Wednesday, December 26

The Year in Review

Or rather, not.

One year when I worked as a film reviewer for radio I took it upon myself to put together a year-in-review show that attempted to provide a summary of that year's films using soundbites from my fellow reviewers. I had nearly 60 hours of material to work with and in those analog days of rerecording and literally splicing quarter-inch tape I wound up living in the production studio for three straight days without sleep. I was very proud of the end result and vowed to edit together quarterly mini reviews as the coming year progressed to avoid a similar fate.

But something happened while I listened to the show being aired. It occurred to me that as entertainment was concerned it was fine but in the end no one really gave a damn. It was early evening, New Year's Eve, and those of us at the station listening to the final playback were half amused and half talking about our plans for later that evening. Talk turned to the previous year, where we were exactly a year before, and about how we couldn't remember our favorite movies from that year.

Our producer, a good friend of mine who was also a DJ, was obsessive about year-end lists. He would compile them for his favorite music released that year and would build a show around them. He would tally his best movie list -- including summaries of why he included them on his list -- and would email them to friends in those pre-blog days and invite the recipients to reply with same. While he might have appeared a tad obsessed I know we all had our own lists and were a bit jealous at his ability to have kept so close a track on the previous twelve months.

Even I managed a list, though in order to satisfy my curiosity in being able to definitively rank them in order of favorite I modified a method borrowed from Richard Bowles' What Color Is Your Parachute. When my lists was completed I was surprised at what would "objectively" come out on top, and secretly felt like the results were less accurate, less personal for the effort.

This time last year I'd only been at the blog for a few months and didn't feel I could put together a solid, representative list of titles. I studied other lists in the kidlit blogosphere and was sure I'd done the right thing because at best I was only familiar with one or two titles at best on each list.

But after having blogged for a full year I still don't feel I can put a list together. Presumably when one makes a "best of" or "in review" list it is with the understanding that the person making the list has covered the ground necessary in order to make that judgement. One year as a film reviewer I watched 317 movies in a theatre or screening room, and countless more on video. Given that the average American moviegoer sees fewer than four movies in theaters in a year and rents less than twenty videos released in those same twelve months it was clear that I had seen enough to speak with some authority.

But I couldn't put a list together because everything I could accept as being "best" for that year might not have made the list when compared to the years on either side of it. What on the surface looked like an excellent film one year wouldn't stand the test of time. Certainly I liked plenty of films, but to isolate them into a single list felt wrong or even misleading.

It's no different with books. One look at the New York Times Bestsellers list might suggest a buying trend of the moment, and over time continued sales could indicate that a particular book has resonance with a large section of the population - and don't misunderstand, I'd love to find myself on that list one day - but making that list only reinforces the fact that we are a list-driven society. Singling out or highlighting is what we do best, it's what we know, it's how we make our snap decisions in our accelerated world.

But every one of us has fallen victim to "list trust" somewhere along the way. We've seen in magazines or newspapers or on line some best-of list and felt intrigued enough to follow-through and seek out something from the list. There's a comfort in knowing that someone has taken the time to compile a list, someone has put the thought into it, and we trust that person and their criteria enough to allow ourselves to be swayed.

And how many times have we been burned by that trust?

What if, what if all lists had to be reduced to a single title? What if the real reason for a top ten or best-of comes from an inability to pick a single significant work for the year and stand behind it? What would it look like to see everyone -- blogger and professional critic alike -- stand up and say "Of all the items I encountered this year, this is the one I found most significant, and here's why"? Instead of being able to hedge a bet that several items might find favor with a wider audience each of us could get back to the point -- our opinions, as filtered through our personal experience, shared with the world at large.

A single title, culled from the rest for whatever reason, becomes a form of celebration. Without comparing it alongside a list of other disparate items the choice of a single title reveals something about the reviewer but also offers a chance for readers to filter out the static and focus their attention. If you read ten year-in-review lists with ten titles apiece how could you not find yourself swayed by the commonalities to the exclusion of the others? But, if ten people were to give you a single title for the year, the chance of duplication drops and the opportunity to focus on that spectrum becomes easier.

In order to put my money where my mouth is (or perhaps it's my foot) I'm going to have to say that the most important book for me this year ended up being something I never reviewed. Not here at least. It was a book I came across while traveling in Europe this summer and it started a chain reaction in my thinking about juvenile non-fiction, about how we teach history to children, it even became the basis of my first (eventually abandoned) critical essay for my grad school application. To make matters worse, the text of the book is 2400 years old.

It is Snakes with Wings and Gold-digging Ants a collection of writings by Herodotus put out by Penguin as part of a new series called Great Journeys. I originally reviewed this back in September and while you might not sense the importance of this over all the other titles I have reviewed this year, trust me, this book has clung to me the most.

From this book I began spending more time looking at non-fiction and reading up on the reading habits of boys. In what has become typical of the way I develop ideas, I have been mulling and steeping myself in non-traditional narratives and questioning whether non-fiction requires linear writing. It causes me to look at the cinematic structures adopted by graphic novels (c.f. Laika) and the rock and roll "family trees" of Pete Frame, it even dredges up old arguments I made against standardized textbooks two decades ago when I was studying to become a teacher. Given the right conditions it only takes a small spark to set a forest ablaze, and for whatever reason Snakes with Wings and Gold-digging Ants set me on fire.

The Year in Review?

In the end I suppose that 2007 can be remembered for many different things in the world of children's literature. One could argue it was The Year of the Graphic Novel -- or at least the first year it got its due among the wider kidlit audience -- and it was the year that gave us the end of the Harry Potter series. It was the year a debate over the word 'scrotum' overshadowed the questionable merits of the book that contained it, and the year we lost our octogenarian elders Lloyd Alexander and Madeline L'Engle. A year full of books and opinions and blog posts and comments and, yes, even lists.

So it goes.

Wednesday, December 12

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

by Jacques Prevert
translated and illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein
Roaring Brook 2007
originally published as pour faire le portrait d'un oiseau
by editions GALLIARD 1949

Thankfully, and perhaps because of its age, the publisher has refrained from printing "From the acclaimed screenwriter of the French classic Children of Paradise" because that would have prevented me from picking the book up at all.

Actually I was drawn to the book by the illustrations. From half way across the room I saw the cover and said "Is that a new Gerstein book?" because there's just something about his style that is distinctive to me. A few pages in and I knew I was in some sort of picture book trance. There is something about the language, the pacing, something that ultimately has to do with patience.

In short sentences we are given specific instructions on how to paint the portrait of a bird. The illustrations show us a boy in bed visited by a blue and yellow bird on his open windowsill. Carefully we are instructed that one is to paint a cage, and supply it with a treat, and then take that painting out to the woods and set down beside a tree, there to wait. The bird follows and sits on a branch above the painting. Eventually the patience is rewarded as the bird enters the 2-dimensional plane of the painting where the boy carefully is instructed to close the 3-dimensional cage door. Once captured on the canvas the instructions explain how to carefully erase the cage and in it's place paint a tree for the bird to sit on. you can then take the painting home to enjoy the bird in the privacy of your room where, come sun-up, the bird will fly off the canvas. You can always paint another bird tomorrow, you are reminded.

(For a translation of the poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti go here. Note that the book continues beyond the last line of the poem. You can leaf through the book online here.)

What is at first odd, then comforting about the text is how contemporary it feels while at the same time feeling classic. That Prevert was a poet as well as a screenwriter is evident in the deliberation used to give us instruction; there is a respect for the nature of time as well as the arc of the narrative. What Gerstein brings to the party are the things not spoken, the watercolor, pen, and ink world that permits objects in different dimensional planes to co-exist and interact. Nothing changes in the illustrations but our perspectives as we learn both how to "paint" the surrounding imagery in order to "capture" the nature of the thing observed. It's also a lesson in capturing the moment, giving it temporary shelter, and then releasing the moment in order to re-experience it again in the future.

I'd gladly accept a 90% reduction in new releases of picture books if it meant more like this was the result. It has the depth of European title and the approachability of an American book and, for the early picture book set, is clearly one of the smartest titles in the room.

Friday, November 30

How Does the Show Go On?

An Introduction to the Theater
by Thomas Schumacher
with Jeff Kurtti
Disney Editions 2007

This one is killing me.

This handsome book provides a fantastic window into the production of a modern Broadway musical with a solid background in theatre production aimed at the middle grade and early teen set. The book starts at the front of the house explaining how the theatre staff keep things running, then goes on stage, back stage, through rehearsals, all the way through opening night explaining how it all comes together. Throughout there's lots of interactive materials to study; a facsimile copy of Playbill; a reproduction of an actual ticket (detailing how to read your seat assignment); there's an envelope containing a section of a script and later on another bit of script with the lighting cues delineated; there's even a quarter-sized facsimile folder containing a director's production sketches with a photos that follow showing how they were executed.

But it's Disney, and being Disney means that no musical theatre on Broadway existed before The Lion King. The author, being the producer of most of Disney's Broadway shows (it says so twice on the cover!), is more than happy to share this knowledge but every photo is Disney. The enclosed Playbill and ticket are from The Lion King, as are the facsimiles of Julie Taymor's production sketches. Sections of script are from Tarzan and much of the behind the scenes includes images from Mary Poppins. While it was nice of them to explain the differences between theatre types -- a thrust stage from a black box from an amphitheatre -- it seems a bit presumptuous to call the book "an introduction to the theater" and conveniently ignore the world outside the sphere of all things Disney.

Granted, a kid who is into musical theatre might have come to it through Disney originally but what if they didn't? Does it matter that Disney basically turned a bit of self-promotion into an introduction to an art form?

This is what tears me. You see, I've got two girls in the house who have this thing for musical theatre. Their school puts on a musical every year (two actually, a 7th and 8th grade production in the fall, a 2nd through 6th grade production in the spring) and they have elected to participate every year. They are also part of an after-school musical theatre group and perform in those shows in the fall and spring. And then there are the movie musicals we watch at home which, fortunately, they continue to enjoy. Their favorite movie musical is Singin' In the Rain. They recently watched My Fair Lady and Little Shop of Horrors. We took them to see Wicked in October. They sing show tunes in the shower. They know there's a world of musicals that isn't Disney and they also know High School Musical (which to me is like a cross between an 80's sitcom and an Afterschool Special with pop songs grafted onto it).

I really think they might like this book but I don't like the narrow focus. I'm not so rabidly anti-Disney that I would refuse it on those grounds alone -- it would look hypocritical considering we own a number of classic Disney cartoon collections -- but the total pro-Disney aspect of the book leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Open question for the people at Disney Editions, and their publishing family: Are you so threatened by the entire history of Broadway that you felt the need to exclude all mention of it from your book? Are you so insecure about your right to be on The Great White Way that you had to buy the New Amsterdam Theatre in order to assure yourself a home? Or is it, as with Time Square, you simply want to replace what's out there with good old fashioned family values?

Did you have to produce such an attractively biased book?

As an introduction to theatre I guess I would have hoped for more of an historical perspective. I would feel a lot more comfortable introducing this book to kids if I knew they had something just as good -- and less Disney -- to move on to afterward.

Tuesday, November 27

A Crooked Kind of Perfect

Linda Urban
Harcourt 2007

Zoe wants a piano. In her mind she considers herself a piano prodigy waiting to be discovered. She's just a baby grand away from Carnegie Hall. But when her easily-distracted dad is charged with procuring the instrument he returns home with a cheesy Perfectone D-60 organ, complete with electronic rhythm sections and lessons that feature television theme songs in its practice book. When her teacher discovers that Zoe has some talent she convinces her to enter the annual Perform-O-Rama competition. And much middle grade hilarity ensues.

No, actually, it doesn't. What happens is much anxiety ensues, as Zoe is forced to attend the competition with her agoraphobic father who leaves poor Zoe in the care of her music teacher who, in turn, passes her off to another family she knows while he cowers in a hotel room. In that respect the book takes an unsettling turn because it really does feel the girl is at sea in the end. I'd like to say I thought this was a case of good writing but I can't imagine the author intended for the reader to feel anxiousness over her well being instead of the suspense of the competition.

It's funny, because until I sat down to write this I hadn't thought about how unnerving the end of the book was. In fact, I'd read recently that some consider this to be the best middle grade book released this year, and I might have given it that if I hadn't started thinking about it. Finishing the book my only qualm had been that there is an inconsistency between Zoe being told there was no classical music available for her organ, and no music beyond the 1980s, when in fact both appear throughout the competition with little mention. I thought it too minor to point out.

But what of the subplot at the beginning, where her best friend from the school year previous has dumped her ceremoniously for not being, well, Bratz enough? In the end it seems the only reason for her inclusion is for the sudden appearance of a certain baby grand at the end of the story and a good graphic for the cover. And what of that other strange subplot, the one with the boy who might be her boyfriend who hangs out with her dad all the time in the kitchen baking? Wait a minute, doesn't Zoe's mother use a mirror to read scores over the judges shoulders so she can calculate scores in the competition?

Now that I think about it, I haven't encountered this much head-scratching since... The Higher Power of Lucky! This book is exactly what a librarian might consider to be the perfect middle grade reader after all! There aren't enough "serious issues" to really make this award-worthy, but if the Newbery committee proves me wrong you read it here first.

So here's the thing. I read this because my youngest was hungry for something light and fluffy, something to read quickly between larger books, something to cleanse her palate. After I read it and felt I could recommend it to her she devoured it pretty much in a single sitting. It was perfect for the moment and easily forgotten when the moment was over, which was exactly what she wanted. I think that's good enough.

Tuesday, November 20

The NYT "Best Illustrated Books" List, In a Word (or Three)


Perhaps it's even obvious to point out the the New York Times would pick the most obvious titles for its list, but what makes a book an obvious choice for its list might not actually be so obvious. I would say a good portion of the list includes books that for a number of reasons could be seen as obligatory, books either they couldn't ignore or in some other way felt obligated to include.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
, for example. Could they really afford to keep this book off the list if they wanted to? Nominated for the National Book Award (I thought it should have taken the award, but I'm telling myself it came in a close second) this book is one of those that demands attention and deserves it, so throwing it on the list makes sense. It's also either Caldecott or Newbery bound if it doesn't cancel itself out like an actor nominated for two different movies at the Academy awards. Wouldn't want to get caught not mentioning a book that could win something from the ALA, would they?

Also in the "can't ignore" category is Shaun Tan's The Arrival, that crazy picture book that thinks its a graphic novel. The story of the immigrant experience in a parallel Earth is one of those books many people might not "get" at first blush and will set it aside. A superb piece of storytelling my guess is that many who faithfully buy whatever the NYT tells them will get this and set it out on their coffee tables and wait until the movie is made to finally "read" it. "Oh, it's like Jumanmji"? a woman said to me when I tried to show it to her. Uh, no. Another piece of award bait if ever there was one and the NYT says its great so you should get it.

I'm going to put Not A Box in this category as well because once seen it becomes obvious that this is a wonderful book. The illustrations are simple and simply perfect. I think the book gets most of its points for executing a concept everyone instantly recognizes -- a box is whatever children imagine it to be -- and I know everyone whose seen it instantly wonders why it took so long for someone to execute it. From a standpoint of text this is an easy book to mess up, a horse made by committee if an editor had married the writer with the wrong artist. Without the text is this really one of the best illustrated books? It's hard to say once you've seen it. But I like it so I won't begrudge its place on the list.


Here's another word for the NYT list, and here we have many things that make the list because they are, for lack of a better way of putting it, New York-centric. If you are a good New Yorker you will own these books, and if you kowtow to all things New York then these are clearly "best illustrated" and don't you dare question it.

Every Friday felt, to me, a little empty. It celebrates that uniquely Big City idea of a father and son hanging out at a diner on Friday mornings before dad hops off to work and junior bops off to school. It also flogs a certain nostalgia for a time past (that might not have ever really existed) in New York's past when big city living was a romantic middle class notion. Does it hurt that author Yaccarino occasionally does illustrations for the New York Times? Absolutely not.

Guy Billout is another illustrator who's no stranger to New Yorkers, or readers of The New Yorker at the very least. This credential alone was probably enough to get him a book deal for a collection of very nice illustrations about a frog who decides to seek bluer waters called The Frog Who Wanted to See the Sea. Just rolls off the tongue doesn't it? The illustrations are, indeed, fine but they're the kind of sterile illustrations only a childless New Yorker would think a child could love. The story is as dead in the water as a red tide, rendering those cold, hard illustrations meaningless. But then, this is a list of best illustrated books, not best illustrated good books.

Another bit of New Yorker obligatory is Old Penn Station by William Low. Here we have the life and death of a beloved New York landmark, so beloved it no longer exists. Low uses his trademark nostalgic "warmth" to give the old rail station a second life, and in turn tells of a building whose lasting achievement may be that it forced New Yorkers to create a landmark preservation society. Nice message for the kids. Okay, there are books about landmarks, buildings and whatnot that no longer exist -- Brian Floca's excellent Lightship, a book that easily could have made this list but didn't -- but do they have to feel this stodgy? With it's steely blues, red-gold highlights and umber shadows this book resembles little more than an afternoon in an Old Gentleman's Cigar Club.

We also have a new sort of obligation that's taken over the list the last couple of years and that's the obligatory pop-up book. This year is no exception, though I take exception to a book that asks the "reader" to marvel at it's spectacle and count to 600. Yes, it's David A. Carter's 600 Black Dots and that's as much as it's about. If you're feeling obliged to include a pop-up book on the list -- and I suspect the NYT does so they can keep a chair warm for crap like Mommy? when the need for such obligations arise -- could it be a book with something actually going for it? Just last night a co-worker pointed out the new pop-up edition of Moby Dick retold and engineered by Sam Ita that clearly makes the precious emptiness of 600 Black Dots seem... uh, empty. Part of me wonders if pop-ups haven't developed to the point where they're no longer really for children, which would disqualify it from this category, but another part of me has serious questions about what constitutes illustration in this case. Comparing a book like 600 Black Dots to more traditional books is like comparing kinetic sculpture to painting. Best engineered, perhaps, but illustrated?

Peter Sis, much as I like his work and really like his latest book which has landed on the list, is another illustrator who has done editorial illustration for the NYT which I feel may bend things in his favor. The Wall is his story in picture book format, a retelling of growing up behind the Iron Curtain in the Czech Republic. With a couple of exceptions (the opening and closing image of young and old Peter Sis) the book is a fantastically accessible story of both one person and many as they struggled to come of age during an age (the 1960's) when the whole world was opening up to various forms of artistic expression. In mostly black and white line drawings with red accents Sis and his illustrations reflect an infectious optimism of spirit, quite a thing to do with little drawings in a book ostensibly for children.


If I get a lot of shit for this, so be it, but I feel like the only reason Christopher Myers' Jaberwocky made the list is because Jerry Pinkney didn't have a noteworthy title this year. Am I saying what you think I'm saying? Yes. It's the 21st century and the publishing industry is still predominantly white and that's reflected in what gets published. It's a thorny issue that I'm not really looking to open up here except to say that Jaberwocky isn't that great of a book but it's what the NYT judges must have felt was the best they could put forth and not have the entire list look so damn white.

Personally, I don't happen to think the book is that good: it takes Lewis Carroll's verse and re-imagines the beast as a monster basketball player to be vanquished from the playground. I think what bothers me most are the textual assumptions Myers makes based on his research from Carroll's notes, suggesting that Carroll may have been incorporating Aztec words into his nonsense vocabulary and thus, tangentially, was using the poem to suggest more of a game than a combat. Carroll and Lear were both lovers of language, pure and nonsensical, and were not above appropriating words from other cultures that would sound like nonsense to the Victorian ear. I believe this passage from Carroll's own book makes the point
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'
The Jabberwock is not a basketball player. Sorry, that's Carroll's story and I'm sticking with it.

Okay, so does the race of the illustrator, or writer, or any artist matter? Should it? Absolutely not. But when a newspaper like the NYT prints out a list of the best illustrated books it might be just a tad wary of not being inclusive or of being accused of being the paper of record for only a certain segment of the population.

* * * * *

The only title I haven't addressed is First the Egg because I haven't had a chance to see it yet. It could end up being either and obvious or an obligatory, or it might just deserve to be on the list, I don't know.

So, if I were to make any substitutions to this list what would they be?

Instead of The Frog Who Wanted to Sea the Sea I propose that Close to the Wind by Peter Malone be considered. Here's a book that cruised under the radar earlier this year, a fictitious recreation of a young sailor's diary that explains the Beaufort Scale for grading wind conditions at sea, with some of the best illustrations of open water and sailing vessels I've seen in a spell. The perspectives alone easily beat out most of the books on this list, even the books I think deserve to be here.

While I do love Not a Box I'd much rather see Kevin Sherry's I'm the Biggest Thing in the Ocean get a nod. It takes childlike boasting to its logical conclusions in the sea as a squid discovers that perhaps it isn't what it thinks it is. The simple line drawings are equally cute and, honestly, it's funnier and has a better twist at the end.

I've already suggested a replacement for the pop-up book and Old Penn Station, but what about Every Friday? May I suggest Leaves by David Ezra Stein? Instead of father and son in the big city we get a yearling bear as she comes to terms with her first fall season. Stein's breezy watercolor illustrations have more warmth in them than any of Yaccarino's shades of yellow.

I think there's a danger involved anytime one puts together a list of anything "best." Perhaps the solution is as simple as changing the name of the list into something a little less elite. The Times reviews and recommends books all the time, so there has to be some way to separate out the creme de la creme. Perhaps they could use some bracketology with their monthly reviews and come down to a final 16 titles that readers could vote on. I'd like to see what sort of results came out of that compared to what The New York Times came up with.

Although, sadly, if people can't tell the difference between Jumanji and The Arrival than I guess it doesn't make much of a difference.

Monday, November 19

Stone Age Boy

by Satoshi Kitamura
Candlewick 2007

I can't really say what it is about Kitamura's illustration style that makes me like it so much, but I do. Whether it's The Comic Adventures of Boots or Me and My Cat it's a world unto itself between cartoon and watercolor illustration, a controlled playfulness that's as expressive as it is equally fun.

Stone Age Boy is another world altogether, literally. A boy goes exploring and falls down a hole landing in a cave during one of man's more primitive eras on the planet. From the looks of both the people and their way of life the boy has found himself in a Scandinavian fishing village befriended by a girl who goes by the name Om. After regarding each other's appearance as odd they take the boy into their society and show him their ways. They dry fish, they hunt, Om and boy play as kids and help out as needed, and at night around the fire when the others sing and dance the boy plays his air guitar. One day he and Om enter a cave and discover it full of paintings, stories of previous hunts, and a bear. Along the way he loses Om and re-emerges into his own time. In the book's coda we see the boy as an adult archaeologist digging back into the past, searching for his link back to another time, searching for traces of Om and her village.

A natural progression for younger readers who might have moved beyond the novelty of the dinosaur and want to know more about how one goes about digging up and studying the past, the information is both accessible and not in the least bit "teach-y". Where most of the illustrations are full-page or full-spread there are a few spreads with smaller illustrations full of details about life in the village that feel cramped and just a bit too small. If these informational pages had been larger and maybe expanded over a few pages I think it would made a huge difference between a good book and a great one for me.

I like this more serious side of Kitamura, I don't think I'd mind seeing more.

Tuesday, November 13

Dodsworth in New York

by Tim Egan
Houghton Mifflin 2007

I don't remember the last time I reviewed a beginning reader, if at all. I know I passed on Mo Williams' recent Pig and Elephant series because (prepare to throw rocks and tomatoes) I just wasn't bowled over by them. They weren't bad, they just didn't go anywhere for me.

But the other day I noticed this title and, I don't know, something about it caught me. Perhaps there's something vaguely New Yorker-ish about the design, or the fact that it's a beginning reader that features New York in the title. It had a handsome, sophisticated look about it. Say what you will about judging books by their covers, if they weren't meant to be judged that way they wouldn't spend so much time and energy designing them.

Dodsworth appears to be a mole-like creature. It doesn't say, it doesn't really matter. He's off on an adventure to see the world. First stop, though, is his friend Hodges the Elephant's cafe for the best pancakes ever. Unfortunately Dodsworth is met by "that crazy duck" which seems to be Hodges' pet. (A moment to consider all the animals who have other animals as pets and ask "What's up with that?") Duck appears to be somewhat of a loon, a bit of a trickster character. He's chased off and after a hearty breakfast Dodsworth is off, next stop New York.

Do I have point out that, unseen until he gets there, that crazy duck has stowed himself away in Dodsworth's luggage?

Dodsworth is hounded by the duck all over New York. He tries to send the duck back to Hodges but the duck appears everywhere Dodsworth goes. "There's that crazy duck again!" kids might well be saying every time they see a duck in the pictures. But is it the same duck, or does Dodsworth simply have duck on the brain? At last Dodsworth catches the duck but in securing him for a voyage home they inadvertently find themselves on a steamer to Paris. Dodsworth calls Hodges to let him know that it might be a while before his duck is returned, to which his elephant friend apologizes for the duck ruining his adventure. Au contraire! "He was the adventure!" Dodsworth admits.

Yes, all of that from a beginning reader in simple language, begging to become a series on par with Frog and Toad and Little Bear et al. Perhaps not quite for a Level 1 or 2 reader, but certainly not far behind.

Wednesday, November 7

Blogging for a Cure: "Winter Birds" by Julie Paschkis

I always seem to run into Julie Paschkis' work when I'm not looking for it. Which is to say there is something in her illustrations that draws me to them. It's a strange magnetism, a quiet attraction not unlike the way a whisper can pull you closer and cause you to pay more attention over the din that surrounds it.

The most recent example was with Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal by Paul Fleishman, the multicultural retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale. Paschkis finds the common visual language necessary to give the story it's shifting fluidity, a cross between heavy-leaded storytelling of stained glass with the mysterious luminosity of illuminated manuscripts. With detailed borders and shifting complimentary tones she unifies the disparate elements in the margins while illustrating the story in a main panel on each spread.

Similarly, with Yellow Elephant by
Julie Larios she includes a storytelling element within each of the poem's illustrations, monochromatic studies that blend elements of story scrolls within the palate and style of modern batik. Even when you can see the brush strokes in her media the dark outlines push the colors forward, giving everything a warm glow from within.

A visit to her website reveals all sorts of other treasures. In addition to her Liberty Notes cards, which revel in a playful naive folk art style, there are bold paintings, energetic posters, and the pleasant surprise of her black and white illustration work that treads the waters between Arts and Crafts era woodcuts and cut paper silhouette art.

A little over a year ago at the Horn Book awards when it was Julie Paschkis' turn to take the podium instead of a long speech she gave her thanks to all and shared a detail of one of her paintings with the audience. It made me smile to think, sitting there watching everyone else sort through their reactions, that if a picture's worth a thousand words then why shouldn't an artist make a speech with their art?

* * * * *

The fancy "Winter Birds" of Julie Paschkis' double-sided snowflake remind me, for some reason, of the Russian tale of the Firebird. It could be the strong use of yellow and red, it could be the filigree and ornamentation. It could also be a trick of the mind, the idea of these birds representing the spirit of hope rising that embodies the efforts of artists from all over united in a cause that colors my vision. So be it.

As you probably know Robert's Snow For Cancer's Cure is a fundraising event for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute where children's book illustrators provide hand decorated wooden snowflakes to be auctioned off online. The auctions are broken down into three groups (heats?) the first of which begins on November 19th. Julie Paschkis' "Winter Birds" is included in the third group of snowflakes that auctions off between December 3 through December 7.

Blogging For A Cure was the brainchild of Jules and Eisha over at the website Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. The hope was to create awareness for the event among the blogging community, bringing bloggers and artists together to help get the word out about the auction and the work of the good people at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Each day bloggers are taking turns featuring a different artist who has contributed to the auction, each post highlighting the artist and their snowflake. If you haven't had a chance yet, check out Blogging for a Cure page for daily updates on posts which is organized both by artist and by day.

Also be sure to check out the auctions pages at the Robert's Snow site for artists who are constantly being added to the auction, even as we blog! The auctions are coming soon, time to scope out your favorites and begin deciding where and how you're going to display your fine works of art.

Here are the rest of today's artist features:

Carol Heyer at The Shady Glade
Joe Kulka at ChatRabbit
Steven James Petruccio at Blog From the Windowsill
Carol Schwartz at Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup

Monday, November 5

The Daring Book for Girls

Andrea J. Buchanan &
Miriam Peskowitz
illustrated by Alexis Seabrush
Collins / HarperCollins 2007

The girls had to wait a while but it's finally here. With a clear debt paid up front to the creators of The Dangerous Book for Boys, here we have a collection of things to know and do for girls to help them be as equally rounded in their informal educations as the boys.

I've already seen some backlash against this book in places where, sadly, brains tend not to be engaged. The crux is this: boys got a book that was "dangerous" while girls only get "daring," implying in this that while boys are risk-takers girls are merely flirting with the edges of what is considered taboo. The reality is that a boy is more likely to pick up a book with the word dangerous on its cover and read it and feel subversive for the act of actually reading poetry and learning how to make a secret ink out of urine. And girls? They like to play Truth or Dare and don't somehow feel less subversive than if the game were entitled Truth or Danger. In fact what girls consider daring would, to a boy, be considered dangerous. For adults to get caught up in the wording of the title, well, just shows how little they understand what appeals to children.

Another concern was that there should be an omnibus book for KIDS as opposed to ones specific for each gender. Wrong! You may as well call something like that The Big Bright, Shiny Book of Ever So Much FUN! for Lucky Little Girls and Boys! and watch that book collect dust on every shelf it touches. Boys and girls like their distinctions, they revel in them, and when they want some dirt on what the other is like they want to be able to find it in one convenient location. Just because it says "for boys" or "for girls" doesn't mean the other can't appreciate it. In fact, both The Daring... and The Dangerous... book features a section on the opposite sex which would appeal to the curiosity of both. Manuals for scoping out the enemy, always good reading.

A paltry sampling from the table of contents:
  • Rules for Basketball
  • Lemon powered clock
  • Palm reading
  • Every girl's toolbox
  • 14 games of tag
  • 5 karate moves
  • Daring Spanish girls
  • Joan of Arc
  • Four square
  • Pirates (female)
  • How to tie a Sari
  • Building a campfire
  • Playing hearts and gin
  • Clubhouses and forts
  • Putting up your hair with a pencil
  • How to be a spy
  • How to paddle a canoe
  • Cleopatra
  • Math tricks
  • Boys
  • Public speaking
  • Hiking
  • Telling ghost stories
  • The Periodic Table of elements
  • and so on
Definitely some girly things there, but plenty of things a boy could get into, just as girls could get into some of the boys things. Girly or boyish, these books are handsome editions that don't deserve the crappy knock-offs and gag books that have sprouted up around them.

These two books combined would make an excellent edition to any family library. Perfect for casual grazing, rainy days, bored afternoons and, with the proper adult attitudes, a more complete education. Those who fret over the words in the title or some of the contents would do best to get out of the way of their children and have them prove that you raised them right by letting them explore what's on offer.

Friday, November 2

Blogging for a Cure... With Interview! Jeremy Tankard's "Lucky Bird"

Lucky Bird, indeed, and some lucky bird out there is going to own their very own copy of Bird on a snowflake! Yes, today I have the great fortune of presenting Jeremy Tankard's snowflake for Robert's Snow, made even more special by the fact that Jeremy generously donated his time to answer some questions and provide artwork from his sketchbook!

To see any of the illustrations in a larger (or at least slightly larger) format just click on the image.

Before the interview, a little background. Earlier this spring Jeremy's first picture book was released -- Grumpy Bird -- and seeing it from across the room I knew I had to have it. It's a deceptively simple book that deals with moods and friendship that is also visually more complex than it initially appears. Bird wakes up on the wrong side of the nest, goes for a walk, and all his animal friends wonder what he's up to. Following him, he realizes that his friends will copy what he does, a simple game of follow the leader as it were, and in the end he's no longer grumpy. All back to Bird's nest for some grubs!

I'm including some sketches Jeremy sent along from Grumpy Bird that illustrate some of what his illustration process is like. The ink drawings are from his sketchbook and the color spread is what the final elements from those sketches look like when they're compiled. There's a podcast interview that he did earlier this year where he breaks down the actual digital composition process that he goes through for anyone who's interested. For more illustration goodies, a biography, and Jeremy's blog, do check out his website as well. I promise, you won't disappointed.

Through the magic of the Internet Jeremy and I had a the following little chat about his first book, his next books, and his snowflake.

ec: First, and I'm sure you've answered this question quite a bit, but for those who don't know how did you come to create Bird, your main character from your book Grumpy Bird?

Jeremy: My daughter, who was then three, asked me to do some drawings for her in my sketchbook. She requested "grumpy things". Specifically she asked me to draw a grumpy bear. I drew a grumpy bear. She asked for a grumpy snake. I drew a grumpy snake (you don't want to meet a grumpy snake up close). She asked for a grumpy clock. I drew a grumpy clock. Then she asked for a grumpy bird. I drew a grumpy bird going for a walk. He was wearing red sneakers and looked pretty funny. We both started to laugh and an idea was born! What happens when a grumpy bird goes for a walk? To answer this question I had to write the book. We authors ask the big questions. Ha!

ec: If people can't relate directly to Grumpy Bird they at least know one, which is why I think it strikes a chord with people. Are you a Grumpy Bird in the morning, or is this based on someone you know?

Jeremy: I'm very seldom a Grumpy Bird. I know a few of them though. I'm more of a Sleepy Bird in the morning. I think it's based on pretty much everyone. We can all relate to just being grumpy sometimes. When I was writing the book I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why he was so grumpy and write it into the story. In the end I decided that I didn't need a reason -- sometimes you're just grumpy for no good reason.

ec: When I first saw Grumpy Bird I was caught by just how bright and vibrant the colors were. Actually, I usually refer to the book as one of the loudest picture books around. I mean that in a good way! It's a very unique color palate and I'm curious to know if you go into a project with color in mind, if you have a process for building up the illustrations, is there any set method at all?

Jeremy: I'm glad you consider my book LOUD. Perhaps a comment on the loud music I listen to while I'm working. I used to work in very muted colours way back in the day; blacks and whites and nice dull earthy shades. At some point I looked at all my dark and brooding work and thought, "This is all dark and brooding and gothic and that's great, but I want some COLOUR in it." I figured the best way to learn to use colour, which terrified me no end, was to jump in with both feet and learn the hard way. I started by using my acrylics straight from the tube without any mixing -- just nice, bright colours applied with abandon. I guess I grew to like them quite a lot and now I can't imagine using anything else. I'd also taken some colour theory classes in art college so I felt I knew the rules. Now I know how to break them too!

There's usually one spread in a book that is super important. I determine what colours are required for that spread then work backwards (and forwards) from that point to determine the blend of colours that lead up to this event. Colour tells a whole other part of the story that most readers are probably not even aware of (if I've done my job right).

ec: I couldn't immediately place your illustration style at first, but I caught an interview you did where you spoke to your interest in Chinese and Japanese brush painting and it suddenly made sense. So I guess my question is, are these illustrations of Bird and his friends easy to do or are you like the Zen student doing them over and over again until you get them just right?

Jeremy: There's definitely some Zen thing going on. I draw my characters dozens of time until they're absolutely perfect. Each drawing is very quick and spontaneous but I have to get one that is a perfect balance between spontaneity and capturing the required moment. So I guess the art is deceptively simple. There's a ridiculous amount of practice behind each piece.

I love Chinese and Japanese brush painting. I think I learned to use the brush on my own though -- by studying American comic book illustrators like Bernie Wrightson and Wally Wood and Jack Kirby. The influence of the Zen brush painting came less in the use of the tools than in the desire to capture the moment with as little effort as possible. So I think there's a strange juxtaposition between the energy and youthfulness of American comics and the simplicity and elegance of Zen brush painting. I dunno, it's hard to analyze ones own drawings.

ec: I understand you have a new book out in the spring from Candlewick called Me Hungry. I also understand it is not a sequel to Grumpy Bird. Can you talk about it at all, or is it a big secret?

Jeremy: I won't reveal too much. It's very, very different than Grumpy Bird. The story is simpler and, perhaps, more multi-layered than Grumpy Bird. Apples and oranges though, they're so different and I love both of them. It's about a hungry caveboy and will be available in April 2008.

The art in Me Hungry is as different as the story-telling. All those layers and layers of texture and collage found in Grumpy Bird have been stripped out to leave only the bare essentials. I'm looking forward to hearing what people think when it debuts.

ec: But Bird does make a comeback in Spring of 2009, is that correct?

Jeremy: Spring 2009. That's right. When I wrote Grumpy Bird I thought of it as a one-off. Writing a sequel was very difficult but I've got an amazing editor at Scholastic and an amazing agent. Between the two of them they helped me figure out how to recapture some of the spontaneity of Grumpy Bird and write a sequel. I love all the animals in Grumpy Bird and really wanted to write another adventure with them. And to explore another emotion. The sequel is called Boo Hoo Bird and features much tragedy.

ec: Your snowflake for Robert's Snow is entitled "Lucky Bird" and, as people can see above, it bears a striking resemblance to Grumpy Bird. Same Bird, or just members of the same family?

Jeremy: Same Bird. He's really fun to draw!

ec: The two sides of your snowflake work like a two-panel cartoon. There's Bird (accidentally?) sitting under the mistletoe and the next thing he knows he's getting kissed by Worm! It's very cute, very sweet. Am I putting too much of my analytical brain into this when I say it's like an easing of tensions between otherwise hostile parties? Feel free to laugh at me.

Jeremy: Ha ha! Hmmm,... I started drawing Worm a while back on cards for friends. Worms are really fun to draw -- just a tube with eyes on one end. I think Worm is just cheeky. He's sneaking a kiss on an unsuspecting Bird and hoping that he doesn't get eaten in the process. It's like playing ring-and-run when you're a kid. You ring the doorbell then run like heck and hope the owner of the house doesn't see you. I think Worm is like that. Like I said, we children's authors are dealing with the big issues. Really though, it seemed like a cute Christmas-y picture.

ec: What's the one question no one ever asks you, that you wish they would, and how would you answer it?

Thankfully no one has ever asked me a math question. At least not in an interview. No one's ever asked me about music. Does my book have a soundtrack? The answer is YES. Grumpy Bird was drawn to a steady stream of music by the Magnetic Fields, Eels, Ladytron and indie rock with a little dose of Celtic fiddle tunes thrown in for good measure. Me Hungry was drawn with more industrial flavoured music -- especially Buckethead and Pop Will Eat Itself (I'm really dating myself with that aren't I?).

ec: Anything else on the horizon people should be aware of?

Jeremy: I'm still trying to figure that one out. I've got lots of ideas and my sketchbook is populated with some fun characters. I just need to find the stories that go with them.

ec: Thanks again, Jeremy!

Jeremy: Thanks again for doing this, David. It's a great cause and a very unique say to spread the word about it.

* * * * *

Indeed, down to the business of what this is all about. Robert's Snow For Cancer's Cure is a fundraising event for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute where children's book illustrators provide hand decorated wooden snowflakes to be auctioned off online. The auctions are broken down into three groups (heats?) the first of which begins on November 19th. Jeremy's "Lucky Bird" is included in the third group of snowflakes that auctions off between December 3 through December 7.

Blogging For A Cure was the brainchild of Jules and Eisha over at the website Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. The hope was to create awareness for the event among the blogging community, bringing bloggers and artists together to help get the word out about the auction and the work of the good people at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Each day bloggers are taking turns featuring a different artist who has contributed to the auction, each post highlighting the artist and their snowflake. If you haven't had a chance yet, check out Blogging for a Cure page for daily updates on posts which is organized both by artist and by day.

Also be sure to check out the auctions pages at the Robert's Snow site for artists who are constantly being added to the auction, even as we blog! There's so much goodness out there it sometimes feel like it's impossible to catch it all, but since when is so much goodness a bad thing?

Here are the other bloggers featuring artists today. Check em out!

Tracy McGuinness-Kelly is at Sam Riddleburger's blog

Sarah Kahn is profiled at Kate's Book Blog

Sylvia Long is featured at Whimsy Books

and Holli Conger is over at Please Come Flying

Wednesday, October 31

The Crow

(A Not-So-Scary Story)
written and illustrated by
Alison Paul
Houghton Mifflin 2007

I am of two distinct minds about this picture book.

1. Interesting idea, flawed execution.
2. Not every recent illustration graduate from art school deserves to have their final project published.

No, I don't have evidence of this last statement being true in this case, or in the many others I have seen lately. I have noticed a greater deal of picture books by first time authors who have recently graduated and am wondering if this is a trend of laziness on the part of publishers and editors. Thirty years ago, I'm sad to say, illustration for picture books was not seen as the highest aspiration for illustration majors in art school; advertising and editorial art was the brass ring. But as computers have radically changed the thinking and approach of illustration -- in addition to advancing the ability to publish rich, full-color illustration -- so has the idea that a picture book is somehow lower or more rarefied a place for the illustrator.

I also can't help but think that illustrators might be falling into the same trap many amateur writers fall into, believing that writing a picture book requires little to no study of the form. After all, it's only for children, right? Get the illustrations down, tack on a story, done.

This is a heavy rap to be laying down on this book, but the gut feels what it feels. And as I read The Crow I couldn't help but wonder if this was Paul's senior thesis project snatched up by a young editor looking to build a stable, hoping this would pan out.

It's a take on E.A. Poe's "The Raven" wherein a child wakes up to find a crow sitting on a branch outside their window. As the narrative unfolds the child imagines the crow as a king on his throne, a thief in the night, a powerful wizard, each with its own wordless spread that re-pictures the scene with the imagined one. In the right hands this would be clever but here it exists only as a clever idea.

There are places where the illustrated collage work appears sloppy, the layered effect not achieving a suggested depth, the whole looking like a hastily produced dummy of a book promising greater execution in the future. Children might not be able to see the differences between the good and the mediocre but that doesn't give adults the permission to ignore quality.

Tuesday, October 30

America Dreaming

How Youth Changed America in the 60's
Laban Carrick Hill
Little Brown 2007

Finally. Now we're getting somewhere.

In an amazingly clear and concise 175 pages or so the history and influence of the Boomer generation is laid out for a young adult audience. Starting with the post-war population boom and suburban expansion, the book focuses on the various key elements and movements that brought about the most sweeping changes in the way America and Americans defined themselves, for better or worse, and how young adults were at the forefront.

The opening chapter sets the stage as 1950's Americans flooded to the pre-fab development communities of Levittown, as television and rock-and-roll took the cultural stage, as the Cold War began to heat up. Then chapter by chapter another piece to the puzzle is added -- the race for space, the Kennedy Camelot including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Beatles and psychedelia and free love, the Civil Rights Movement. All tried and true subjects, but what makes this fascinating are the chapters on the Black Power Movement (including the full text of the Black Panther Party's Ten-Point Plan), the Chicano and Native American movements, the radical anti-war protests (not just Kent State but the Weathermen), the feminists and, as the boomers reached the 1970's, the gay rights movement with a bit of coverage on the Stonewall riots. Hill doesn't shy away from messier topics like drugs or abortion rights, covering the material in an even-handed tone that gives readers a chance to draw their own conclusions and make their own connections.

The chapters move in a mostly forward progression but thy also stand alone in examining their subjects. History isn't presented here as a liner parade of facts and dates and places, but as ideas shaped by time and place, growing organically out of what came before without the tidiness or need for perfect order. Chaotic times call for a different narrative. The book flows at it's own pace, to its internal rhythms. Readers might be surprised to learn just how politically and socially radical their parent's and grandparent's once were. If nothing more, the material gives plenty of ammunition for conversations about what things were like "back in the day."

Presentation goes a long way. The book's larger size -- approximately 10 by 12 inches -- allow for large blocks of text to be accompanied by full-page images and sidebars filled with details and tidbits. Archival photos and period ephemera make this a triumph for the designers as well; the book feels fresh without veering into forced hipness, even if the subject matter is a few decades older than its intended audience. It also makes the book half as many pages as if presented as straight text, making it feel more accessible.

My only quibble, and it is minor, is that the book really is more of a portrait of the boomer generation than a pure examination of the 1960's. At the end of the book there is a year-by-year summary of major events that starts in 1946 and ends at 1975, pretty much the formative years of the boomer generation. I doubt that anyone is really ready to present the boomers as a worthy subject of study for middle grade and young adult, but that's essentially what the 60's are about. That aside, this really is a fine introductory study for the third quarter of the 20th century.

Now we need something exactly like this for the final quarter to explain how the gen-x generation brought us to where we are today.

Tuesday, October 23

Cherry and Olive

by Benjamin Lacombe
Walker Books 2007
first published as Cerise Griotte in France
by Seuil Jeunesse 2006

Cherry is a chubby little girl, daughter of the man who runs the animal shelter across the street from their apartment. She prefers reading to social interaction -- Jules Verne is namechecked and referred to in an illustration -- though she does have a crush on the cute boy at school that all the other girls are drawn to like moths.

Cherry's only happiness comes from working at the animal shelter, cleaning out cages, where she can be with all the lost, friendless animals. One day she falls in love with a wrinkled sharpei on whom she projects her own issues and names it Olive. Clearly no one loves this dog because of it's wrinkles, just as no one loves her because, uh, because she's chubby? Sure, there's one reference to it in a classroom scene, but her anti-social behavior isn't going to change things even if she were thin. No, there's something else going on here. But what?

Her dad says she can only keep the dog if no one claims it within a month. To avoid anyone claiming the dog she takes the dog out for walks whenever anyone comes into the shop. On her walks some of the mean girls at school make fun of the dog and Cherry stands up to them in a way she wouldn't do at school. She can do it for a dog but not for herself. Interesting.

A month comes and at the end of the walk the dog makes a mad dash for its owners. Surprise! The cute boy from school is the owner. Sitting on the curb with something in common you can see that all will be different from here on out, all her problems will evaporate.

Written (or translated, no translator was given) in a way that reads like a plot summary, the text is detached, more than a little cold. There may be more that didn't make it into translation as the original title refers to cherry, cerise, the color derived from cherries, and griotte which is a specific type of sour cherry. Cherry and sour cherry? That's an interesting idea, that one of the two main characters is considered sour. But we wouldn't want to suggest that Cherry is bitter, because that would call attention to her behavior and perhaps bring up questions that cannot be answered in the story.

I'm not sure where the Olive comes from but at least its constant in one respect: both cherries and olives are full of pits.

Monday, October 22

Daft Bat

by Jeanne Willis
illustrated by Tony Ross
Andersen Press 2006

In this Aussie import the animals all view the behavior of bat decidedly odd. She requests and umbrella to keep her feet dry, she refers to "the sky below her" and claims the rising waters of the nearby river could get her ears wet. Surely there is something mad about her, the other animals believe, or else how could she have so much of her world experience be wrong-way-upwards?

Finally a wise old owl is called in, straight from central casting (I think he's the same owl from the old Tootsie Pop commercials). After asking a few questions -- What does a tree look like? What does a mountain look like? -- owl suggests the others take to the trees, hang upside down and view the world from her perspective.

Hanging from their feet, with the relevant text upside down as well, they begin to understand bat and apologize for having thought she was mad.

"Oh... don't be daft!" smiled bat.

It's a simple idea, well executed, perfect for those early lessons in learning individual perspective and at contextual anticipation. Simple cartoon-y illustrations add the extra element of humor to an already fun little book.

Plus, you get to introduce kids to the word daft.

* * * * *

It's week two of Blogging for a Cure at various locations around the Internet. The schedule for the second week is posted to the left and if you haven't checked it out, please do. There's a lot of very fine posting going on, a lot of great features and interviews with artists in the world of children's literature, and a great cause to boot.

Friday, October 19

Thumbelina of Toulaba

"After Hans Christian Andersen"
by Daniel Picouly
illustrated by Olivier Tellac
Enchanted Lion Books 2007
translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrich
published in France as Poucette de Toulaba
by Rue de Monde 2007

"Once upon a time in Toulaba, a country at the far end of far away..."

So begins the trouble with this updating of the classic Andersen tale because the illustration shows us a dark-skinned woman which implies that the setting -- an island in the Caribbean -- is at the far end of far away. Whether geological, cultural or ideological, implying these islands are at the far reaches of where this story is being told implies a colonial mindset. But let's take on the second sentence on the first page and see what happens.

"...she wanted a child, but a child no bigger than the smallest of small children. In other words, tiny. She had already had so many children that her house was full..."

Uh huh. Poor, non-white, house full of kids.

Okay, it's a picture book, and perhaps I am reading far too much into these words. But words, especially the words at the beginning of a story, set the tone and mood of the story. And the tone I'm getting here sits poorly with me.

The remainder of this tedious exercise doesn't even deal with the mother that called Thumbelina into existence so I'm not sure I understand why we need to know she had all these children, that she was dark-skinned, that she lived at the edge of what a Western European mindset would consider "exotic."

The bulk of the story has Thumbelina bouncing around, fending off marriage proposals right and left, and learning the ways of the world from all the plant and animal life she encounters. Even here the exotic is evoked as we discover at the end of the book a two-page glossary of all the native plant and animal species visited in the book. The story then is nothing more than a flimsy frame on which Picouly wants to showcase the wonders of nature.

Why drag Andersen into it, why tell the story this way at all? It's difficult to know how much is lost in the translation, how a different nationality -- the French in this case -- perceives the "other" differently than we do ourselves. But to bring a book from one culture into another asks that the reader know and understand the book as presented, not as it was perceived at home, so these questions of surface are relevant. Does the non-fiction picture book for children exist in France, or do they need to resort to having their nature books couched in old fairy tales in which to make them more palatable?

There is another element that is slightly disturbing and that is the "message" added to the story about the ever-compliant Thumbelina having to learn the power of the word "no" to be used to thwart her suitors. It's made clear early on that she does not know the words "yes" and "no" (though she is capable of much more complicated conversation throughout) until she is taught to say no and then when she uses it her suitors leave her alone. What creeps me out about this is the idea of a story teaching a small girl how to say no to advances by truly gruesome characters who think nothing of demanding she be their bride. I don't recall the female empowerment message in the original tale, and instead of feeling like an updated element as it's presented here it has all the subtlety of teaching small children about turning down the advances of sexual predators. That may not be the intent at all, but its incongruity within the text leaves that sort of bad taste in my mouth.

By all means, check it out for yourself and let me know if you think I'm being too harsh. I doubt it, but I'm open to alternate suggestions about why this experience left me feeling like I needed to take a shower afterward.

Thursday, October 18

Miracle Wimp

Erik P. Kraft
Little, Brown 2007

This is the story of Tom Mayo, nickname Miracle Wimp. Sixteen years old, further down on the pecking order, working his way through the vicissitudes of social life in high school. Should have been in Computer Animation, wound up in wood shop.

Where is this story going? Good question. Page by page there's a new vignettes, each no longer than a page or two, another little window into Miracle Wimp's life. Somewhat linear, bits and pieces of a story thread pop up. Easy to pick up and put down. Easy to abandon. Perfectly enjoyable, easily forgettable.

Two thirds of the way through Tom grows a bit of a spine. Things actually seem to be coming together. Is Kraft going to knot all these little bits into a massive gabbeh of lush storytelling? The kid's got some better friends, a kinda-sorta girlfriend, a small cache of cool. It's coming into the home stretch, down to the wire...

Nope, that's it. Book over.

Fair enough, it does pick up steam in the last half and seems to pull itself out of being just a collection of random-seeming vignettes, but coming on the heels of finishing the first two Wimpy Kid books I have some questions. Do teen age boys really want to read about nerds and the socially maladjusted hosers (here referred to as Donkeys and bolos) they deal with every day at school? If you had to go through all this in middle school would you still be interested it in high school? Is this really the only way to capture teen boys who don't want to delve into fantasy? Is the best we can offer them in terms of realistic fiction that isn't the cold world of The Chocolate War?

Yes, the bits ring true, the totally awkwardness is palpable, but on a lot of levels I can't help wonder if this book wouldn't track better with a certain sector of the male adult population. Guys who were there once, who came out of it okay, and can look back and laugh.

I laughed a couple times, but it was the hit-or-miss laughter of watching stand-up. That's no coincidence; Kraft does stand-up comedy and that's the exact rhythm of this book. Jab, jab, jab, punchline. Smirk, smirk, smirk, laugh. Ponder, muse, laugh, use the bathroom, answer the phone, take a nap, grab a snack, pick up the book, open it randomly, read.

Literature for a short attention spans that...

What? Huh? Was I saying something?

Wednesday, October 17

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency

by Daniel Pinkwater
1977 Aladdin anniversary edition 2007

Pinkwater, I've come to understand, is an acquired taste. Or rather, his books are a dividing line between those who get his style of absurdest humor and those who'd prefer something else. It's mis-characterized as "boy humor" but is really a question an individual's tolerance for accepting the extreme in the service of the story.

It's Thanksgiving and Arthur is sent out with $16 to buy a turkey. But the deli doesn't have their turkey and there isn't a turkey to be had anywhere in Hoboken. He reports back to his mother the situation and she sends him back out in search of a couple of chickens, or perhaps duck. It should be noted that Arthur's family doesn't particularly like turkey but it's thanksgiving and that's what good Americans eat and so a turkey must be found. Or at least a couple of chickens.

Arthur stumbles on a door where a small sign advertises something called "the chicken system" by a Professor Mazzocchi that seems promising. Stepping up to the door Arthur can hear the sounds of animals behind it and discovers that for his $16 he can obtain a 266-pound chicken named Henrietta. Walking her home on a leash Aurthur becomes fond of her and by the time he gets home there's no way they're going to eat the new family pet. Arthur's family has meatloaf for thanksgiving, and no one complains.

Arthur spends some time that holiday weekend teaching Henrietta some tricks the way he would a dog. Patiently he teaches her how to hop up a ladder and go down the slide at a local park and Arthur can't wait to show off his new pet. Sadly, Henrietta the 266-pound chicken becomes a burden at home -- especially when people see her on the street and mistake her for a white gorilla and call the police -- and Arthur is forced to return her.

The emergency in Hoboken occurs when Henrietta gets loose and is terrorizing the city. Experts are called in to try and catch the loose chicken and the longer she's out and about the more terrified the citizens become. The news is particularly good at building fear and terror where there is none (sounds familiar) and finally the solution is to try and make Henrietta feel more welcome by treating her as if she was just like everyone else. Instead of running in fear or trying to chase her down everyone views her as a matter of fact, another piece of the neighborhood, look, there's the nice chicken I was telling you about. Henrietta calms down and behaves as happy as she did before she was labeled a terror. Hoboken has a new mascot and Arthur couldn't be happier.

Rereading this classic (30 year and still in print? I call that a classic in this age of 6-month obsolescence) it's clear that it has been tweaked just a tiny bit for modern readers; when the Mayor of Hoboken announces that he's found an expert to hunt down Henrietta he notes that he has e-mailed him, something that couldn't have been done in 1977. There may have been more, equally subtle changes but for the most part it reads as most enduring books do, as both a period piece and as an awkwardly envisioned piece of contemporary children's literature. This is important to note because I had a conversation with a parent yesterday who didn't want their son reading "older books" because he isn't interested in anything that doesn't "feel contemporary."

I see. So when he's in high school and is asked to read Fitzgerald or the poetry of Whitman he isn't going to see the relevance of that? Peter Pan is fine so long as it's a modern adaptation? At what point does an "older" title cease to be relevant to a young reader?

Oh, that's right, it doesn't. Kids don't care about the age of a story, only that it's interesting, engaging, well-written and fun, whatever their definition of fun. As I said, there are those who get Pinkwater's sense of the strange and those who do not, but more often it's those who do not deciding for those who may like his books. Really, it's okay if parents and children don't agree on reading material. And if Pinkwater is their cup of tea -- and they really ought to try this particular tea -- then so be it.