost touching how there's a token nod to feminism at the end, like something lifted from even the most square Marvel or DC comic book of the 1970's. Warms the heart.

Now if they can only get a book out there to explain to kids why, in a superhero world, we still have war...

The BGHB Awards in Review

There's no way I could cover this any better than it has been at the Horn Book itself, on Roger Sutton's blog, or over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
If I drew one personal conclusion from the night it's that illustrators are probably better seen than heard. Most, not all, but a good deal of them. I'm also beginning to feel that few of them should be allowed to add words to their own illustrations; way too many titles have I seen where perfectly delightful illustrators were allowed to do picture books that landed like flat, dusty, day-old grape soda on the tongue. No names. You can probably name a few yourself.

Saturday, October 14

Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls

poems selected by William Cole
illustrated by Tomi Ungerer
World Publishing 1964

Here's a little time bomb of a memory, lodged deep in my brain, springing forth like a cheerful bird on a breezy cool day when I'm lollygagging:

Nothing to do?
Nothing to do?

Put some mustard in your shoe...

For years I was certain that Shel Silverstein penned the line (and the rest of the poem to go with it) but was unable to locate it in all the usual places (Where the Sidewalk Ends, Falling Up, &c.) Then while researching various poetry collections I stumbled onto this title and the title alone seemed to send up some kind of a warning. Once found (and read) whole dusty corners of my brain came alive. And some interesting questions as well.

Cole, who in his day worked for publishers Viking and Simon and Schuster and the Saturday Review magazine, collected themed books of poetry for children that spanned at least three decades. Collecting humorous verse from throughout the 20th century Cole's books covered everything from the cautionary to the absurd, the sublime to the ribald. Earlier collections in particular contain poems and images that might do more than nudge the edges of political correctness and raise a few eyebrows. The continuation of the poem mentioned above -- credited to a certain Shelly Silverstien -- continues:

Fill your pockets full of soot,
Drive a nail into your foot,
Put some sugar in your hair,

Leave your toys upon the stairs,

Smear some jelly on the latch,
Eat some mud and strike a match,
Draw a picture on the wall
Roll some marbles down the hall
Put some ink in daddy's cap--
Now go upstairs and take a nap.

Having satisfied one itch in the brain I was suddenly met with several more, these in the names of the illustrations. Tomi Ungerer's line drawings have the playful spirit of the book's title... and then some. There is nothing in the poem that accompanies the following illustration to explain the look of the girls face:

And yet, there it is.

Father with a cat-o-nine tails and his little Electra smirking at his attempt to be stearn with her. It puzzled me then, it amuses me now, and it's no wonder this edition is no longer in print.

For Silverstein fans this collection contains the original, slightly different version of "Sarah Sylvia Cynthia Stout" and a poem with some simple instructions to children on how to make a prank phone call.
Not to suggest the book is all perversion and subversion, there are poems in here by A.A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ogden Nash and even Longfellow to round things out.

I look back on reading this as a child and don't feel I was in any way corrupted or had my delicate sensibilities compromised by the outrageousness contained in this collection. In fact, I think we do children a greater disservice today by sanitizing their world to the point where they stop believing we have their best interests at heart. They live in this world with us, and if we have to carve out time to discuss terrorism and famine and war and the dangers of strangers then I think we can trust them to take humorous verse in the spirit which it was once offered -- as a gift, from adults to children, to let them know that it's okay to laugh.

Thursday, October 12

Chance Fortune and the Outlaws

by Shane Berryhill
Starscape Books 2006

I've got an idea. Let's take Harry Potter and instead of making him a half-breed wizard lets turn him into a wannabe superhero without any powers. We'll put him in a superhero academy, a world-within-a-world, a parallel Earth where the twenty-first century looks exactly the way it was imagined in 1950's comic books. And let's surround him with a misfit bunch of superhero friends -- we'll call them the Outlaws -- who find themselves at odds with another group of mean and nasty superhero nemises -- we'll call them The Invincibles. Oh! Let's not forget to infuse the school with superhero professors who all seem to have their own agendas, and who may or may not be under the spell of a dark force from beyond. And instead of an aerial football-type game lets make the different superhero training teams do battles with each other, where they can pick their battlefields like a video game! Yow!

Wait, that's too easy. We need to work the comic book angle some more. Got it: name all the buildings on campus after big names in the comic book realm. Kirby Coliseum after Jack Kirby. Waid, MacFarlane and Buscema Halls after Mark Waid, Todd MacFarlane and John Buscema. Don't forget Stan Lee for the Lee Old Main building ('nuff said). But stay away from using Steve Ditko's name because that guy is likely to make a stink and his politics are a little iffy. Hmm, let's see, what else. Okay, so for the teachers, how can I make them vaguely resemble characters from Marvel comic books without getting sued? I could turn Thor into a female character, that could work. Make one of the teens like Mr. Fantastic from the Fantastic Four but I'll give him a name like another character... call him Private Justice and give him traits from Captain America. Throw in some X-Men- or New Mutant-like characters, add a goth girl to make it hip, toss in a kid that becomes Hulk-like, find a variation on The Thing. Yeah, this is coming together nicely.

Let's throw everyone off their track a bit by calling comics 'funny books.' That's archaic enough that it'll sound like it's from another world! I could also have the kids say things like 'holy schnikees!' because I doubt any of them remembers Chris Farley, much less have seen Tommy Boy. Wouldn't it be great to have kids going around saying that? Kinda like a code word! I could also use that Babylon 5 word flarn like a cuss word!

Now, what else do kids like these days? Video games and anime. No problem. Make one of the battle teams a group of anime characters, that's easy. Make sure all the battle scenes play out like video games where players choose their battles and match skills. Or like those card games kids play, what are they called? Warhammer? This is too easy. Fish in a barrel.

I'm feeling like I need to toss in some more details. I know, every time I talk about the guys who are physically developed I'll make sure to mention that their muscle ripple like iron beneath their outfits. (Does it sound like a romance novel to say that? Say, maybe that will keep the girls interested!) It sounds too fay to mention leotards or unitards -- tards just has a different meaning to kids these days -- so I'll just call everything tights. For the girls all I need to do is describe their hair and what their clothes look like. I wonder if anyone has ever used a redhead as a fiery personality?

A funny thought just came to me: what if when they're in the cafeteria the food dispensers only issue soylent! Not green, because that's too obvious, but what about soylent red or soylent yellow? Yeah, that breakfast scene in The Island just reminded me of that. It's like two movie references in one! What are some other movies I liked... Gattaca? Already got that I-cheated-my-way-into-the-academy thing going. Ooo! This is funny! I'll have an alien named Orson from the planet Shazzbot! No kid's going to get a Mork and Mindy reference! And speaking of Orson, I think I'll throw in a reference to that War of the Worlds radio broadcast and mention Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Yeah. Gotta work in some of those old sci-fi serials from the 30s and 40s... but how?

You know, I understand that kids these days don't read as much so maybe I better help them out. I think that whenever I can I'm going to either have them describe what just happened or explain what they just said. I know the rule is 'show, don't tell' but a little show-and-tell doesn't hurt, does it? I want them to understand that they're in a different world, that these things are unusual. It isn't that I don't trust them to understand on their own, it's just that I want it to be real to them, and everyone knows that repetition helps you remember things better. It may read a little clunky but, hey! it's from another dimension, right?

It would have been easier if my agent just could have sold the manuscript directly to the movie studios and jumped the book publishing step, but everyone knows that if you want to get a movie made these days it's easier to have it published than to sell the screenplay first. I'm sure that some snarky reviewer out there is going to try and nail me to a tree for all my pop culture references, but so what? It's my book and if he wants to shut up and show me how it's done then he can go right ahead. It isn't like anything he -- or any other adult -- says is going to matter once the kids get hold of the book. Those kids aren't going to read reviews of books, they're just going to pick them up and start reading. And once they see what I've jammed into this sucker, well, they'll be impressed.

Unlike some freelance reviewer trying to show off how smart he is by pointing out all the pop culture references in a over-recycled teen potboiler that didn't really rate this much attention in a blog.

Wednesday, October 11

National Book Award Finalists

My goal for next year is to have read at least one book on the list before the finalists are announced. Courtesy of the blog of the national book critics circle board of directors.

Replacing the Library Card with Biometrics

Or fingerprints at least. I wouldn't doubt for a moment if the Bush administration isn't eyeing this policy with a certain amount of envy. My favorite part?
"It seems to be a generational thing. The older people I've spoken to associate fingerprints with criminality while some of the children don't seem to have a problem with it."
That's it, get 'em while they're young and they not only won't care that their identities are being monitored, they'll come to expect it as normal.

Tuesday, October 10

The Extinct Files: My Science Project

by Wallace Edwards
Kids Can Press 2006


Sometimes a book hits you the wrong way out of the gate. For me it was the way the X in extinct was made larger on the cover (and title page) in an attempt toward clever wordplay on The X Files. That show went off the air four years ago, so I'm wondering what kid is going to get the reference. Then the cynical side of the brain wakes up and says "Ah, they're trying to hit the parents with the reference to sell the book." I should not be thinking things like this before cracking the spine.

The premise is that this is a facsimile of young Wally's science project. Or at least it would have been had it not been discovered by the DIA (Dinosaur Intelligence Agency) and commandeered before Wally could turn it in. Originally Wally's report was going to be about his iguana but in taking a photo he captured sight of a dinosaur outside his window and began sneaking out of his room at night to record evidence of his major scientific discovery. Along the way we learn that these nocturnal lizards are very similar to humans, just much larger and in colors and patterns no human has ever imagined on a dinosaur. Who knew there were dinosaurs that wore baseball caps backwards on their heads and played basketball? Or that they applied make-up with mops and owned vehicles?

Edwards uses two styles of illustrations; the vibrant acrylic paintings that represent Wally's photos and semi-crude colored pencil drawings to represent items caught in Wally's sketchbook. Given that the photos look too painterly and the drawings too skilled for a child I had a difficult time appreciating them. As we'll see, I'm probably not the best judge in this affair.

Throughout, Wally pencils in bad puns and gives the dinosaurs joke names (Groovysaurus) which underscores the seriousness of his discovery. His factual data includes information that cannot be gleaned from mere observation and the text generally reads on the whole like a joke. But at the end we are asked to accept that the report was serious, confiscated by the dinosaurs, leaving poor Wally with 'the dinosaur ate my homework' level of excuse.

I was willing to write this off as a miss but something was itching at the back of my brain. I've got a former expert on dinosaurs in the house, a mania she outgrew before second grade. In a final attempt to gauge just how off course I was I had her look the book over. She giggled, she smirked, she basically told me she thought it was funny. Now I was even more confused. I know this wasn't a book she would have picked up on her own -- she'd outgrown the picture book years ago -- and I feel certain that in her younger years she would have not been impressed with a joke dinosaur book when she had so many "factual" titles to choose from. But here she was, telling me otherwise. She especially liked the illustrations, which at one point I was torn between calling either "lurid" or "garish".

Further proof that adults aren't always the best judge of what kids may or may not like. It's no future classic is about all I can safely say. I think.

The Runaway Dinner

written by Allan Ahlberg
illustrated by Bruce Ingman
Candlewick Press 2006

Just as little Banjo is about to sit down to his nice little sausage for dinner it decides to get up and run away. The sausage, named Melvin, is followed by the rest of his dinner, cutlery and china, the kitchen furniture, pets and, of course, Banjo and his parents. Along the way French fries take boat trips on the lake, poor peas are culled through avian misadventure, a plate is appropriated for a Frisbee, a chair gets sat on just as it's resting all while the carrots take refuge in a paper bag. Finally, as Banjo catches up with Melvin the sausage he is forbidden to partake in his dinner as his mother chides "it's been on the ground." Happily giving up the chase, Banjo and his family (and furniture, pets, &c.) head home to desert while Melvin is seen walking hand-in-hand into the sunset with a baseball (named Marlon) he met while hiding out in the tall grass.

At the start Ahlberg's sing-songy text felt very mid-century, in that way that children's books often spoke directly to children as if being read aloud. There may be a more technical term for this (or at least a better way to describe it) but it's a lot of what I think of as reassurance text.

...the sausage -- Melvin, his name was --
jumped, yes, jumped right up off the plate...

Maybe it's because I had a creepy librarian growing up who did picture book story time with a condescending drawn out way of interjecting just such phrases whether they were written or not, but that sort of text has always set my teeth on edge. Ahlberg, however, manages not only to keep it in check but sends the story into such unexpected territories that by the end I was liking the book a whole lot more than when I started. And Bruce Ingman's child-like paintings capture the spirit and zeal of the chase even before it's begun.

It's all in the details. A pea goes missing and only after some searching can it be spotted apparently reading a small newspaper in a tree. How is it that no one at the baseball game seems to notice the bleachers are filled with fries enjoying the game? Why do the food items running around have names but the salt and pepper shaker, the table and chair, not have names? Ah, the delightful mysteries of nonsense.

Goosebumps Graphix 1: Creepy Creatures

stories by R. L. Stine
adapted and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez, Greg Ruth and Scott Morse
Scholastic 2006

Squeezing more blood money from the stone that is the Goosebumps series, this time by merging with the latest sweep into graphic novel territory. Three earlier series titles -- The Werewolf of Fever Swamp, The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight and The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena -- start off this new series and, oddly, may actually breathe a little life into the stories. Though they hardly stray far from formula reluctant readers who may be turned off by the cardboard characters in the books might be able to read more depth into the illustrations.

That sounds a little backhanded.
The Werewolf of Fever Swamp starts when Grady (and who names their kid Grady?) and his family relocate to the swamps of Florida where they can do research. Bored, Grady wanders into the swamp behind the house with a friendly neighbor kid and discover a hermit living there whom, legend has it, is the werewolf. Of course he isn't, and it should come as no surprise who does turn out to be the werewolf, and in the end what's so bad about wanting to be a teen werewolf? Gabriel Hernandez' adaptation is almost as stiff as the characters he illustrates but the swift pacing makes it easy to zip along right to the end.

Next up, The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight lurches into Stephen King territory, with a slightly retarded farm hand whose superstitions and incantations from "a book" lead to an army of title characters run amok. The kids on the farm -- two slickers visiting their dust bowl grandparents and the son of the farm hand -- think the hay-stuffed nuisances are practical jokes played by each other but in the end are confronted with the truth that... uh, why are the scarecrows on the rampage? Never mind, nothing a little fire can't handle, as we all know from The Wizard of Oz. Greg Ruth's gothic handling makes every frame look creepy even when nothing creepy is being said or happening. Ironically, the weakest story in the bunch gets the best visuals to compensate. Or maybe that was the point.

Ending on a more lighthearted approach, The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena finds a pair of California kids following their dad on a trip to the tundra where he's on assignment to photograph recent citings of the Bumble. Wandering off the kids land in a snow cave where the great furry snowman is encased in ice, only to be revived by the smell of trail mix. Who knew? Once they escape and clue dad in he figures out how to pack the abominable icecube up and bring him back to Pasadena where he remains frozen due to a special snow that never melts. Huh? Yeah, and then the kids play with the snow, the brother accidentally freezes his sister, and they whip out the trail mix to revive the snowman whose body warmth is used to revive the frozen girl... man, this gets sillier the more I say it. Scott Morse's Cartoon Network style is appropriate for the story but ultimately fails to generate any attempt at a scare, much less the title creepiness.

As graphic novels go (graphic novellas? graphic short stories?) no one is going to confuse these with the work of Alan Moore or Frank Miller, but as a hook to lure that non-reading boy in the corner who is looking for something casual to read that doesn't feel like reading, this series might do the trick.

Monday, October 9

Parent Swap

by Terence Blacker
FSG 2006

The set-up is pure teen fantasy: a 13 year old boy is presented with the opportunity to choose his ideal family, to trade up as it were to the type of family he's never had but is sure he's always wished for. Along the way there are bumps and in the end he realizes there's no place like home. It's the bumps along the way that make the journey interesting.

Danny Bell is the odd kid in the London housing development of White City that just might be smart enough to make it out on his own but certainly benefits from a little unintentional prodding. His dysfunctional family notwithstanding, Danny's golden ticket is that he's the victim of a reality show bent on secretly using him for their own aims. But Danny only pieces it together in bits, wondering why the first family he's placed with is so security conscious, why "news crews" always seem to be showing up when he's on outings. When he finally gets the whole picture he sets out on a course of revenge against the television production company that set him up and gets the semi-happy ending he had been hoping for, though not exactly as he'd planned.

Blacker's pacing takes some getting used to, as Danny's narration in interrupted by drop-ins of interview segments (presumably from the reality show) and from Danny's own top-ten sort of lists. Both the lists and the interviews feel a bit forced and have a tendency to throw off the rhythm of the story despite the narrative clues the inevitably include. The effect is that the reader is one jump ahead of Danny in figuring out what's going on up until the very end when Blacker elects to let the somewhat artificial suspense hang for the big showdown scene.

In the beginning, as I was getting my own footing in the story, I had visions of a teen version of the John Frankenheimer film Seconds, wondering if the narrative would take a dark turn down a road of altered identity and the inability to never see loved ones again. Or even a more darker satirical bent in the direction of A Clockwork Orange. Being set in Britain and dealing with class , that was perhaps more of a hope as I desperately didn't want it to drift down more predictable roads of parent-teen drama.

It's the details that nibble at me. The washed-up rock star dad, the against-type supportive friends, the kind-but-oblivious teacher who sees Danny's potential, the shady deal-maker who sets Danny up with his Parent Swap families (and is producing the TV show), all of whom are two dimensional at best. It's always just below the surface, this threat to dig deeper into the story and deliver rich characters and complexities of emotion.

A serviceable read for kids looking for another take on reality shows and social engineering that feeds into the inevitable displacement teens feel about their families.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

illustrated by Jon Agee, Tedd Arnold, Harry Bliss, David Catrow, Marla Frazee, Mary Grandpre', Lynn Munsinger, Jerry Pinkney, Vladimir Radunsky, Chris Raschka, Judy Schachner, David Shannon, Chris Sheban, Mo Willems
Dial Press 2006

What happens when you take the quintessential riddle, the ur-joke of playgrounds nationwide, and give it to 14 illustrators to answer? This light-hearted assembly grants each illustrator a double-page spread to stretch out and let the answers flow in primarily visual punchlines. Some go for the silly, some the surreal, and others are just out for an afternoon picnic (literally).

As an adult reading this I found myself trying to determine whether each "answer" felt satisfying to me; I wanted to be shown all the possibilities that the question afforded. To that end I was satisfied that Mo Williams took the opportunity to give us a police interrogation where the poor chicken in the hot seat honestly doesn't have the answer. The he's being "grilled" is a great pun, with the additional image of an officer preparing coals for a barbecue as an inducement to underscore the joke-within-the-joke. Chris Raschka doubles up the riddle by having the Sphinx ask the chicken in reply "You tell me".

On the flip side, Jerry Pinkney's country picnic seems a bit too genteel and Mary Grandpre's Chagall-like dream collage sends out an ethereal fog horn that asks "What was the question again?" Not that either of the illustrations is anything less than the artists at their best, in fact they both are downright beautiful. But neither satisfactorily answers the title questions for me.

Somewhere on the fringes you have Jon Agee's thick outlined chicken oblivious to the stampede of people and vehicle attempting to outrun dinosaurs, while Harry Bliss' chicken at least knows enough to run from the zombie chickens.

Zombie chickens?

That's when I began to wonder how this book would be taken at a younger level. A young picture book reader is likely to enjoy the more literal responses -- like the two that are concerned with following traffic lights -- but might need to have the concepts of zombies and a police interrogation explained to them. Older readers who might enjoy the more sophisticated responses mentioned above might not give the picture book a second glance. And when it comes to the image of a chicken at the counter in a diner ready to tuck into a mammoth cheeseburger, conjuring up the idea of barnyard cannibalism, I just throw up my hands.

I like the book the same way I enjoy a wafer thing after dinner chocolate mint; It wasn't expected, it was a fun little surprise, and ultimately nothing more than a trifle.

Friday, October 6

Waiting for Godot -- the Teen Years

I'm just going to throw this out the blogosphere and see what happens. Has anyone out there in their vast literary travels encountered a teen adaptation of Beckett's Waiting for Godot? It just struck me that, with so much borrowed material in the world that this may be out there and I haven't discovered it.

Oh, and if it doesn't exist, I'm claiming dibs.

Matthew Looney and the Recovered Memory

This could easily be the title of a book about the sudden appearance in my brain of a name, a book, a time in my life when the library was the coolest place to hang out. The Matthew (and Maria) Looney series written by Jerome Beatty Jr. rode the wave of interest in space age exploration in the late 60's with humorous adventure tales of lunar beings preparing to invade the earth. I loved these books, I loved the balloony, slightly demented illustrations by Gahan Wilson, they just hit me at the right time in my life and now they're cemented onto my sticky brain forever.

But you have to love the internet. Type in Matthew Looney and what happens? A fan page! A Wikipedia entry! The scans of the covers alone bring back the days of that pre-adolescent summer, camped out in a sunny alcove of the library, the smell of new carpet and a Formica covered study carrel...

Great, now I have even more books to track down and read.

Homer Price

By Robert McCloskey
Viking Press edition 1943
149 pages

There's this place called Centerburg which has always appeared just off the map from our collective unconsciousness. It's a past where the town fathers and other leading citizens gather at the barber shop while they let their children mind the diner and bring petty criminals to justice at the end of a gun. It's where ten year old boys could take the family cart and mare into town on their own, or tame a skunk for a pet with just a little milk, an innocent place where the idea of factory-produced homes is welcomed progress and a contest to see which old codger owns the largest ball of string is prime entertainment for a week. And in the center of it all, whether witness or participant, is Homer Price.

As one of Robert McCloskey's forages outside the realm of the picture book (Make Way for Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal), Homer Price takes the form of fanciful memoir, the kind of stories written of a young man's retelling of his Ohio home town. Naturally Centerburg doesn't exist, but plenty of Midwest towns like it did exist in the early part of the twentieth century and the book breathes a homespun charm not unlike a Frank Capra movie or a Thornton Wilder play.

Reading this in the late 1960's there was still a sense that these small towns still existed, not yet gobbled up by big cities. I had no doubts that just outside of my home town of Los Angeles there were dozens of these Centerburgs dotting the landscaped edges of the desert and foothills of the Sierra's. More exciting was the prospect that out there, somewhere, a man was in need of a ten year old boy like me to mind the diner while the donut machine ran amok pumping out thousands of the golden cake rings begging to be eaten. That a boy could tame a wild animal made perfect sense to me as I had once tried to convince my parents how (but not why) I could keep a pet squirrel in the closet under the stairs. Never mind that: we lived in a city and rarely saw squirrels; that the closet had no light in it; that the only nuts I was able to gather (in anticipation) were from eucalyptus trees. All that mattered to me was if Homer Price could do it, so could I.

The collection of stories in Homer Price are homespun and sly at times, with only one real dud in the bunch. McCloskey's attempt to modernize The Pied Piper of Hamlin almost threatens to destroy everything leading up to it, but in the final story he regains sure footing and brings together every major character from previous stories into a grand finale.

rereading it recently I can't help but wonder about the black people of Centerburg, only hinted at in these stories. They appear twice -- when a poor boy finds a diamond bracelet in a donut (and is rewarded with the princely sum of $100) and in the town celebration when the Baptist choir sings out a sort of folk-blues commentary on the town's history. It's both an accurate and sad reflection of the times that towns like Centerburg existed with poor minority communities that lived on the outskirts and peripheries. I wouldn't doom this book to the type of drubbing that Twain's boyhood tales receive but it would be nice to get an inner city version of Homer Price to balance things out. Perhaps a Harlem-set version of the 30's and 40's that celebrated the same spirit of boyhood adventure minus any sort of overt social message or literary revisionism.

Wednesday, October 4

Bibles in the Classroom

Courtesy of the Denver Post we get this little item about a new textbook entering high school classes this year called The Bible and Its Influence. The thing that's interesting about this isn't the topic, but that it's being used as the basis for the structuring of a course. It automatically sets off my intolerance alarms, wondering if these same school districts would allow for a class to be structured around books entitled The Koran and It's Influence or even The Influence of Buddhism on Western Theology. Somehow, I think not.

In the 1970's I remember how controversial it still was, 15 years after the Supreme Court decision allowing use of the bible in schools, that a course was being offered that used a text that included sections of the Bible as literature in it. Some protested that the biblical stories included were being taught as myths, others protested that it was even introduced in the classroom at all. When our teacher asked us for our opinion on the matter most felt, in context, the stories were just that -- stories -- and we didn't see the problem or conflict.

Indeed, perhaps that was the point, to present the biblical within the cannon of myths and legends in order to gain a perspective about the development of cultures around the stories it tells itself. I don't think any of us felt the core of our religious beliefs shaken or undermined at the time and I know many of us continued down the same secular and spiritual paths we were already on.

But to isolate a single text from a single religion and build an entire course, much less daily lessons, is another way of recognizing a single religion over all others and presents the image of bigotry. Those who claim this is a nation founded on Christian ideals, and thus justify the preservation of those ideals through classroom exposure, do not understand that the framers of our constitution were fighting not just the British but also Puritanical intolerance. Benjamin Franklin, elder statesman and editor of the Declaration of Independence, was clear enough on the subject of intolerance and religious pluralism, and I doubt he would like what he would have read in the Denver Post.

Tuesday, October 3

Stoo Hample's Book of Bad Manners

written and illustrated by Stoo Hample
Candlewick Press 2006

I really wanted to like this. After giving it a quick glance I really had hopes that we had a modern successor to Munro Leaf's Manners Can Be Fun with maybe a hint of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales. Were my expectations too high? Perhaps, but down climbing off my expectations I was still disappointed.

While I might have encountered The Silly Book growing up, my introduction to Stoo Hample was in the late 1970's with his work on the daily comic strip Inside Woody Allen. The strips I remember as being sort of illustrated stale or flat one-liners, the kind of second rate material I assumed the classic Woody Allen would have cut from his movies or books. Of course you take any of those old strips from then and put them up against some of today's dailies and they look like masterpieces of philosophy or, for a number of them, much to risque for today's modern Victorian media sensibilities.

In short bits of humorous rhyme Hample introduces us to the various owners of bad manners: The Greedy Guy, The Schloomper, The Demolition Gang, and so on. Many of the poems are merely inventories of what each of these mean, gross or thoughtless kids do with hardly a consequence in sight. Sure, books for kids can be subversive or just plain fun but when they come up against etiquette and social norms they need to reach a higher mark, they need to be deliciously subversive or devilishly clever to meet the bar. Stoo Hample's Book of Bad Manners fails in that attempt.

I would never in a million years have thought I'd come down on the hard side of a fixed meter in rhymes, especially with many fine examples out there of people who could bend that meter to it's breaking point (like John Ciardi), but at the end of the day if you're not going to make the meter it at least needs to sound natural. Especially if you're going to be silly, especially with kids. The beginning of "Blabbermouth" set my teeth to gnash:

He points at people
And says things that are mean,
Like, "She's got the BIGGEST NOSE
I've ever seen!"

At the end a cartoon Hample, who has been making comments throughout the book, essentially promises the young reader that if they are "equally awful,/Not nice or polite" then they are assured a place in his next book on manners. It sounds more like a promise, an encouragement for kids to try and outdo the near two dozen examples previously depicted.

Like I said, I really did want to like this book.

The Magic Finger

by Roald Dahl
illustrated by William Pene du Bois
41 pages Harper & Row 1966

This is a story of a girl with anger management issues, a story with a high sense of justice and a low tolerance for senseless violence, and the delightfully quirky world that Roald Dahl excelled at creating. The Magic Finger is a pushing, prodding, poke-in-the-eye, accusatory allegory to war via a pointed attack on thetradition of English sport hunting. In the right light, it could also be a call to vegetarianism, though I don't know that was Dahl's intent back in the mid-60's.

Our unnamed antagonist -- who'll I call Zak for reasons to be explained -- is the type of child who is a tempest beneath a barely calm surface. When humiliated by her teacher for spelling cat with a 'k' (and Twain had something to say about this) her boiling point is reached as fast as it takes to point her finger and turn the font of derision into a house pet. In the fantasy world of children's literature this casual power and transformation is presented as a natural occurrence, one in every classroom. Zak's abilities and her unwillingness to be trifled with are the point at which we jump to the real story.

Zak's neighbors, the Greggs, are a typical English hunting family proud to return from the fields with their kill, one duck a piece. The injustice of this needless killing sends Zak to seeing colors, and in her rainbow fury she turns her neighbors into duck-sized, bird-winged humanoids for the night. And because this universe needs balance (and the Gregg's need a lesson) their house is taken over with people-sized, human-armed ducks. As the humans are chased out and fired at with their own guns they quickly take to the trees and learn the obvious but valuable lesson of seeing the world from the eyes of the hunted. Come morning the world is set to rights and the Greggs set about atoning for their hunting sins while Zak goes of in search of another family that needs a lesson.

The joy I had discovering this shortly after it was first published left a lingering mark. In some ways I prefer this to Dahl's better-acknowledged classics James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in that it distills the lesson and entertains without unnecessary baggage.

Sadly, modern editions of this book no longer contain the original illustrations by du Bois, favoring instead more cartoony illustrations by Quintin Blake who has illustrated (or reillustrated in this case) all of Dahl's books currently in print. This apparently was Dahl's illustrator of choice beginning with The B.F.G and presumably the earlier books were reillustrated with his approval. One of my favorite parts of the original is the doubled page that allows you to watch the school teacher turn into a cat. There is also a multi-page spread where Zak's fury changes color but are presented in black and white ink wash that may be the result of economics (color being more expensive to print) but force readers to translate colors to emotions in a way that is more internal (and less obvious) than a similar expression in Leo Lionni's Frederick.

As for Zak, unless you read the original edition you won't see a little girl wearing a sailor's hat with that name on it, pointing at the reader in an homage to James Montgomery Flagg's Uncle Sam posters of the early 20th century. This closing image appropriates the iconic military recruiting image and transforms it into an accusation addressed to the reader. Is Zak attempting to teach you a lesson for your unknown sins, or is she merely warning you to beware your actions. Written and illustrated early in the Vietnam conflict the message isn't overt in Dahl's text but du Bois illustration appears to draw a connection between the senselessness of sport hunting and mindlessness of war.
Perhaps it is time to re-release the original edition.

Jumping In

While I doubt I'll ever be convinced that the world needs another blog about children's literature, I'm still taking the leap into the pool. Pardon my belly flop.

Sunday, October 1

A Note to Publishers and Authors (rev 1/12)


In addition to reviewing books on this here blog I'm also a founding contributor to Guys Lit Wire, a blog dedicated to reviewing books of interest or teen boys. I generally cross-post books between the two blogs if I feel they are appropriate for both sites and books I am sent may end up reviewed at either or both.

For those looking for a quick answer: Yes, I am still considering reviews of new children's literature if anyone wishes to send me galleys, ARCs or F&Gs. I will also consider digital galleys on a case-by-case basis. That said, please read on for what to expect.

For those looking to peg my interests, I am particularly keen on middle grade and YA fiction especially (but not exclusively) concerning male protagonists. Fantasy and historical books do not excite me but science fiction does, especially middle grade science fiction. I see enough picture books with cute animals that the ones that really stand out for me these days tend to be substanitative in their subject matter or subversive in their humor. Nonfiction picture books are still catching my eye a lot. Actually all non-fiction for children and young adults interests me these days. Also, I find myself doing a fair bit of graphic novel reading.

I include positive and negative reviews. I do so because I feel it presents a more complete picture of my criticism and allows for healthy dialog among the community of bloggers, authors and publishers. That said, I do not write reviews for everything I have read; time being what it is I have to limit myself to those books I feel compelled -- for whatever reason -- to discuss. If receiving a review copy of a book means I am expected to report back to anyone about the status of my review, well, I'm sure there are others who would be happy to oblige.

In my dream world an editor (or perhaps their hip intern, who reads blogs for fun and profit) would send me their catalogs an allow me to choose a handful to review each season. In the real world I will take what I can get, but I'd prefer books not come from some publicity or marketing firm seeking to use my contact information as another notch in their data arsenal.

Anyone who has gotten this far, and who wishes to send me a book to review, can contact me via email at david (dot) elzey (at) gmail (dot) com. I'll be taking questions from the floor as well.