Saturday, March 31


A Fathers Advice to His Son
by Rudyard Kipling
photographs by Charles R. Smith, Jr.
Atheneum/Simon and Schuster 2007

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you...
It's hard to read these opening lines of the familiar Kipling poem without hearing the voice of a manic Dennis Hopper as a wigged out photographer in the movie Apocalypse Now.

Moving beyond that what struck me is just how accessible the original poem is in terms of laying down an almost Buddhist philosophy about how one should move through the world with humility, grace and compassion while still remaining strong.

To that end I find what photographer Smith sets out to do admirable but I find the final result a letdown.

Every passage in the book is illustrated with a saturated boiled-grain photograph of boys at play in various sports. The overall effect, as suggested in the tacked-on subtitle (to underscore Kiplin's intent, for those who cannot be bothered to read to the end of the poem), is to offer a strong, guiding father's advice to a son in relation to his becoming a better athlete, as opposed to being a better person. That's my take-away.

And that's where I take issue. It may be that we could use more poetry-spouting fathers on the sidelines giving their sons a larger picture of the world vis-a-vis lessons they can learn through sports, but why do we need to perpetrate the issue of the father-son bond as being sports related?

Page after page, sport after sport, the images connect only in the mind of the individual because the text doesn't support the concepts presented specifically as sports-based. The weakest example may be of a shot taken from behind (we do not see the faces of the boys at sport) of a boy taking aim at a target at an archery range, accompanied by the text
If you can think-- and not make thoughts your aim
Well, you have to take the "aim" part literally to connect with the image, but that's not what Kipling is saying, is it? He's talking about active thinking, about rational thought-based behavior, that one should not use thinking for thought's sake. This is good advice, but how does it relate to a boy taking aim with an arrow? How is a boy supposed to interpret that concept when the illustration suggests such a literal idea?

There are more like that, more literal illustrations, and they raise my hackles. Can we not teach these concepts to boys, father to sons, with examples that include the arts and sciences? When we "meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same" can we not suggest that Community Service in the face of, say, a Hurricane-devastated area would serve as a better example of how to live in the world rather than show a soccer team huddled together?

I suppose I should be grateful anyone is considering father-to-son poetry at all these days, or that someone finds Kipling worth introducing to kids. I just wish we could get over the whole idea that the only way to captivate boys' attentions is through sports.

Thursday, March 29

The Akond of Swat

Oh, man! Proof that the Internets are a deadly place!

So I was toolin' around and found this post by Brooke over at The Brookeshelf. Some guy animates an Edward Lear poem. I'm totally digging it, remembering how Lear opened up the whole world of poetry to me when I was in fourth grade.

And then it hits me: Could these wonderful Internets also contain even more Edward Lear? Not just, but more: They contain an Edward Lear poem recited by Ken Nordine. To wit.

Ken Nordine was a 50's jazz poet, a voiceover artist, a man whose voice you hear and never forget. The first time I heard it was when I was young and he was doing ads for Levi's. He's done stuff with Jerry Garcia and put out a number of Word Jazz disks in his time. In the annals of spoken word, he's a great.

Then I'm checking out the comments on his video on YouTube and there's all this stuff about people not digging his politics. Ken defends himself by saying they're Lear's politics but what I'm seeing is people object to Nordine suggesting that Lear's poem did not apply equally to the political leaders shown in the video.

Reading the poem straight it is difficult to make out if Lear is just riffing on the possibilities of what a charismatic and war-like leader the Akhund was (according to one citation I found) or if he was merely using the unique sound of the title as a way of taking charge against the behavior of despotic leaders in general. I'm no Lear scholar, it's difficult to say, but I'm guessing the latter.

I also find it curious is that this poem, "The Akond of Swat," is included in the Edward Lear volume of Poetry for Young People series put out by Sterling, edited by Edward Mendelson. Here's their introduction:
"The poem never tells us who the Akond of Swat might be, but there really was a person with that title; he was a religious leader in what is now Pakistan, and Lear read about him while planning a trip to India."
All very well and good, but I suspect there's more to this story.

As for Mr. Nordine's politics, all I can say is if the images offend then close your eyes and listen. The man has a great voice.

Tuesday, March 27

Casey Back At Bat

by Dan Gutman
paintings by Steve Johnson & Lou Fancher
HarperCollins 2007

In days of old Ernest Thayer told
Of Casey at the Bat,
How the Mudville team pinned their winning dreams
On a player whose efforts fell flat.

Now Gutman stands to try his hand
And picks up ol' Mudville's tale.
But on page one, line three, as you can see
Is where I say poor Gutman fails.

I'm sure you've heard of Casey, the baseball world sensation,
whose famous strikeout lost a game and stunned a hopeful nation.
Well, if you think that tale was sad, sit down, let's have a chat,
and I'll tell you a story I call Casey Back at Bat
The problem here I think is clear:
We know how it all turns out.
Mighty Casey swings, the ball takes wing,
The game ends in a rout.

Where Dan Gutman missed is all in the twist
(Though some might call it mirth):
With Casey on deck, the baseball connects
and sails... around the Earth?

But, no, that's not all! This hurling ball
Speeds through both time and space.
And in repose, the Sphinx's own nose
Is knocked right off of it's face.

Astronauts it has seen, Pisa tower leans,
Scared dinos make themselves disappear.
We've forgotten just why this amazing pop fly
Orbits this terrestrial sphere.

Finally Casey and crew 'round the diamond they flew
As the story returns to the game,
While the ball in the sky that's in everyone's eye
Is now caught, so the ending's the same.

Where Thayer once hit with poetical grit
His love of the game showed no doubt;
Similar joy can't be found in this critical ground--
Mighty Gutman has struck out

Tuesday, March 20

Fewer Books, More Video Games in Schools


The answer isn't literacy, it's functional illiteracy. Perfect for military service, which is about all we expect from our public school these days anyway.

Urg! Don't get me started!

Monday, March 19

Grimmoire 9: The Twelve Brothers

A King and a Queen had a dozen children, all boys. When Queenie says she's got another bun the oven the King (who really ought to look at his part in the problem) declares that if the 13th child was a girl he would kill all the boys so that she could have a fitting inheritance. He even goes so far as to have the coffins made for his boys in preparation. Nice.

So the Queen confides in her youngest (a mama's boy if ever there was one) and he in turn convinces his brothers that they should hide out in the woods until they know for certain whether or not it's a girl. When the babe is born mom runs the warning up the flag pole and the boys delve deep into the forest, never to see their parents again, swearing one day to kill their sister.

Like another band of men living in a cottage (I believe there are seven of them in that tale, all dwarves) they go out to work all day hunting and gathering while the youngest (uh huh) stays home and does the washing and making the beds and having dinner on the table when they return.

Ten years later the daughter who caused all this comes across twelve shirts in the laundry. Why after all these years are they finally getting to the boys shirts? If I had to guess I'd say it was Queenie who slipped them in to pique her daughter's curiosity. Hearing the tale of brothers she never knew existed she runs off to find them.

And she does. And they don't kill her. They don't live happily ever after but it isn't for lack of trying. Reconciled to be a happy family the princess and her youngest brother continue to keep house while the other men go off in the woods to spout poetry with Robert Bly and beat on drums and put a little fire in their bellies. Maybe not. It just seems odd that all these years -- the oldest must be pushing 30 by now -- the boys haven't gotten over their women-hating ways and gone in search of some princess lurking in a tree (as we shall see) and start a new life.

Anyway, while they're out dancing with wolves Princess goes and plucks a dozen flowers to decorate the table. Only it turns out (natch) that cabin in the woods was enchanted and the flowers represented the boy and her plucking them turned the boys instantly into ravens (Ravens again! They probably were the ones Faithful Johannes heard talking). An old woman appears to chastise the girl and explain that the only way to bring her brothers back is to remain silent for seven years, no speaking, no laughing, not even a clearing of the throat. The princess feels the best way to accomplish this is by climbing a tall tree.

One day a King -- some other generic king, different from the girl's father -- is hunting in the woods and his dogs find a girl sitting in a tree. My, but she's a beauty! he thinks I must have this mute girl sitting in the tree for my bride! An without a thought that she might be a dangerous environmental activist they agree to be married.

Things are okay at first, but her mother-in-law begins planting seeds in her sons head that this silent maiden is no princess but just a common beggar. And as we all know from other fairy tales, silent queens are dangerous ogresses who must be burned at the stake. There she is, the flames licking her feet when her seven years of silence are met and suddenly a dozen ravens swoop down, turn back into their human form and save their sister from the fire. Hooray! And she was able to finally speak and explain her story to the king's satisfaction. Huzzah! And the forked-tongued mother-in-law was put into a barrel filled with boiling oil and poisonous snakes and died a painful, hideous death.

And there was much rejoicing.

So I'm curious about the ravens that keep coming up in these stories, and the bewitched, silent queens. It strikes me odd that a woman that is quiet is suspect and that there is no way for her to defend herself. Writing may have been out of the question in those days, though if anyone would have been taught it would have been royal personages over the peasants who told the tales, so maybe that why it never occurs to the storytellers. Even so, you'd think in a time where plucking flowers turns people into birds and vows of silence will free evil spells that people would be more forgiving of some of the odder personalities wandering the kingdoms.

Sunday, March 18

Grimmoire 6: Faithful Johannes

Another faithful servant, this time at the forefront of the story.

Johannes is the king's manservant. He promises on the king's deathbed to take care of the king's son as if he were his own, making him swear never to show him the painting behind the door at the end of the hall. The painting is of a princess so beautiful that upon seeing it the prince will pass out and then regain consciousness with the single obsession that he must possess this beauty in the flesh.

Naturally, Johannes promises, the prince insists on seeing the picture, he faints, and sets out on a mission to make the girl in the painting his prize possession.

These tales always seem to be leaning toward a horror movie set up (Don't look behind the door!) but they have their little Gothic twists, don't they? Sorry to interrupt further here in the summary, but I was sure that the reason the king both had the portrait and forbid his son from seeing it was because it was probably his sister. That's what too much Greek mythology will do to you. A little Bettelheim will do the same thing.

So they sail half way around the world to kidnap the princess, but once she realizes that it's a young king that's spirited her away she's totally amenable to the undertaking. Meanwhile, Faithful Johannes overhears the conversation of three ravens -- understanding the language of the animals shows up a lot in these stories -- and realizes that thrice upon his return there will be obstacles that would turn the young king to stone (literally) if something did not stand in his stead and defeat those obstacles. Yes, that's right, Johannes takes it upon himself to save the king but is bound to silence for he will be cursed with being turned to stone if he explains himself.

Once, twice, three times Johannes behaves unusually and saves the king's life without his knowledge but it's too much to take, the king has decided to have Johannes put to death for his bizarre behavior. Since he's on his way out Johannes' final request is that he be allowed to explain himself, whereby he instantly turns into a statue that the king has placed in his bedroom.

Just what you want looking over you in bed, you faithful friend-turned-to-stone because you were not as faithful to him as he was to you.

The king laments, if only there was a way to reverse the curse. Johannes-the-statue replies that if he were to slaughter his twin sons and smear their blood on Johannes' granite exterior he will be brought back to life. Without hesitation the king removes the head of his boys and revives Johannes who, in turn, puts the boys heads back on and makes them as good as new, a reward for his master's faithfulness.

The queen returns and the king hides Johannes and his boys in the closet. He asks his queen if she would sacrifice her children to return their friend, and when she says she would, the king joyfully shows her that he's already done it. And they lived happily ever after.

So what is it with these faithless servants? What is gained from telling these tales to villages full of children? Is this the groundwork necessary for pushing kids off into indentured servitude? Now, son, just remember, if you're going to be the king's manservant you might have to risk being turned into a statue now and then to prove you valor and worth. I can understand the notion of promoting selflessness out of love, but for a king and not someone a little closer to home?

Could you imagine if we still lived in an oral storytelling culture, and we told tales in this country of Faithful Nolan, the President's Secret Service Agent, who had to take a cream pie in the face thrown by a radical agitprop group, and risked his life because he was put into severe anaphylactic shock owing to a crust made with products that had been produced on machines that also processed tree nuts?

That's sort of what this story was like for me.

Grimmoire 4: A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was

This mess of a story concerns a boy who is so feeble that he feels he cannot make anything in life until he knows what the creeps are, as in, when something give you the creeps. Expelled from his home from ineptitude after pushing the local sexton down the stairs (and rightfully so) he bumbles about in search of the creeps. Along the way many offer to show the boy the creeps in exchange for his money but he turns out to be just too stupid to be scared.

Finally he comes upon a king who offers him a handsome reward (money, his daughter, a kingdom, you know the drill) if he can spend three nights in a haunted house. Ah, so here's where that old chestnut comes from! In spending the nights he manages to chase off phantom and ghost as he continues to lack a clue about what the creeps are.

Married to the kings daughter after passing his ordeal he is still miserable, lamenting over and over how much he wishes he knew what the creeps were. A chambermaid finally decides to teach him by fetching a pail full of water filled with minnows and dumping it on the boy in his bed while he sleep.

"Oh I've got the creeps! I've got the creeps! Now I know, dear wife, just what the creeps are!"

Basically, for this dimwit, the creeps are a big Shut up already!

For me this was like a bad episode of The Lucy Show where you keep waiting for something to happen, something amusing or scary or just something. Anything. And then it ends like a shaggy dog story, or a joke whose punchline only makes sense if the word "creep" is some sort of cultural shorthand for "splashed with fishes while you sleep".

Greetings From Planet Earth

by Barbara Kerley
Scholastic 2007

Warning: Contains spoilers.

It's 1977. Theo and his middle school classmates are working on a science project that mirrors that of the Voyager space probe. By asking a series of questions to generate ideas for their projects -- Who are we? What makes us human? -- Theo and his classmates are gently directed to examine what it is about humans that make us unique in the universe to include as an artifact for their own imaginary space probe.

While Theo is wrestling with this question he has even larger questions closer to home to confront. His father enlisted to fight in Vietnam when Theo was small and has not come home. His mother has told him his father is missing, not dead, but refuses to allow Theo and his sister to speak of him. On his birthday Theo once again receives a gift from his missing father, a model of a
rocket, a family tradition meant to serve as a token of memory for his father. But Theo suspects that his grandmother may have some answers about his father that his mother won't address.

In secret meetings Theo's grandmother fills in the gaps about her son, his father. She hints and
and intimates that the reasons for his disappearance may be more complicated than he can understand and she is clearly working against the wishes of Theo's mother in telling him so. His curiosity piqued, Theo's class project leads him to issues of Life magazine where he begins to get an education in the Vietnam War. He learns about the MIA's and POW's and feels this is the secret his mother has been keeping from him. He searches his mother's room and discovers more, letters his father sent that Theo was never shown, letter specifically about his return from the war and why he has not returned home yet.

Theo's sister becomes suspicious of their grandmother's activities on the weekend and enlists Theo to shadow her to a children's center where they witness a hippie working with kids. Confused and angry, Theo confronts his mother first with the possibility that his father's a POW and then with the frustration that she has known all along and hid the truth about his father from her. Theo learns that after returning from Vietnam that his father had so much anger and frustration inside of him that he didn't feel he could return home and be a good father. Theo's mom had kept the information from her children because she felt abandoned, and because it was easier to explain when they were young that he was missing.

Only later does Theo connect the dots and realize the hippie he saw at the children's center was his father, living within an hour's bus ride of his family. With everything finally out in the open Theo and his mother explain that their father had recently decided that the time had come to try and return. After many years and a lot of emotional confusion to break through Theo takes the initiative to meet his father in a pre-arranged location. Theo comes the realization that the thing that makes us human is that we ask questions, tough questions, not the least of which are all the questions he has for his father.

I would have been a few years older than Theo is in this book in 1997, probably a classmate of his older sister. It's interesting that Kerley sets the questioning in a Science class because we addressed these issues in Social Studies, but absolutely correct that it was easier to talk about NASA in the classroom than Vietnam. Much of what I learned about the Vietnam War during that time I learned just as Theo did, through Life magazine. These things just weren't talked about; I had an uncle in the military at the time and no one has ever really talked about that either. He came home was all that mattered.

It's an interesting way of addressing similar concerns teens may currently be facing now that The War Against Terrorism (aka The Iraq War) is entering its fifth year. We don't have the same issues where the war isn't being addressed, criticized or discussed in the media but the same confusion among children -- of soldiers or otherwise -- will always exist.

Recently I had a conversation with some parents over another book I enjoyed where, in breaking down the background for the different characters, I mentioned that one of the kids was a military brat (he was a brat) whose father was stationed in and died in Afghanistan. Oh, my god, that's dreadful! Why would anyone write about that in a children's book? That's just distasteful, there's really no call for that.


After all these years, people would still prefer to shelter children from the outside world and have them learn what they can through piecing things together from magazines, television and the Internet? That strikes me as both more dreadful and distasteful than anything a book could present to a child, to force all heads into the sand, but that's partially how we got ourselves into our current geopolitical situation so I shouldn't be surprised.

There's another plus in this for me that has less to do with the war aspect. The book's 1977 setting may provide a conversation starter for children of parents who remember the post-Watergate Carter era. It's a well-written period piece that doesn't feel stale or too deeply rooted to its time making it accessible to contemporary readers who might -- might -- pause to consider what middle school might have been like for their parents.

Saturday, March 17

A Seed Is Sleepy

by Dianna Hutts Aston
illustrated by Sylvia Long
Chronicle Books 2007

Thankfully, this sequel to An Egg Is Quiet is better than its predecessor.

I know An Egg Is Quiet is a lovely book, a wonderful meditation on the vast variety of ova, factually presented in delicate watercolors. I know because over and over people kept telling me what a wonderful book it was, adults buying it with the rapturous joy of anticipation, excited to share its bountiful nature upon all those lucky children who would receive it.

I saw a lot of grandmothers buy An Egg Is Quiet and not one kid ever picked it up.

No, there's actually nothing wrong with An Egg I Quiet, it didn't float my boat is all. I can appreciate the chef's magnificent presentation of piastra dei testicoli but that doesn't necessarily mean I want to eat it.

Sequels -- in the arts, books, movies and music in particular -- suffer either the fate of "the sophomore slump" where expectations are high but the offering is lacking, or they can offer a renewed hope where the original offered only promise. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to use a random non-book example.

A Seed Is Sleepy takes us through a garden of seed varieties, showcasing their rainbow of colors and range of sizes, with a smattering of seed trivia to keep things lively. It must be the variety that won me over -- eggs can be so similarly egg-shaped, their markings pastel dull. But here we have red seeds and yellow seeds, seeds thousands of years old from an extinct plant that were discovered and germinated, gigantic seeds that weight more than a house pet and look like large tumors. Look at 'em all! These are some seeds!

Seriously, both of Aston and Long's creations celebrate the aspects of natural birth in ways that are poetic and unique. The watercolors in both speak to a naturalist's love of it's subject and the simplicity in these books yields a wealth of information presented in an uncomplicated fashion. It never feels like they are teaching, never feels scientific, and to that end both books are a triumph.

Having grown up with the Coastal Redwoods of California I'm sure I knew at some point that their seeds were gymnosperms -- or "naked seeds" -- but I don't think I realized that less than 10% of all Redwoods come from seed; the rest, the book informs us, come from other Redwoods, though it doesn't explain how. That's a small peeve of mine, that one example, because it neither explains why the tree produces so many seeds it doesn't need or how it reproduces otherwise. Also, I would have liked a bit of explanation about the types and varieties of seeds that use fires to kick-start their germination. Again, a small thing, but the kind of thing I think I would have dug when I was small.

Eggs, seeds... could fungus be next in this series?

Friday, March 16

Leaving the Nest

by Mordecai Gerstein
FSG 2007

A girl, a kitten and a blue jay, each at their own level of comfort, explores their readiness to leave their respective nests.

The blue jay refuses to leave his nest, has no intention of leaving the nest, and promises his mother he wouldn't leave the nest for anything while she's away.

The kitten is pressed against the screen door, eager to leave the house and explore the interesting things the outside world has to offer her.

The girl is a seasoned pro at leaving her comfortable house and is ready to test her newly acquired bicycling skills in the yard.

And in the tree, observing it all, a family of squirrels, the youngest getting a running narration and explanation of the scenes as they unfold.

When the blue jay falls from the tree he thinks his biggest danger is the kitten but then is scooped up by the "giant" who gets off her bike to return him to his nest. The curious kitten, meanwhile, falls for the practical jokery of the adult squirrels and is fooled into getting itself caught in the tree. The girl moves to save the kitten but requires some saving of her own by her mother. The jay falls but this time swoops and flies. After the chaos has subsided and quiet order returned to the yard the baby squirrel, having witnessed it all, boldly announces "Tomorrow I'm leaving the nest".

The unique format that Gerstein gives to this group of young ones is that all their stories are running simultaneously. It's an unusual construction, to be sure, as the actual scene never changes and all the action remains within one frame. A movie analogy would seem apt if it weren't for the word balloons for each character's story. There's almost a static-dynamic tension going on as the action is happening all at once, independent and interconnected. It's like the same single panel cartoon page after page with four panels worth of information happening in each spread.

In some ways the book may be too clever for itself. The appeal of telling stories about different levels of independence -- the various stages of leaving the nest as it were -- could be lost on younger readers who may feel there's too much happening on the page. It almost feels like a picture book designed to condition younger minds to the idea of multi-tasking!

But I enjoyed it. I appreciate the idea of complex childhood interrelationships and the opportunity for discussion that would come from a book that mirrored that convolution. The one misstep is late in the book when the ladder is brought out and the orientation of the book shifts briefly from vertical to horizontal spine and back. On the one hand it does help to maintain the proportions of the scene and characters but I also felt it disturbed the narrative flow. It's a quibble, and nothing that would downgrade the experience, but noteworthy nonetheless.

Wednesday, March 14


by Brian Floca
Antheneum 2007

Proof that you not only learn something new everyday, but that you can learn it from picture books. Actually, you can probably learn more from picture books than other books, but it's too soon for a digression.

A lightship, I now know, was a floating beacon placed where lighthouses were needed but could not be built for various reasons. Anchored to and named after specific nautical formations -- reefs, shoals, any other shipping hazards like sunken ships -- these boats contained a minimal crew who monitored and maintained the lights, radios and foghorns aboard.

Very simply what Floca does is show us the bits and pieces that made up the routines of a crew aboard a lightship. While there is no story there is still a sense of being taken along for a tour with everything from the mundane oiling of the engine to the near-misses with larger ships in the fog. Humorous touches -- the cat that shouldn't be there, the cook reading a scrod cookbook -- keep things light without detracting. With nary a line of dialog he creates a crew of characters whose voices and mannerisms can nonetheless be imagined. No need to include dialog when it's already in your head to begin with.

For the readers who enjoy the details the endpapers feature a cutaway view of the lightship while spreads within the book are carefully taken from sketches made from a decommissioned ship. The fine print at the end of the book (to be digested by adults and shared with younger readers) the history of lightships is explained, including the fact that the last US lightship, the Ambrose on which the book is based, was retired in 1983. Modern technology has made the lightship obsolete, adding a strange sense of nostalgia for something I never realized was there to begin with.

A pleasantly odd experience. Strangely compelling.

Hamas More Easily Swayed Than Librarians?

Okay, that was a bit of a cheap shot.

A while back Roger Sutton drew our attention to a news item in which the Hamas-run Palestinian government was banning a book because it had, as originally reported here, vague sexual inuendos. After some protesting we now get news that the Hamas government has revoked that decision.

Originally I had suspected that the reason the government didn't approve might have to do with a large number of the stories coming from female narrators. But out of this article from an Israeli news agency we get this nice little bit:
Parts of the book that some find objectionable include lines like "Allah will curse your friends' father!" and "I will piss on you," according to a manifesto a young bearded Hamas member distributed at the rally.
Nice. That beats the heck out of a scrotum any day. Figuratively speaking.

Edwardo, The Horriblest Boy in the Whole World

by John Burningham
Knopf 2007

Here's a picture book with a troubling message at the end that may, in fact, not be for children at all but for adults.

Edwardo is a boy. Like some troublesome boys he makes messes, is noisy, acts aggressive. When he makes noise he is the noisiest boy in the world. Or so says an adult. And when he makes a mess he is the messiest boy in the world. So says another adult. And when he acts out, clutters his room, pulls a prank there is an adult nearby to tell Edwardo that he is the ultimate in whatever bad behavior he produces.

Then he kicks a flower pot out of aggression and an adult remarks that he is good with growing things and he becomes a gardener. And when Edwardo tosses a bucket of water on a dog he is seen by an adult as being good with animals and becomes a pet groom. And when he pushes another boy, instead of being seen as an aggressor, he is a hero for moving the downed boy out of the way of a falling object.

All of this makes for great commentary on how children behave when they are labeled except that none of the "good" things Edwardo is recognized for is intentional. The boy is not transformed into the best boy in the world wide world as the text would suggest, only that the majority of opinion has been changed. So there's your lesson. A boy can be a terror, a bully, a slob but as long as he gets positive reinforcement everything will be okay.

Except for the fact that that kind of thinking doesn't work.

A child who is praised as being creative for, say, setting toys on fire gets the message that perhaps the same would happen when setting the neighbors cat on fire. I will grant that adults far too often are quick to pronounce children as being something as definitive as the worst child in the world over simple things, and that a life of such constant labeling ruins a child's self esteem, but the opposite approach does not right the wrongs. To overlook bad behavior and reinforce it through reverse psychology allows for the continuation of the bad behavior to the point where it becomes uncorrectable.

No, sir, no, ma'am, I don't like it.

I think adults might get the message, but the ones who really need to get the message -- those who can only offer criticism to children -- are unlikely to actually get the message, so I'm at a loss for who this book is best suited for. Perhaps if Edwardo were being scolded by other children we'd get to see a message about perception and labeling in a way that would allow for dialog among younger children who are just ripe for understanding these lessons. Otherwise I think this is a miss.

I also have to mention the artwork, a ragged almost sketchy style of line that seems far from Burningham's earlier work that either speaks to his advanced age or a lack of concern. In page after page Edwardo's features and proportions change sufficiently enough that the character is nearly unrecognizable as the Edwardo that came before. There is a fine line between the charm of the naive -- the work of Edward Lear, for example -- and the work of an otherwise accomplished illustrator. I guess I just found the whole package off-putting.

Monday, March 12

The Graphic Novel Question

The recent arrival of the graphic novel to children's literature is a bit like Columbus discovering America; Like the North American continent, graphic novels have been there and for quite some time.

I bring this up partly in response to a post over at pixie stix kids pix that reports on the "trend" in children's literature over wordless picture books and graphic novels. All this recognition by the American Library Association and Publisher's Weekly gleefully reporting the popularity and sales of graphic novels (like movie grosses splashed across the front page as if they were actually news) , while welcome, comes a little late to the party. How late depends on how the community at large eventually comes to define the graphic novel.

By my count the party is at least 20 years late, but I may make a case for 50 years if we're all willing to stretch things a bit.

The 1980's
I think it's safe to say that the graphic novel as we are currently recognizing it is a product of changes the comic book industry during the early to mid-1980's. Attempting to shore up flagging sales the traditional comic book industry -- Marvel and DC primarily -- looked to creating high-end imprints that would be printed on coated stocks (no more tawdry newsprint) with edgier, grittier art and stories than the superhero comics of the 50's and 60's. This was when Frank Miller re-envisioned Batman as an avenger of justice in his Dark Knight series. Here was an over-buffed batman than the man-in-tights we had once known fighting like a ronin against the forces of Gotham's evil elite. Miller took the materials of Batman's past, material that had always been in the comic books, and gave it more of an adult weight, the gravitas of a person haunted into a life of secret identities and vigilantism. It's from Miller's reworking that the current spate of movie adaptations take their cues, and where young readers looking for graphic storytelling went when they outgrew the inherent silliness of the old school comics with their stilted dialog and simplistic plots.

Miller didn't invent the idea of a multi-issue story arc with traditional dramatic story structure -- it was more common than a stand-alone story, primarily to keep readers buying them -- but when the final work was finished and published in book form the full vision of what Miller had accomplished was noteworthy. Like the comic readership itself he had bumped graphic storytelling up a notch in the popular culture to an acceptable novelesque experience.

Or had he? Let's wait before we see if that statement sticks.

Around the same time Alan Moore had begun a totally original comic based on a group of superheroes driven underground by the government for causing more harm than good. (If you're having deja vu then perhaps you've seen Brad Bird's humorous riff on this idea with The Incredibles a few years back). Where Miller was reinventing a familiar character, Moore was giving us superheroes who were distinctly human. Poisoned and mutated by radiation, living in squalor or turning their previous fame into a multi-billion dollar industry, Watchmen tore apart the stereotypes of the superhero as invincible and made them humans with just that much more pathos. Again, envisioned as a complete story, The Watchmen ran in 12 installments that were titled chapters that were designed with a graphic novel as the end product. Moore would later give similar spin to his 1984-meets-Guy-Fawkes tale V for Vendetta and Victorian-feeling League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

At the same time smaller comic presses were growing, as were independently printed comics. Min-i and self-published comics were picked up by smaller presses and in turn helped build those alternative houses into an industry separate but equal to the big boys. Personal narratives were often the focus of these alternacomics. Chester Brown's Yummy Fur would tell the uncomfortable autobiographical narrative of his teen years where Playboy magazine interfered with his relationships between his female peers. Adrian Tomine told the cool, distanced tales of mopey slackers and their disfunctional stories of adjusting to young adulthood. Daniel Clowes would walk the same territory with a palpable sense of the bizarre worked in between his grotesques, though his Ghost World is the tamest example of his work. And for pure Earth-based fantasy it was hard to ignore Scott McCloud's Zot for its teen super hero and his troubles with his non-super hero girlfriend. For every artist or title I could mention there are those that could probably name ten or twenty others, equally good and mining the seam with startling originality.

It would be easy to suggest that the explosion of comics into a long-form graphic novel we now know came about as a result of this collective explosion in comics, but what if we looked back an additional 10 years, what would we find?

Will Eisner's Contract
One of the greats in the history of comics -- the Eisner Awards are named after him -- Will Eisner not only drew fame from his serialized comic adventure strip The Spirit but in 1978 took on the long-form graphic novel with adult themes and startling results. A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories is credited with being the first American graphic novel, so I guess if we really must hold to strict definitions then graphic novels in America have enjoyed a good 30 years to date. Eisner's themes are decidedly adult: One story concerns a man who's accidentally listed in the newspaper as dead and in his attempts to prove that he's still alive meets his end and proves the newspaper prescient.

Eisner's style is dark, steeped in the grit of a 1940's noir New York City. While visually rooted in mid-century America his stories of the common man trying to survive in a city-world that has left him behind still speaks volumes. His characters carry so much weight in the drawings they almost seem to be buckling under the oppression of the ink, threatening to pull the page down with them. He was a master of storytelling and visual structure and I would hope that anyone seriously considering graphic novels as a literary medium read his book on the subject Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative (in addition to Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics) to get a crash course in what's behind the scenes.

The Father of Manga
In Japan the comic book form most widely in circulation is manga. I'm not going to pretend to know even a fraction of the history of manga, and there is much about current manga comics that I do not like (the hyper-sexualization of girls and women being primary), but there is at least one amazing piece of graphic novel history to point out, and that is the work of Osamu Tezuka. His last great epic, the tale of Buddha, is a mammoth undertaking: 8 volumes each consisting of around 400 pages. Rich in detail and humor it is also brisk in its pacing. It was the first thing I thought about when I began Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, mostly for it's historical scope -- not a perfect parallel, but that's the way the mind works.

Tezuka is generally recognized as the father of manga, and for good reason. He has long-form manga series that reach as far back as 1952's Astro Boy, 1949's Metropolis and 1948's Tuberculosis. All of these, by the way, perfectly suitable for middle grade readers today as they were for the commuting salarymen of Japan back in their day.

Does Tintin Count? Little Nemo?
Originally comic strips printed in newspapers, both Tintin and Little Nemo were later to be found in bound form presenting their stories complete as elaborate adventure tales. Herge's various Tintin episodes pack a world-traveling boy and his dog (and assorted regulars) on adventures that wouldn't be out of place alongside the movies serials of the 1930's or the more modern adventures of Indiana Jones. They have remained in print, are continually popular, and if I can be so bold, are in fact graphic novels. They follow the rules of graphic storytelling, complete unto themselves, and yat while most libraries I have been to carry them they somehow aren't kept with the graphic novels. Why is that?

As for Little Nemo in Slumberland, Windsor McCay's brilliantly rendered Sunday comic that imagined a dreamland more detailed than any ten comics you can find today, I'm bending things a bit here for it's inclusion. McCay I don't think ever imagined his 1905 cartoon would ever be collected into book form, much less considered seriously as a "novel", yet for all its fantasy and rubbery fiction it's as richly rewarding an experience for the reader as any fantasy novel of any era.

Looking Forward
This by no means is meant as a scholarly examination of the graphic novel, nor should it be construed as anything near complete or exhaustive. But given the recent ALA awards for both American Born Chinese and To Dance perhaps this is a good time to pause and reflect just what, exactly, we mean when we talk about graphic novels with regards to children's literature.

What I'm getting a sense of in blog and in the news and in just talking to people is that everyone agrees that graphic novels are a valid literary form but there's a lot of confusion over what constitutes good or worthy graphic literature. Booksellers either don't carry graphic novels because they don't understand the genre or, as with the larger chains, they carry large amounts of what is carried by the major publishers in a scattershot somethings-bound-to-click-with-the-public manner. One Borders I went into recently had an entire wall of Japanese manga -- nine feet tall by twenty feet wide -- and none of it classic, much of it dull, all of it series intended to generate repeat sales and not necessarily tell stories of consequence. They are, to put it bluntly, bound comic books labeled graphic novels in order to catch the zeitgeist.

It doesn't end there either. I recently was asked to review a series of non-fiction books that the publisher was calling graphic novel presentations that were nothing more than mere explanations on machinery with the thinnest of storylines ("We need to fix this train") drawn in a comic book format. That's the first danger I see, comic book appearance being labeled as graphic novels. It seems like we first need a clear definition of the graphic novel and, yes, it is different than a comic book and needs to be recognized as such.

I also happen to think that if we're going to consider graphic novels literature along side traditional novels then we need to apply similar rigor in determining their quality, value and worth. It is far too easy to be wowed by visuals and color, getting caught up in sweep of the unique, and missing the structural flaws in the story. It is equally easy to be moved along by the speed of the narrative and its humor and miss the stereotypes built into the visual shorthand.

Finally (for today at least) if we're going to bestow literary awards on graphic novels then I think we need to give them their own category and not spend a lot of time wringing hands over comparing apples to oranges. Comparing graphic novels with fiction is like comparing a stage play with a movie; Yes, they tell dramatic stories in time and space using actors and a script, but they are unique storytelling media, they are experienced differently by the viewer and they have their own separate awards to reflect that artisanship. Let's get this cleared up now so we don't have years worth of regret over having to pick among disparate artforms.

I have been mulling all this over for months now and haven't gotten to a fraction of the arguments and points I'd been outlining with myself in the shower (where I get most of my best thinking done). I have made a half dozen attempts to wrangle this subject in blog form and finally decided I just needed to spew out what I could and move on. I am not beyond examining the subject further but for now I need to leave this anchor behind and move on.

There's so much I haven't said, so many great graphic novels unmentioned, but I'm only one person, only one voice. I'd love to hear what others think.

Some Recommended Reading
The Dark Knight & The Dark Knight Returns Frank Miller
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dale Gibbons
V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and
A Contract With God by Will Eisner
Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative by Will Eisner
Buddha by Osamu Tezuka
Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
To Dance by Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
The Rabbi's Cat by Joann Sfar
Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon History of Hiroshima by Keiji Nakazawa
Blankets by Craig Thompson

Saturday, March 10

Grimmiore 3: The Virgin Mary's Child

How odd, to have gone this long and not known that The Brothers Grimm authored part of the bible!

The folk tale here is clearly one of the cautionary sort told to children less to entertain, more to reinforce basic lessons in the guise of religious folklore. A poor woodcutter and his wife cannot take care of their child and in their grief are met by the Virgin Mary who offers to take and raise the child in heaven. Already I am imprinting modern thinking into the story. Is this a pro-life message, the great idea that no child is unwanted, that God will provide?

Up in heaven the child plays all day, literally living on milk and honey, until one day when she's fourteen and the Virgin must go away on business Ah, yes, the pressing business trips of the Virgin Mary and in leaving hands over a set of keys to the girl. There are 13 keys Triskaidekaphobia, the magik of the biblical number and she may use 12 of them to open 12 of the doors of heaven but not the 13th. In each of the doors she is shown an apostle and a beautiful scene so the afterlife of an apostle is that they live their eternity in a tableaux behind a door controlled by the Blessed Virgin? but the 13th door remains closed as per Mary's instructions.

Oh! But the pull of the forbidden knowledge! The girls steps up and opens the 13th door, just for a peek, and there inside she sees the Holy Trinity Jesus, God and that Ghost live behind a door in a tableaux as well? emanating a brilliant glowing light. It would seem God would smite her at that moment but instead sits serenely looking on while she. just. has. to. touch. the. light. In an instant her finger turns gold, a gold that does not fade stained, by God! and she closes up the door.

When the Virgin Mary returns from her trip she asks the girl for the keys but can sense something is wrong. She feels the frightened, beating heart of the girl and asks her if she's opened the 13th door. No, she says. She asks again, again the girls lies. The Virgin sees her golden finger and knows she is a liar but these stories in a page taken from the Good Book regard Doubting Thomas she must deny her failure three times before she is expelled from heaven and into the darkness of the forest from which she came, unable to speak.

How odd, she isn't sent to hell for her transgressions in heaven but back to Earth. Why? Because this is a folk story and we need to ground things on Earth in order to make the story's intended audience feel the point driven home.

After years in the forest, living like a mute hermit she is discovered by a wandering king who instantly falls in love with the maiden. They are married and in time she gives birth to a son. The Virgin Mary returns and gives her the choice: either admit to having opened the 13th door or she will take her newborn son to heaven with her. It occurs to me at this point that this is a story probably aimed at young girls with a propensity for lying to their parents in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Who else would stand to benefit from hearing a story like this than a girl who (a) aims at one day marrying a king and (b) would fear most losing her child for some transgression in her past? The maiden refuses to admit her guilt and away the child goes.

Ah, now the townfolk are suspicious. Surely she must be an ogress, because how else can you explain a mute queen who loses her son overnight? A year passes, another child is born, Mary appears and the whole thing happens just as it did the first time. Now the townfolk are really suspicious all the while the mute queen has failed to learn how to write to explain her plight to even her husband. Third time's the charm right? Nope, this time Mary takes the queen to heaven and shows her her two previous children happy and playing and, despite her motherly affection, she denies any wrongdoing and I'm starting to wonder if the opening of the forbidden door has more to do with some sort of sexual transgression, a forbidden liaison that haunts her and forces her to deny against all hope for fear of destroying all the good she has come to experience.

Finally the villagers grab their pitchforks and torches and take the queen to the stake for a bit of a roast. And there like Joan d'Arc she cried heavenward to the Virgin Mary that, yes, she did open the door. The heavens wash out the fire and her children are returned to her, as is her speaking voice, and after a little moral about how you will be absolved of all your sins through confession, the end.

So, I'm going to have to hold to the idea that this is one of those stories told to young girls on the verge of puberty to scare them into obedience, and a touch of warning against any medicine (like natural remedies) that could lead to witchcraft, with a very subtle subtext that if you rumpus with the farm hands in the forest you can expect a lifetime of torment unless you confess your sins... which you better not commit in the first place.

Back when I was in junior high my school tried to introduce a Bible As Literature lesson to us, with a state approved textbook and everything. we had to have parental permission to participate in the unit and, in the end, a couple of fundamentalist kids killed the adventure for the rest of us by using class time to question, refute and otherwise monopolize all calls time with the stuff their parents taught them. They did this even when, for comparison, we were given Buddhist stories and Greek myths to discuss. And all I kept thinking was if talking about this stuff really makes you this uncomfortable then I sure hope you're wrong. How interesting it would have been to have had this story (and a teacher with a backbone) to discuss. It isn't in the bible but has so many points of contact, it was a collected folk tale but mentions the actions of biblical personages and their powers pseudo-factually. We really could have opened up the whole idea of authentic texts and authorship and the departure point of literature in the bible very nicely with this ragged mess of a story.

Friday, March 9

Cures for Insomnia

It has been many a year since I held a book in my hand that consistently put me to sleep. Corporate training manuals aside, I can't honestly remember any work of fiction that actually had a somnambulant effect on me since junior high school. Sure, I have put dull books down and come back to them, but to have a book actually induce sleep? Repeatedly?

This is hard, as it is a title I am reviewing for publication and, though technically proficient, I just couldn't stay engaged long enough to stay awake. I tried reading it at different times of day, standing and sitting, even while walking to work in sub-zero degree wind chills. That last one is dangerous in sub-zero temperatures and only slightly exaggerated.

It could have been the subject (boxing) and it could have been that the plot and dialog felt lifted from a 1940's boxing movie even though it was set in present-day Texas. But no matter what it shouldn't have taken me nine days to get through 129 pages. That almost beats my 7th grade record for reading Of Mice and Men which took me eight days in between school, television and puberty.

Now I have to go three rounds with a review. I hope I don't take a dive just by thinking about it.

Tuesday, March 6

Grimmoire #1

The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich

What do you remember of The Frog Prince? Girl meets Frog, Girl kisses Frog, Frog becomes Prince?

Yeah, that's what I thought before I ever really read the story. Fairy tales with Princesses and kiss-releasing spells never did anything for me as a kid so even if I had been exposed to that particular plot summary I probably blocked it out with some sort of cootie guard.

The story concerns the King's youngest daughter, playing with a special golden ball down by the pond. When she loses her ball of solid gold in the water she cries. Frog appears and barters with the Princess; he'll retrieve her ball if she'll take him home and treat her as an equal. Never intending to follow through she promises then goes running off, tra-la-la la-la!

The next day Frog finally has made it to the front door of the palace. The Princess opens the door, sees Frog, then slams the door in horror. After some fatherly prodding the Princess tells all. The King, an honest and noble man, insists that his daughter keep her word. She brings Frog to the table and they share food from the same plate. But it's too much for the Princess when Frog insists on sharing her bed and she does the only thing she can think to do.

She throws Frog against the wall with the intent to kill him.


This instantly changes him into a handsome Prince (no kissing involved at all!) and while waiting for his servants to collect him and his bride-to-be explains that he was under a witches spell that could not be undone by anyone but her.

And Heinrich? He was the Prince's personal servant, heavy with the sorrow of having lost his master, but so full of joy at the lifting of the spell that his heart bursts the metal bands he had placed around it to contain his sorrow. Uh, yeah.

So what's missing from this story are a couple of details, like why the witch put him under the spell and why this ungrateful wretch of a girl would be his salvation. Seriously, if the only way to be released from a spell is to have someone you are potentially going to marry hate you to the point of wanting to kill you, flinging your poor Frog body against a wall, what does that say about either party?

I suppose the main point is that one honors ones agreements, no matter what species, and that the Princess was a bit of a spoiled snot and should have behaved better. But we live in a different world and I fear there's no way any child today would hear this story without trying to fling frogs against a wall to see if they transform.


The other day I happened to catch a passing fancy that was Jack Zipes The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. I remember reading the Grimm tales -- or at least an edited collection of them -- long ago and once upon a time. These were early college days and it felt heady and somehow arrogant to think that, as I read these unvarnished tales, I had finally come to see the real Grimm tales.

Well, ha.

While it is true that there was much I thought I knew, was sure I knew, and things I suspected might be true the truth (at the time) was that I was seeing most of the stories for the first time. After some examination it was clear that all my knowledge of the classic Grimm tales had come from secondary and questionable sources. Disney adaptations and parodies from Rocky and Bullwinkle were the prime culprits, in much the same way that all some people know of The Barber of Seville comes from Bugs Bunny. I should have been ashamed and embarrassed at my own ignorance but at no point had anyone ever sat me down and told me that the tales were important. Grimm Fairy Tales were a lower form of cultural currency, a literacy one could easily fake.

After all these years -- more than half a lifetime now -- I'm coming back to the Brothers Grimm because something in me is telling me it's time. Actually that something is very specific, a tale that once again proved I know even less than I once thought I did. Using the Random Page Test on the Zipes anthology I alighted on a tale that on the surface didn't look at all familiar. By the end of the first paragraph I realized I had seen the story dozens of times before, sometimes three or four times a year.

Usually at work.

Often as a forwarded email.

A story with a punchline, the type of office humor that feels both familiar and pedestrian all at once, always attributed to any number of sources but never as a tale (almost verbatim!) from Grimm.

Some people feel it necessary to devote their life to Joyce's Ulysses, others to use of punctuation in cummings. My goals aren't so lofty: I'm going to attempt to read A-Grimm-A-Day for the rest of this year. I'd like to promise that I'll review each of the stories as I read them but I know better. I'll be realistic and commit to at least one story-review a week, more as I can. This allows for the possibility that some of the stories are scheisse or just aren't worth the verbiage. It also gives me some wiggle room to be lazy.

Oh, but i will read a story a day. I can mange that. And maybe by the end of the year, after tale 279, I can finally, honestly say I've read The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

Saturday, March 3

How To Get Suspended and Influence People

by Adam Selzer
Delacorte Press/Random House 2007

I really didn't want to like this. Actually, I didn't think I would like it first and that eventually led to me thinking that I didn't want to like it, because I was sure that I would hate it.

But I tell you what, I did like it. And probably for the same sort of reasons that it will appeal to smartass middle school boys if they ever get their hands on it: it has a delicate subversive streak in it that doesn't hit you over the head as you read it so much as it sidles up to you, asks you what you're reading, and then womps you before you can answer.

It starts lamely enough with Leon Noside Harris explaining his crazy middle name (Edison spelled backward), his crazy dad (inventing useless things) and his crazy mom (cooking and delighting in meals from cookbooks that use weird ingredients). It skitters like a crab into the beginning of the school where the usual assortment of misfits is settling into their various roles while Leon grows impatient for everyone to start acting up.

Then there's this shift, Leon and some of the other misfits are part of the gifted set, kids who get special treatment because while school recognizes their abilities they are at a true loss for ways to address them. It is decided that these eighth graders should utilize their talents and the school's multimedia equipment to update the various educational films to be shown to the sixth and seventh graders. If that doesn't sound like the ingredients for misguided thinking and elevated hi-jinx then you haven't been around eighth graders for a while.

Leon's got his eyes set on the sex ed films. He wants the younger kids to know, yeah, puberty gets weird, and things happen, and thoughts cannot be controlled, and it's all good. Naturally he's not going to be allowed to show any real nudity, and eventually the morality police (in the guise of one truly repressed teacher) will want to have final say over what Leon produces, but he's undaunted.

Hanging out with misfit kids means that eventually his girlcrush Anna is going to have to take him gently by the hand and give him some influence. He sees Fellini's La Dolce Vita. He sees the surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou. His sex ed film becomes the attempt to cross Italian neorealism with a sense of the absurd, something he calls Avant Garde but is really more akin to the experimental collage works that appeared in the 1960, something he titles La Dolce Pubert. I could mention the works of Bruce Conner, but that's probably going a bit too deep here. Besides, Leon never mentions other influences.

His big idea is to show nudity as portrayed in classic works of literature while a friend with a gift for satire turns Byronic odes into fell-good permissives about the joys of wanking off. An early idea to include an explosion of some sort -- never mind how or why it connects, Leon hasn't really figured it out himself -- is scotched due to a fear that Leon might harm himself. And when the big scene regarding the popular "it" couple of his band refuses to participate in his climactic kissing scene (something about it not being Marxist enough for the girl) Leon and Anna must stand in and then all heck breaks loose.

The rough edit of the film is seen and Leon is given in-house suspension. The film is seized and word travels that Leon is being censored. Teachers and students protest in support and even Leon's dad doesn't see the harm in it all. But Leon has the master print. A little final tweaking, plus some friends who are willing to post the film on the internet and burn hard copies to be shared, and Leon becomes a cause celebre. The principal backs down, the morality police elect to leave the sodomites to their sins, and future gifted classes are kept from making sex ed films. Leon and Anna plot a future of films where plots serve as excuses for more kissing.

I lived this story.

Okay, so I got suspended for cussing out a teacher who had wrongly punished me (by his own admission) to set an example, and the films we made were newscasts in the future full of sex and violence and sex. And a friend of mine and I wrote an update of Romeo and Juliet so that one of us (*ahem*) could have some kissing scenes with a secret crush. It would be another ten years before I'd see Fellini or know what surrealism really was but if I'd been shown them in junior high I'd have grokked my future a bit earlier. No matter.

What Selzer does is set you up with a typical smartass outsiders story that at its base has some real criticisms of the way "gifted" kids are treated and how anything outside the norm really isn't accepted no matter how much it's encouraged. He hints that a number of gifted kids may have been placed in the program because they were disciplinary problems and the extra attention would remove their disruptive influence from the classrooms, and I have to say I've seen plenty of proof to support that. As for encouraging gifted kids to push at the edges, but being afraid of the results and finally coming down on the conservative side of control, well, that's just the history of the Western World writ miniature to fit the little dioramas of educational fiefdoms.

There are elements of How to Get Suspended... that I could see keeping it from the grasp of its target audience -- specifically in the way of censorship from various adults. First, the title is a more a reference to Lenny Bruce's autobiographical How to Talk Dirty and Influence People than it is to Bruce's reference, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. Woe to the unwary who don't heed the cover illustration of a nude with a black bar across her breast! It isn't that there's anything too graphic or untoward, but Selzer appears to want to be frank with the readers in a way he knows would make some adults uncomfortable. Leon doesn't seem to have it bad but at least one of friends seems to intimate matter-of-factly daily masturbation. Let's also not ignore when one of the school coaches checks in with the suspended Leon and commiserates, explaining how when he was in college he was part of a free-speech group called freedom Under Charles Kerr.

"Think about the initials," the coach suggests. Indeed.

It's these little things that won me over, that pulled the book slowly from the mire of other, similar middle school-based books that try to get the kids to side with them. It suggests that the awkwardness of puberty is not only normal but makes for entertaining reading.

Friday, March 2

Grumpy Bird

by Jeremy Tankard
Scholastic 2007

Everything it promises on first glance, and then some.

Bird wakes up grumpy. His face is priceless. He's too grumpy to fly, so he might as well walk.

He passes sheep. Sheep asks him what he's doing. Grumpy bird says he's walking. Sounds like fun to Sheep so he follows Grumpy Bird.

The same thing happens with Rabbit. And Raccoon. And Beaver. And Fox. Bird doesn't understand why everyone's asking him what he's doing; isn't it obvious?

But then he realizes he's being followed. He stops. He lifts his leg, they lift their legs. He's jumps, they jump. "Hey, this is fun!" Bird forgets he's grumpy. He suggests they all fly back to his nest for a snack. And they do, all of them, fly. And they all seem a bit apprehensive about the worm Bird has to offer them.

The end. And it probably took more words to describe than to read.

Tankard's bright colors, broad brush strokes and overlaid digital collage make this the brightest book you've ever seen. The simplicity of the animals is almost perfect, and Bird's grumpy face (the one inside, not the one on the cover, which is fairly tame) is a combination of a cranky toddler and a disheveled old uncle waking up from a nap -- which, come to think of it, may be the same look.

Everyone knows a Grumpy Bird, most of them are not children. Any of them with a sense of humor will love this. Most people with a sense of humor will love this. I loved this, and I can be pretty cranky myself.

Thursday, March 1

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Written and Illustrated by Brian Selznick
Scholastic 2007

One word: Storyboard

It wasn't until the news got out just before the Academy Awards that director Martin Scorsese was considering as a future project that it occurred to me; Neither a graphic novel nor a picture book, what Brian Selznick has done is nothing short that reinvent the connection between movies and books and the process of adaptation.

Consider the process. A writer gets published, a studio buys the rights, deals are made and talent lined up, a screenwriter (or two, or four) reformat the story to fit the conventions of moviemaking, a director has storyboards drawn up, then the film is shot and edited. With Hugo Cabret Selznick has already laid out the film's look, what the characters look like, and pretty much cut out the screenwriters. Someone's going to have to write the screenplay anyway, in this case John Logan (because budgets are determined by breakdowns that are based on the written page) but in the end the film's success relies on the director's ability to capture the spirit of the book as so clearly illustrated. That's one way to get final say over what you book will look like on the big screen!

It might strike some as odd that the man behind Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Gangs of New York, The Departed, &c. would consider the project until you remember that he also adapted (for better or worse) The Age of Innocence, Is working on a film about Teddy Roosevelt, has made documentaries of musicians (Dylan, The Band, and one pending on The Rolling Stones) and is as great a film historian and preservationist as he is a director. I'm not gushing, I'm trying to remain hopeful because my personal feeling is that if you're going to try and adapt something as richly visual as The Invention of Hugo Cabret you'd want someone who was both incredibly talented and thoughtful.

That said, let's see what else I can add to the din about the book itself.

Not to sound crass, because I truly do love this book, but The Invention of Hugo Cabret couldn't have timed the market any better. With the recent dialog concerning graphic novels, the Printz award for American Born Chinese and the Sibert for To Dance, book publishers starting graphic imprints and comic book publishers hiring book editors, the time really is perfect for a book whose story is shown more than it's told.

Hugo, orphaned son of a clock keeper in the Montparnasse train station, lives a multi-layered secret life. Rather than report his father dead he continues to maintain the clocks at the station in order to remain living in the workroom behind one of the clocks. He also needs to stay in order to complete work on a fabulous machine his father had been tinkering with, an automaton salvaged from the wreckage of a museum fire. Being a driven, resourceful 12 year old boy he has taken to stealing food and bits of wind-up toys in order to complete his father's work. Most of what he takes comes from a toy seller in a stall at the station, an older man with a secret past of his own that connects him both the the automaton and the history of film itself. At first caught as a common thief, the toy peddler takes Hugo on as an apprentice, which allows Hugo to earn money and supplies enough to keep working. All roads lead to all secrets being revealed, where the toy peddler is "discovered" by film students to be a former magician, the creator of the mysterious automaton, and the father of French (and practically all) cinema, Georges Melies.

Selznick should take a bow for pulling together so many unusual (and unconnected) historical threads and making them into such a compelling work of fiction. I was going to add "for children" at the end of that sentence, but I suspect that most adults will wind up getting as much out of this that it really shouldn't be limited to it's intended audience. Melies did, indeed, drop out of the film world he helped create, did end up a toy peddler at the Montparnasse train station, was rediscovered by the french film society in 1932 and was treated like a national treasure until his death six years later. I can't speak to his actually creating automata, but it wasn't unusual for magicians of that era to employ both real and faked automata in their stage productions (The Turk being the most famous of the latter).

But the best invention by far is Hugo's, and by that I mean Selznick's. It isn't the automata itself, as the final narration eludes to, it is Hugo, the boy, who invented himself into the person he became.

By all means, read it and enjoy it before the market becomes flooded with cheap imitations.