Saturday, June 30

The Milkman

by Carol Foskett Cordsen
illustrated by Douglas B. Jones
Puffin paperback 2007

Hearkening back to another era, this picture book takes a warm-n-fuzzy look at a day in the life of the old fashioned door-to-door milkman. Told in terse clip-clop rhymes we follow Mr. Plimpton as he readies for and makes his daily deliveries in a town straight out of Robert McCloskey's Centerberg.

It begins with this disjointed opening:
First of morning, cold and dark.
Rooster crowing. Meadowlark.
Moon above the mountaintops.
(turn the page)
Loud alarm clock. Snoring stops.
I hate this break because it disturbs the flow of the opening rhythm. I hate that the break is made to better fit the placement of the illustrations. What's going on here? I shouldn't have such strong feelings against this book so immediately. A few pages later and the rhymes are back in sync but I'm still itching with something hinkey. Everything's chugging along, stops are made, a dog is lost (and will later be found), orders are taken, the sun is rising, the day begins and... what the?


Everything about this nostalgic trip has been pitch-perfect for the 1930's and 40's and all of a sudden you've got two women out for their morning jog in their pastel 1980's track suits. That's it, I'm out, you've lost me.

Who is a book like this for? I'm a late boomer/early gen x-er and I have only the faintest memories of delivery people that made the morning rounds. That little slice of life was pretty much gone before I even started school, and even then the milkman and grocery delivery boy felt dated to my sensibilities as a towheaded snot. In that light it seems to that this book, and every element that makes up this book, is calculated to appeal to grandparents who haven't got a clue what to buy their grandchildren.

Seriously. I think one could make a distinction between a period-centric adventure -- say Barbara McClintock's Adele and Simon which uses a pre-war Paris as a background but not as the primary focus of the story -- and the intentional design of The Milkman to separate people from their money based entirely an emotional appeal to some ersatz nostalgia.

It worked on me, for a moment. I was attracted to it's cover, because of some silent emotional promise that the illustration used as bait. But I quickly smelled the trap and managed to walk away without having to gnaw off my own leg.

Better luck next time.

Monday, June 25

I thought I'd at least rate a PG-13...

Very interesting. Based on a very low sampling of words scanned from my blog I apparently warrant a PG rating. Here's the deal:

Online Dating

This rating was determined based on the presence of the following words:
  • steal (3x)
  • pain (2x)
  • dangerous (1x)
I wonder how the rest of the kidlit blogosphere checks out. Click on the rating and check yourself out.

Sunday, June 24

Fairy Tales

by E. E. Cummings
illustrated by Meilo So
Liveright/Norton 2004

I have Jules over at 7Imp to thank for pointing me this direction. She mentioned this collection in her review of Catherine Reef’s biography on Cummings and I was intrigued.

I had originally skipped the biography because I have a personal relationship with Cummings work that I have tried to preserve -- a preferred ignorance of the man and his life so that I could take his poems on and interpret them personally, without influence. Early on, at least as early as seventh grade, I had a sense that Cummings was one of those creative types whose work would lose its magic if the seams were pointed out. This feeling wasn't founded on anything more than a hunch and the violent reactions I witnessed from people over the fact that his poetry and name weren't capitalized or violated rules of punctuation. I felt protective of that for some reason, and I guess to some extent I still do.

So I was excited to see that my library had a copy of Cumming's Fairy Tales but when I got it home and opened up to the table of contents I froze: The titles of the four tales it contained all rhymed with each other. Something about that hit me wrong and I was overcome with misgivings. I could just return the book and let it go, knowing it was there to discover at another time and place, or I could put it aside and see if those misgivings didn't evaporate.

The misgivings were still there when the book was due but I renewed it and let it sit some more. A full month and I still had my misgivings. But I opened the book anyway.

First, this is Cummings, so all bets are off. What he would call a fairy tale bears more of a resemblance to the Rootabaga Stories of Carl Sandburg than anything we would normally call a fairy tale. That is, Cummings was an early 20th century modernist, small 'm', and it isn't likely that he would be visiting any enchanted places with fairies and whatnot.

Except that he does, right there on the first page of the first story, "The Old Man Who Said Why". Okay, so he uses the faerie spelling, but it's right there. A faerie, living on a distant star, eating silence and drinking light. One day the faerie is disturbed when all the other faeries of the nighttime sky come to him for help. It appears that the old man on the moon (yes on, perched atop a steeple of a church) is asking "why?" over and over again, clogging the skies with his persistent questioning. Finally the faerie travels across the sky to get to the bottom of things. With every inquiry the old man follows up with his child-like 'why?' to the point that the exasperate faerie finally threatens to knock the old man down to the earth if he says 'why' one more time. The old man cannot help it, he has to ask, and the faerie sends him tumbling.

Funny thing, as the old man tumbles he gets younger and younger until, just as he's about to hit the earth, he is as young as he could possibly be, at which point he is born.


I once heard a small child -- a very verbal 2 year old -- talk about how "long ago" she was swimming all the time and playing with all her toys and then one day she heard her mother tell her it was time to come home... and then she was born. We, all the adults who heard this tale, were totally blown away. Here was this little girl ambling on with such clarity about something we all assumed was and imaginary tale only to find that she had tapped into her pre-birth memories. I had always assumed that we were born with more information than our older selves could remember or retain but I hadn't encountered anyone use it as the basis for a "fairy tale" intended for children. It seems perfectly natural reading it, and Cummings plays a little trick with us by lulling the reader into this whole faerie story just so he can deliver this much larger concept of the man-child asking 'why?' just the way they will when they are young and full of the world around them.

Encouraged, I tried "The Elephant and the Butterfly." Here we have a butterfly that travels from its home in the valley up to the elephant's house on the hill. The elephant is a bit of a recluse, "doing nothing" and basically waiting for love to find him. The butterfly arrives, asks to be let in, and is a comfort to the elephant who wonders if the butterfly likes him "a little." The butterfly says "no, I love you very much" and they are off on a journey to the butterfly's house. When the butterfly asks why the elephant didn't visit sooner the elephant confesses that he didn't know the butterfly lived there. From that day forward the elephant promises to visit every day.


I was willing to let this one slide because I thought there had to be something more. Notes at the end of the book explain that the elephant is Cummings and the butterfly is his grandson, child of a daughter who never knew Cummings was her real father. In that light the story makes a little more sense, but it ends up being so personal that without that information the story doesn't hold up on its own. I think the book could have done without this story.

The third story, "The House That Ate Mosquito Pie", puts us right back on track. Another love story, true, between an empty house and a songbird but in this the courtship feels as sweet as it is unusual. To celebrate their cohabitation the bird is about to go out and collect mosquitoes to make a pie when she spies humans coming up the walk. The house and the bird stay still and motionless as the humans, uncouth slobs as they are, tramp into the house and begin to claim it for their own. Suddenly all the clocks in the house begin chiming, scaring the clods out of the house. Once vacant for good, the house and the bird celebrate their union with the aforementioned pie and they lived happily ever after.

And that, my friends, is practically Grimmworthy.

Finally, a tale that is perhaps the most Cummingsian, "The Little Girl Named I." Told as a conversation between the author and his young listener he spins a story of girl who is attempting to invite guests to a tea party. A pig and a cow and an elephant are all invited but in the end cannot make it for various reasons. Finally she meets another girl who would love to attend, a girl named You. And here's where the Cummings most adults know comes out to play, as You and I have a cozy little conversation as they settle in for their tea.

This is a story that benefits from a reading aloud, provided you get the dialog breaks down. The way they are typeset in this volume it's difficult to make out on the first cold reading of the first few lines, and Cummings doesn't use quotes or attributes for the storyteller and the listener, so it really does read like unmoored dialog from a play. At the end, when reading the dialog between You and I the quotes help clarify who is saying what but with careful reading they become unnecessary.

All in a day's work for e.e. No quotes when you expect them, there when you don't.

Aside from the one tale written for his grandson, the other three tales were written for Cummings' daughter Nancy who grew up never knowing Cummings was her father due to the intervention of his ex-wife's new husband. The 30 year's difference between the stories shows and, again, although they were originally published together in 1965 they really could have held their own with only the earlier three.

Was my trepidation warranted? Probably not.

Grimmoire 54: The Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn

Sadly, not another story of inanimate objects, but another one of those where the brothers set out to seek their fortune and the one who settles for less ends up with more.

The first brother finds a mountain of gold, hacks out as much as he can carry, then heads home to buy his happiness. The second brother finds a mountain of silver and does the same. Surely the third brother is going to find a mountain of diamonds, or platinum, or perhaps an ATM that spews money endlessly.

Better: He finds an enchanted tablecloth which, upon request, lays itself out with an endless buffet. You just have to love the logic of the Grimmwald. Hungry people couldn't give a fig about silver or gold because they were too busy dreaming of all the food they didn't have. With all your food taken care of, who could want anything more?

So the man takes his little tablecloth and he comes upon a man who, if I understand this correctly, spends his days making charcoal briquettes. Those don't just grow on trees, you mean people have to specialize in charcoal? Anyway, the coal burner is bummed because he spends all his days in the forest and has nothing but potatoes to eat. Ah! The man pulls out his tablecloth and sets down a feast for both of them. Impressed the coal burner offers a trade -- he has a knapsack that, when tapped, produces a small battalion of foot soldiers who will do your bidding. A trade is made and--

What? Why would you trade a magic tablecloth for an enchanted knapsack? Well, because the coal burner was too stupid to realize that he had the better deal. Once out of sight the man taps the knapsack and, sure enough, there's a battalion of soldiers. "Go back and get my tablecloth," he orders them and -- a ha! -- now he has both.

A little further into the Grimmwald and here we have another charcoalian character. Again he feeds the man and again there is an offer to trade, this time for a hat. This hat, though, can produce a dozen cannons that can demolish anything. Naturally the trade is made, and again he sends the foot soldiers back to reclaim the tablecloth. A tablecloth, a knapsack and a hat... what else can be found in these woods? Let's see!

Day three and, yes, there's another man in the forest burning trees into coal. I guess coal burners in olden days were as plentiful as lawyers today. Anyway this one is starved and in exchange for the tablecloth he trades a horn, a horn that must once have been owned by Joshua because the minute it's blown the fortification walls come crumbling down, a second blast reduces a town to rubble. You probably guessed that after he left with the horn he sent back the infantry to reclaim the tablecloth.

Returning home to join his brothers he looked like a vagabond, and they ridiculed him for his possessions. Enraged, he tapped his knapsack again and again until he had one hundred and fifty troops which he used to whip his brothers with hazel switches ruthlessly.

The king catches wind of this and sends reinforcements but the haughty third brother won't be shut down until the king relents and gives his daughter in marriage. No match against infinite troops and cannons the king gives in. But his daughter isn't too pleased and is determined to locate the source of her new husband's power. Eventually he confesses the knapsack as the source of his power and, in one swift embrace, she lifts it off and absconds with it.

Not so fast! When she taps the knapsack and attempts to have the foot soldiers seize and arrest her husband he turns his hat a few times and produces cannons that begin to demolish everything in sight. Beat, she begs for mercy and worms her way back into his good graces. After a time she manages to steal his hat and has him thrown into the street, feeling she has gotten the upper hand at last. But he still has his horn and, blowing furiously, demolishes the castle, the village and for good measure makes sure the kind and his daughter are crushed beneath the rubble.

"After that nobody dared to oppose him, and he made himself king of the entire country."

Which, when you think about it, is really just another way of explaining the development of atomic weaponry and the Cold War in the 20th century.

So what would the take-away on this story be to younger readers? That absolute power corrupts absolutely? That clever beats gold and silver? Don't make fun of your siblings or they may come back at you with an army of switches?

I like to go back to the one thing that made this all possible -- hunger -- which really gets at the source of the problem. I had a history teacher explain that the one thing that keeps people from revolting against their governments was control over food. As long as there are breadlines and people are still being fed, if nominally, then they won't rise up. The minute the food stops, all bets are off. And when you think about it, in America as long as people can get their 99 cent menu items at McDonalds and Taco Bell they aren't going to think there's anything wrong with the country. On the average, we can be earning 40% less than our parents generation while CEO's and businesses continue to rake in 700% in profits over the previous year (as the oil companies recently posted) and all that matters is whether or not a town has the right to ban trans fats from restaurants.

It's all about that tablecloth, and it doesn't even merit a mention in the title.

Saturday, June 23

White Bicycles

Making Music in the 1960's
by Joe Boyd
Serpent's Tail Press 2006

While not technically a book for children I think there's probably a swath of young adult readers who would really enjoy this autobiographical examination of what the music scene was like during their parent's (or grandparent's) era. Some of you may be old enough to remember some of this or, like me, caught the tail of the comet as it rushed through our childhoods and never fully understood what was really going on. And as much as I'd like to believe biopics like Oliver Stone's The Doors or understand how a culture developed to create Woodstock the nitty-gritty is something else, something far less discussed.

Because of the general focus here on the blog I'm going to try and keep it relevant toward a younger audience but the music geek in me is fighting for air just below the surface.

Very early on Boyd admits to aspiring all along to becoming and eminence grise within the music scene. That he lacked the arrogance and shamelessness of other music promoters (like Bill Graham) to actually build a multimillion dollar empire from his efforts only suggests that he did it purely for the music. The list of bands that slipped through his fingers as a result speaks directly to this point: Steve Winwood, The Lovin' Spoonful, Cream, Pink Floyd a couple of hit songs by Arthur Brown and Procol Harum, and the English language rights to Abba. Boyd wasn't without his successes -- notably Nick Drake and Fairport Convention on his roster, as well as producing the soundtracks for Deliverance and A Clockwork Orange -- but his story is less about how he achieved these triumphs as it is a portrait of a time that allowed for them to happen in the first place.

It begins in his childhood home, the first family on his block in the 1950's to get a TV. He's watching a local program called Bob Horn's WFIL-TV Bandstand and in time (and the payola scandal of the day) that show morphed into American Bandstand with Dick Clark. Boyd and his brother sensed something wrong with Clark's version of the show -- a watering down of the music for syndication -- and they went in search of American roots music, especially forgotten blues and jazz masters.

Boyd picks up the thread in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where fellow college types are not only into blues but folk music. In time he is arranging for long-retired blues musicians to play dates in small clubs, making connections, learning both about music and the business of music. From here it's a hop-skip-jump into serving as a tour arranger for jazz musicians in Europe and helping coordinate acts at the Newport Folk Festival. As folk music is gaining in popularity so, too, is the influence of a certain Bob Dylan. With the subversive help of fellow producer-eminence Paul Rothchild (at Elektra records he landed The Doors) and Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) he brought the electrified Dylan to the stage, to the ever-loving horror of Pete Seegar. By the mid-60's Boyd's sense was that Britain was the place to be; there was more of a scene developing, folk and rock cohabiting without the rancor that exists in America, and the offer to set up the European office of Elektra records could not be ignored.

From there it's one thing after another, setting up gigs and producing the occasional band. When things falter he and a friend set up an underground club in 1966, the fabled UFO, which opened with showings of Warhol movies and Pink Floyd as the house band. Mirroring Bill Graham's Fillmore's East and West they commissioned their own psychedelic posters and became the focal point for freaks (and I mean that in the best sense) of all stripes. The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper and suddenly the world of pop music flew in all directions. Joe retrenched his position and followed the folk-rock vein, recording Pink Floyd's first single before losing them to a better offer, working with The Incredible String Band (eventually destroyed by Scientology), Fairport Convention (and later Richard Thompson), introverted folkies Vashti Bunyan and Nick Drake, and, yes, he is responsible for producing his friend Maria Mudaur's (and his bestselling) hit "Midnight At the Oasis." That last bit is a dubious distinction, one that isn't lost on him, and he takes it in the same stride as all his other bits of fortune and misfortune. Like letting the rights to Abba's music in the English speaking world land in someone else's lap because he can't imagine the Swedish pop stars as the future international sensation they became.

Watching the toll taken on friends and acquaintances alike you would imagine that Joe Boyd would close out his 1960's reminiscence with a slow fade and fond wave. He prefers to look at the fingerprints he left behind with a wry smile and the confession:
...I cheated. I never got too stoned. I became the eminence grise I aspired to be, and disproved at least one sixties myth: I was there, and I do remember.
Ah, but not so fast, Joe. You continued to stay involved in the music business long beyond the 1960's and early 1970's. You produced two great albums in 1986 alone -- R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction and 10,000 Maniacs The Wishing Chair. You founded Hannibal Records and your work with !Cubanismo! paved a path of inspiration for The Buena Vista Social Club. Your pace may have slowed, and the gaps between projects may have grown, but Joe, your story doesn't end as your book does in 1974. Perhaps that's material for another book, another slice of in the life of his eminenece?

It's a great read, just non-stop -- that's my pull-quote. Boyd tells great stories, and even if you don't know the players or their music you can still appreciate just how much people were looking to music for connection. There might even be a lesson in her about how the Internet has distanced us form this sort of interaction -- and Boyd does make a couple of pointed comments about how much fidelity and human warmth is lost in recording digitally -- but that might be going too far.

I think for many kids today the landscape that Boyd describes will look as alien as the moon. In the age of instant fame a la reality programming, American Idol and the entire manufactured pop industry all of these people, these connections, the absurdity of so much happening in such a short period of time might seem as unrealistic as any fiction one could read. There probably aren't a lot of kids out there with a hunger to understand the past this deep, but then we know there was a small underground of people like Joe Boyd during his time who went hunting for the roots, looking for the connections between the past and the present, looking to recapture what appeared to be lost.

Could a book like this be any more welcome in that respect?

Wednesday, June 20

Grimmoire 53: Snow White

Overrated. Overexposed. Over.

Except to note...

Snow White is not awakened by a kiss. I have long known the original ending, where the prince has bought her glass coffin from the dwarfs because he must possess such beauty (uh, yuk!) and then while transporting her to his princely lair drops the casket wherein the piece of poison apple lodged in her throat pops out and she awakens. That's how you revive the girl, you do the Heimlich Maneuver!

Also, as a nice little coda, when the prince invites everyone to the wedding he invites the witch/stepmother who originally poisoned her, and when she arrives at the party they weld steel shoes onto her feet and force her to dance at their wedding until she drops dead.

Honestly, where can I find me a wedding where part of the evening's entertainment is to force someone to dance 'til they drop? At a shindig like that, who knows what other entertainments they'd have on tap!

Grimmoire 52: King Thrushbeard

Alternately known as Princess Comeuppance.

Another story of another snotty little princess who learns her lesson the hard way. You would think that with so many stories of snotty princesses that girls wouldn't be so actively engaged in separating their parents from their disposable income. What's that you say? Oh, right: the Disney Factor. I keep forgetting.

So the princess is walking the line, inspecting all the fine kingworthy husband that have offered to take her off her father's hands. With each she finds fault, usually with a curt little rhyme or insult to match. With one particular fellow she uses his pointy chin in comparison with a bird, a thrush, and thus King Thrushbeard is nicknamed.

Dad's had enough, and he tells the princess she'll be married off to the next beggar in the street he comes across. Sure enough, a beggar comes along, singing for coins in the square. Papa makes a show of allowing the beggar to "win" his daughter in recognition of his talents and, snip-snap, it is done. The princess is wed to the beggar.

As the beggar takes her home they pass first a great forest, then a great meadow, then a great city. She inquires as to their owner and the beggar snorts that they belong to the unfortunate who was once nicknamed King Thrushbeard. When they arrive at the beggar's stoop hovel the princess cringes. Where are the servants, the fine foods, where is her cushy former life? Gone.

The live on what meager provisions they have but eventually the princess need to find work. Her hands are too soft for basket weaving, she's useless spinning wool, eventually the beggar secures fine earthenware for her to sell in the town market. Things seem well but then one day a hussar rides in on his horse and tramples the pottery to shreds. She returns home in tears, upbraided for setting up shop in a place in town where the pottery was likely to be smashed. Nothing left to do but sell her out to the court of King Thrushbeard as a scullery maid.

Trying to make the best of the situation the princess sews jars into her skirt that she may steal off with scraps to feed her and her beggar husband, all the while trying to keep her head down for fear of being noticed by the king as that snotty princess she once was. One day her pockets come undone, spilling scraps and soup everywhere. The people of the court laugh but not the king, who walks over to her and reveals that he is also the beggar she has been married to all this time. All of the work and humiliation he has doled out was to put her in her place. Now she would take her proper place in the palace alongside the king.

And there was much rejoicing.

I used to like this story quite a lot when I first came across it twenty years ago or so but now not so much. In the end the princess still gets to be a queen and her hardships are nothing compared to those who live them with no hope of promotion. Being royalty, and children aspiring to be royalty, leaves a sour taste in my mouth and no lessons hard-come-by could change that. I don't care for it in boys either, though it's much harder to see in our society because it takes so many forms: professional athletes and CEO's being the most obvious versions. You can rake me over the coals for this but I don't see much difference between a girl wanting to be a princess (or a pop star) and a boy wanting to be a professional baseball player (or pop star). Say what you will about the athletes and their talent versus a girl lucking into royalty but recognize that the odds of becoming the top of anything require a determination that leaves 99% of the population in the dust and is done for purely selfish reasons.

True, occasionally a Princess Diana comes along and parlays that power and charisma into causes for humanity but how many girls who want to be princesses, and don't become princesses, behave as she did? Ask a girl in love with Disney princesses what it means to be a princess and you'll hear a lot about pretty dresses and fancy balls and very little about land mines and Darfur. I know I'm well off topic here, I'm just saying.

Thrushbeard doesn't come off so rosy here either. He's willing to act the fool (or in this case the beggar) to win a wife by stealth and then shame and humiliate her until she is as submissive and supine as a willow twig in his hand. He has used his boyhood ambitions to take what's his, to win by subversion, to cheat if necessary, and has for his reward total control. Sit on a playground for a few hours and watch boys playing together. Locate the alpha male in the group and see what sort of control games are played. That's Young Thrushbeard.

I don't know that we can really escape all these little gender roles and power plays until the society on the whole makes some large fundamental changes. The amount of airtime a Paris Hilton receives, or the fact that weekend box office grosses for new movies (as opposed to whether the films are any good, or culturally significant) is considered "news" only tips the iceberg. We could probably wrap this up with "art only mirrors, it doesn't shape society" little note but that's tired. Money rules, Thrushbeard had it, the princess wanted it and paid the price to get it, and they're both happy in the end.

Isn't that all that matters?

Grimmoire 51: Foundling

Rules of the Grimmoire Forest:

1. A Forester is not only a worthy occupation, it also provides enough income to afford a man a cook and servants for his house.

2. Children found in trees may be taken home and freely raised as they become your property on sight.

3. When two children have bonded as sibling, whether blood relation or not, a simple child-like incantation is enough not only to make that bond unbreakable but permits special powers that allow those children to become shape-shifters.

4. Old women in the employ of single men are probably witches and consider their employer's children fair game for turning into a stew.

5. A witch can be dragged into a pond and drowned by a duck, if the duck and the pond are enchanted children.

The story begins with a woman under a tree, her babe in her lap. A falcon swoops down and takes the baby away to the top of the tree. Mom instantly abandons the baby. Forget choice or life, in this less-than-modern realm you were either pro-avian abduction or against it.

Forester comes along, hears the babe wailing in the tree and rescues it. What a fine companion for his motherless daughter Lena back at home. I shall name the boy Foundling. Naturally (or unnaturally) Foundling and Lena become inseparable.

One day while the Forester is out foresting the cook -- who is also a witch -- confesses a little secret to Lena: she's going to boil a pot of water and stew up that bird-boy foundling the next day. Lena tells Foundling and, after a short ritualistic promise never to abandon one another, they become changeling Wonder Twins wandering off into the woods to hide.

The witch sends three servants to find the kids. Foundling changes into a thorn bush and Lena turns into a rose. The servant report back that all they found was a rose bush and the witch tells them they should have known that kids can change themselves into these things and sends them back out. This time Foundling changes into a chapel and Lena changes into a chandelier in the lobby. The servants, finding a chapel instead of rose bush, report back and the witch again tells them they should have dismantled the chapel and brought back the chandelier -- it's like a Three Stooges movie. Witchiepoo finally realizes the only way things are going to get done is if she does them herself.

This time Foundling has changed himself into a pond and Lena into a duck. Instantly the witch realizes who they are and begins to drink the entire pond to get at Lena. Lena comes over and drags the witch into the pond and drowns her, which makes me wonder why Lena and Foundling ran off in the first place if she is strong enough as a duck to drown a witch twice her human size.

With the witch gone Lena and Foundling lived together happily the rest of their days. I don't think they considered each other brother and sister for the rest of those days however. One of those lesser rules in the Grimmoire Forest: It's okay to marry other members of your family, provided you are good at heart and know the proper incantations to ward off evil.

The Many Riders of Paul Revere

Pretty risque title for children's non-fiction title, but that's what it said on the outside of the box of galleys from Scholastic. Sadly, the galley's correct title appeared on the cover: The Many Rides of Paul Revere.

The cover says it's illustrated with archival art and new illustrations but when you look at the title page and it says "Illustrated with Archival Photographs." Hmm. That almost sounds as if they were using photos taken during Paul Revere's day, a pretty nifty trick given that he died about 150 years before photography became popular. Ah, I get it, the photos are archival, meaning they came from archives. Which would explain the contemporary photos of the liberty bell complete with it's acrylic plaque.

Couldn't it have said "Profusely Illustrated"? Or just not pointed out what is completely obvious, that it's at least 40% illustrated? After all, if illustrations are important to a reader (and for non-fiction it is important to a young reader) all they're going to do is flip through the pages before they start to read it anyway, why bother stating the obvious? It's not like they need to know that information for their book report.

Look for The Many Rides of Paul Revere in October.

Monday, June 18

Grimmoire 48: Old Sultan

This one starts out sounding as dark as any middle-grade dog story but lightens up at the end in typical Grimm fashion.

Old Sultan is a dog, a toothless wonder who has outlived his days, is slated to be taken out into the fields and shot the next day by the farmer. Overhearing this to dog trots off to the forest to whine to his cousin, a wolf. The wolf has an idea: the next day the wolf will pretend to steal the farmer's infant, the old dog will give chase, the wolf will drop the babe and the dog will prove that he is worth being kept around.

And it works, the farmer had him fed a fine bread mush and gives the dog his own pillow to lay about on. Old Sultan is once again king.

But wolf drops by and suggests that things are hard all around, and hopes the dog will reciprocate and look away now and then while he steals a few sheep. The dog, proud and loyal, refuses and wolf assumes he's kidding. But he isn't as Old Sultan warns his master who in turn chases wolf away from the sheep with his trusty rifle.

Well! Wolf isn't having any of that so in gentlemanly fashion he sends a wild boar as his second to meet him in the forest for a duel. Poor Old Sultan, all he can manage for a second is a three-legged cat in so much pain that his tail sticks straight into the air. Hobbling off to the duel wolf and the boar see them coming and think the cat's tail is a sabre. Boar spots the cat's three-legged hobble and assume he's walking that way because he's picking up rocks to throw. Freaked out and scared wolf climbs a tree and boar hides behind a bush.

Arriving at the clearing Old Sultan and the cat are surprised no one is there. Then cat sees the tip of the boar's ear twitch and thinking it's a mouse gives it a good bite. Boar squeals that wolf is hiding above them in the tree and, ashamed, wolf agrees to accept the dog's terms.

It isn't quite an old dog learning new tricks so much as it's an old dog getting a second wind late in life. No doubt the dog was suffering from a lack of confidence over the years as he lost teeth and grayed but that old bravado was restored the day he was able to restore his master's faith in him. As for wolf, if he was so smart he should have had his terms on the table when he first proposed a solution to the dog, when Old Sultan might have agreed to anything that kept his from taking a bullet in the head. A very interesting lesson about negotiation here.

Favorite detail: the three-legged cat. Old Sultan can't manage any better for a friend, and the cat certainly doesn't show any signs of being all that great, and yet were it not for the cat's natural behaviors -- the tail in pain, the hobbling, the biting of the boar's ear -- none of this would have worked out well for Old Sultan. I hope the dog gave up his master's pillow to his feline friend when they returned home.

I know it's not a new theme, but I like that the players are old, and that in their later years and with their infirmities they can manage to hold their own.

Friday, June 15

Ginger Bear

by Mini Grey
Knopf 2007
(Random House UK 2004)

Horace's mum usually gives him some dough to play with when she's in the kitchen, a gooey mass that ends up filthy in no time. Today, however, she has Horace use a cookie cutter to piece out a single bear.

The fate of Ginger Bear is on hold as Horace is prevented from eating him for a trio of reasons: It hasn't cooled down, it will spoil his dinner, he's just brushed his teeth. Unwilling to let him go Horace takes the Ginger Bear with him to bed, nestled in a baking tin on his pillow.

The house asleep the Ginger Bear springs to life.

In the tradition of mischievous gingerbread creations Ginger Bear leaps right into the kitchen and deftly goes about mixing up a batch of ginger companions to keep him company. This army of baked bears, their miss-matched decor echoing the rule-free creations of children, become performers in Ginger Bear's private circus. There's a Fire-Breathing Ginger Bear, and a Strongman Ginger Bear, the Knife-Throwing Ginger Bear, and a Trapeze Ginger Bear and an Ursidae Cannonball shot from the mouth of a bottle of ketchup.

Suddenly Horace's dog arrives. He likes Ginger Bears probably as much as Horace but not for the same reason. While Ginger Bear takes cover the dog turns the kitchen into a scene of cookie carnage, crumbs everywhere. Among the crumbs you can make out part of a face here, a bit of frosting decor there, this little bear in three little pieces, bits of another spread across the page. Were it not cute little drawings of crumbs it would resemble nothing less than a war zone.

Morning comes. Horace wakes. The Ginger Bear is gone, in it's place on the pillow a card for a bakery in town. In the corner the dog sits, a guilty look across his face. In the doorway, mum, arms crossed, wondering how her kitchen got such a mess. And, in a little sliver of background, a bit of the kitchen floor strewn in crumbs.

What of the clever Ginger Bear? He lives in the display window of the previously featured bakery, an integral part of its fantastic display, skiing down a frosting hill toward a village of ginger trees and gingerbread houses. Horace stands at the window, gobsmacked. He's certain he knows that Ginger Bear...

Okay, first, I have to say that about half the time I see this title I read it in my head as
"Ginger BEER". Not that it makes any difference to how I feel about the book, but I also had to consciously keep myself from writing it that way as well.

What an odd little story. Horace starts off a bit of an ogreish little nob but once he's down for the night the story belongs to GB, and he's a fun little thing. Making ones own playmates has to appeal to the young, and imagining them as rowdy circus performers is the proverbial icing on the cookie. Not just any circus performers, but adult performers, and dangerous ones, too. A bear splayed out on a pie tin while another throws kitchen knives twice their height is alternately absurd, gruesome and funny. The strongman makes his move on the Trapeze Girl who seems slightly bored by his approach. This is the equivalent of adult jokes in modern animation, something for the lap and the lap-sitter both, if you will.

The only question I have at the end is whether Ginger Bear escaped to the sanctuary of the window display, one day to be discarded; or, in keeping with his spirit and those of the shoemaker's elves, he spends his nights creating these magical window displays, free of the dangers of dogs, of grubby little hands ready to eat him, king in a self-made paradise.

Yeah, it's good. It's weird, but it's good.

Thursday, June 14

Blogger Laureate

Roger said so. I'm speechless.

No, actually, I'm not. I'm going to go make a tiara out of a pipe cleaners, pop beads and macaroni and wear it during my tenure as Blogger Laureate.

For all of 30 seconds. I now name Fuse #8 Blogger Laureate.

Wednesday, June 13

The Perfect Day

by Remy Charlip
Greenwillow Press 2007

In very quiet rhymes Remy sets the scene.

Rising sun
Time to wake
Day has begun

The sun is rising in the on the mountain while the night is still nestled in the valley. We move from the large to the small as a child and parent sit at breakfast and plot out their day. In luminous watercolor they move to a hike, gaze at the clouds, have lunch with friends, sing and play, sit under a quiet tree and take a nap.

The day moves on, the simple rhymes gently drifting like a breeze across the pages. They return home, paint pictures of their day, "read from picture books and think"...

And I stop cold. First, Charlip is suggesting that parents and children not only read picture books but that they think about them. Without disturbing the flow of the book he has included a very careful suggestion that picture books not just be read but considered, pondered, discussed. Then I look at the picture carefully and notice dozens of books open on the floor, all miniature watercolor spreads from Charlip's many books.

I so want to be wrong about this, but it feels like Remy Charlip is taking inventory and saying his good-byes.

I continue on. Tomorrow is another day, tomorrow we can laugh and play. I feel uneasy. The child is nestled into bed, the window above the bed filled with the mountain and valley from the beginning, the sun on the other side now signaling the end of the day, a passage into the night.

Mountain Valley Setting sun Time to sleep Night has begun

Remy Charlip finished this book before suffering his stroke in October of 2005 and as of a year ago was still undergoing physical therapy, the note above his work desk where the proofs for this book lay reading "Go slow. Do less." My hope is that it's coincidental he included his published history strewn on the floor of a painting for his latest book -- an inside joke -- and that he'll continue to perform his dances of quiet whimsy in picture book form.

In ruminating over the summary of this back back in January on his birthday I doubted the book was as simple as it's description:

A parent and child spend a perfect day together, from sunrise to nightfall.

Now, of course, I want to believe it is just that simple.


by David Lucas
Knopf 2007
(Andersen Press, UK 2006)


A frolicking whale accidentally beaches himself atop a port town in the night, waking the townfolk. As they climb on top of the the whale they begin to wonder what to do about the situation. Seeing as the whale is too large to be moved a suggestion is made (and agreed upon by the whale itself) that it should be hacked up for a stew.

"No!" shouts young Joe, the first to discover the whale outside his bedroom window.

Soon everyone is asking the wisest of the wise -- an owl -- what should be done. The owl suggests asking the winds, who in turn ask the sun and moon, who in turn as the stars for a solution (it's all verbal, there are no pictures of all this asking, unfortunately). Finally word comes back that they townfolk are to sing the rain song.

"But that never works!" Nonetheless they sing it.

Soon the rains come and flood the town, sending the whale back into the sea. It also totally floods the town away. A grateful whale begins singing a song himself, a fish song, and soon all sorts of marine life come to shore with shells and pearls and shiny pebbles to rebuild the town much prettier than before. With everyone happy the whale departs promising to come back some day.

This is the second book of Lucas' I've read (of three, see Nutmeg for my other take) and it's clear to me that his sense of picture book storytelling is "unusual." That's one of them code words, like the way "interesting" when used for art generally means "I don't like it." It isn't that I don't like Lucas' books -- no, I want to like them -- but they always end with me feeling like something is missing. The problem is in trying to figure out what is missing because his stories tend to operate in their own worlds and by their own rules, with little in the way of clues to help impose some sense of order.

In this story our main character, beside the whale, is a boy named Joe. We learn nothing about Joe other than he doesn't want to see the whale destroyed. That's not much in the way of character, and he has so little else to say or do in this book, so why even give him a name at all? And the whale, so quick to give up and allow the townfolk to hack him into a stew... what's up with that? Sending the owl on a mission to find the answer is fine but, as I mentioned, the asking up the chain-of-command is all verbal and fits on a single spread.

It's odd, if you look at the book without reading the words you can almost piece together a story on your own. It makes me wonder if Lucas doesn't actually do this, write the story after the illustrations are finished. That doesn't sound likely, but it might explain the quirkiness of what is written.

Lucas has a nice watercolor and pen-bleed style and a very identifiable style. His books are fun to look at and it's apparent that he likes stories set near water. All that's missing are stories that transcend "unusual" and become "unique."

Tuesday, June 12

Dadblamed Union Army Cow

by Susan Fletcher
illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root
Candlewick 2007

I was hooked from the word "dadblamed."

There's more, of course. I mean, how often do you run across picture books about Civil War cows? And this cow's a beaut. She follows her owner as he enlists, she follows him onto the railroad car taking his regiment into battle, getting in the way and giving milk as she goes. She gets stuck in the mud, runs amok in battle, swats away flies from the soldiers while they eat. All around, that dadblamed cow turned out to be a mighty good soldier.

Naturally, based on a true story. I'm sure every nation and every war has it's own version of animals on the front lines, but I'd never heard of a cow with this much loyalty, or of one given this much tolerance. Despite the dangers of a rampant cow on the battlefield it turns out her milk may have saved lives as supplies were often slow in getting to the front. Most amazing to me is that this cow was never felled by enemy or friendly fire, nor was she eaten, and in fact lived many years after the war.

Dadblamed indeed. What we need are more true stories of heroic bovine. More books with old slang-swearing in the title as well, please.

The Misadventures of Benjamin Bartholomew Piff: You Wish

by Jason Lethcoe
Grosset & Dunlap 2007

Think about a cartoon like The Flintstones, or any of the Hanna-Barbara cartoons made for television. Sometimes they were funny, sometimes they weren't, often relying on parodies of pop culture to generate some sort of buzz from the artificial laugh track. It was never about the animation, which just as often used the same backgrounds flying past the characters repeatedly while they ran or drove across the screen delivering a limp gag or punchline. They were churned out for a cheap laugh and an easy buck.

Now, think about a classic Disney cartoon, perhaps one of the how-to's featuring Goofy being directed through Olympic sports training or learning to fly a plane. The slapstick humor isn't new, but Goofy's rubbery and spasmodic antics are, drawn painstakingly against backgrounds with real depth that are never repeated. Those early Disney shorts were a gold standard by which all other animation could be measured against until the perfection of modern digital techniques. They were churned out by artists driven to perfect their craft.

In the realm of kidlit fantasy The Misadventures of Benjamin Bartholomew Piff: You Wish is the unworkman-like equivalent to Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials books.

Ben is an orphan living in an improbable Dickensian orphanage in Los Angeles, present day. His parents died a year earlier in an accident and apparently he has no other family to turn to. Forced to scrub pots with a toothbrush for failing to request seconds at mealtime -- a nod and a wink to Oliver Twist -- Ben's life is a miserable one. But on the day he is about to escape a social worker brings him a birthday cake, a cake on which he makes the ultimate birthday wish...

Meanwhile, in MagicLand, Thom Candlewick is leading a new batch of interns -- faeries, leprechauns, jinn (genies) and, humanoids -- on a tour of the Wishworks, the place where wishes are granted. The tour allows the reader to be taken away from Ben for several chapters while pumping out a lot of backstory about how the Wishworks works and lets us know how spiffy Candlewick is, so spiffy in fact that his stepfather is about to anoint him the Grand Poobah of Wishworks (over his smarmy step brother) when...

The unthinkable! Ben's birthday wish is for unlimited wishes! And what makes it the most powerful is that Ben has not revealed the nature of his power. You see, Ben is the first person in the world to wish for unlimited wishes and never tell anyone his wish. Apparently that's what has undone every unlimited wish ever made, that once people have made them they have admitted it, thereby canceling their wish. And as if that weren't enough, every wish he's granted takes away another wish from some deserving soul.

Sounds like the Wishworks is a pretty messed-up place if it can be so easily undone.

But Ben's living it up, turning the ogres who run the orphanage into his personal slaves while conjuring up Playstations and flat screen TV's for all the other trapped kids (uh, rather than wish for his parents to be alive, to be free of the orphanage, etc). There's a crucial element in this particular segment -- a game called Outback Hunter -- which assumes a much larger importance later but doesn't get a proper introduction here. This is where I began to sense that there was a lot less to this story going on; or rather, that I was reading more of a detailed outline to a much larger book than I was ever going to see.

I'm deliberately sidetracking because this is an important junction, where the real and fantasy worlds are about to collide and I don't have a good feel for either. This is the point where I realized the book was aspiring to the levels of the entire Harry Potter series with brevity of a Half Magic. I was a quarter of the way through the book and it would be a race to finish the book before my attention span waned. I nearly gave up two-thirds in, it was that close. That said, let's not give the review more words than the actual book itself.

The Wishworks wishes, once granted, are formed in orbs, and Ben's is apparently so powerful that the evil Thornblood -- who is resurrecting the old Curseworks, not worth going into here -- is planning to use Ben's orb to power up his mighty curse machine. The Wishworks enlist Ben to help them battle Thornblood, retrieve the orb, and have Ben undo his wish, thus returning the real and the imaginary worlds to their original harmonious states. Ben is retrieved from his orphanage to take up residency at the Wishworks and everything is swell...

Until the forthcoming installment in the series entitled ...Wishful Thinking.

Lethcoe is a former storyboard artist for Disney and Sony, and it shows. The book reads the way a storyboard artist would describe a feature cartoon, in flashy short-handed scenes with only the essential dialog and most cursory of character development. In Hollywood the director would flesh out all this, locate the details that would tell the story, find the moments of gravitas and lightness, give the overall story it's final flow; The storyboard artist presents stagnant scenes where the action jerks along and moments are jumped between. If that sounds like a harsh over-generalization that applies both to animation and this title than at least it's understandable to a storyboard artist.

Friday, June 8

Summer Reading, Part Five: The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature

Recently I went to my local library with an odd request: Did the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature still exist, or had it been replaced by the Internet?

The reference librarian looked me over and sighed. It may still exist, she said, but the library hasn't purchased it since 2001 and few people have ever used it, or asked where it was kept. Once a massive multi-volume record of articles published by magazines and organized by subject, it's easy to see how this valuable research tool had been replaced by search engines, but it saddened me. It's one thing to do a Google search on the name Muhammad Ali and get 2.6 million results in 0.13 seconds but it would take you much longer, and more key words, to get, say, a specific selection of magazine articles from 1967 regarding his refusal to register for the draft during Vietnam. You'd still have to hunt those articles down but you'd have a better idea of what was recorded at the time in one quick glance.

The bane of many a school research paper -- now almost completely replaced by Wikipedia -- and no longer the source of much frustration in learning how to properly cite a reference work, I hereby dedicate this last segment on alternative summer reading to The Reader's Guide and to the idea that summer reading doesn't have to be about books.


One of the best summers I ever had in terms of reading came the summer of the Watergate hearings in congress. I was thirteen and didn't have a clue what was going on but it all seemed very important. There was no discussion of politics in my house because (I only learned when I was an adult) my parents were of opposing political parties and kept silent to keep the peace.

Pity then, that I couldn't see what the world looked like from the mindset of the day; pity now, that it seems unlikely that people from opposite parties could live under the same roof.

That said, all this non-talk in the house of politics drove me to try and figure things out for myself and every day I had at my disposal the best tool available: The Los Angeles Times.

It is still very clear to me, all these years later, the memory of that first morning I commandeered the coffee table to make room for the entire newspaper. The newspaper was a book in my eyes, and I wanted to view the book as a whole. I distinctly remember how lost I felt at first, reading names and places and processes and procedures and feeling the intimidating weight of everything a newspaper had to offer. But I was determined.

I started with anything Watergate -- that's why I was there -- but quickly began to read about people and places I'd sort of heard about. A few years earlier our local paper put out a weekly digest edition of current events for classroom use so I had some familiarity with what a newspaper would contain, but I hadn't counted on their being so much news! And daily! Here's a section with letters and opinions and a political cartoon making fun of the president! This section talks about movies and music! Peanuts comics I had never seen in book form!

It might seem like I'm making fun, but I'm not. Before that first day I thought of the newspaper as something adults read, some boring part of adulthood. I never took the newspaper for granted after that.

A few years later I had a teacher who tried to get us to use our homeroom time to read the newspaper. She unabashedly had presidential campaign materials decorating one of her walls (Carter*Mondale placards outnumbered Ford*Dole signs 3 to 1) and she would clip interesting news stories among them. I was one of the few who read the newspaper during that time -- mostly to avoid homework, which my friends were busy doing last-minute, homework I would later hastily copy. Most of my friends found the news boring and I didn't see the point in trying to teach them otherwise.

With a little guidance, summer is the perfect time for younger minds to read the newspaper. If there isn't a current events assignment attached it might take a little more prodding than normal, or it might take less given that it's "free reading" without a test attached. I haven't checked out any Lexile or Flesch-Kincaid readability tests lately, but the last I heard the New York Times had a 7th grade reading level. Most papers fall at or below the NYT in readability, depending on readership and locale, and even within a newspaper there are various levels of readability. Good news for readers of the sports section: sports journalists tend to write at a higher level than the rest of the paper, pushing adjectives, similes and metaphors onto sports fans with greater frequency than an SAT prep course.

Walter Cronkite once wrote an article titled "How to Read a Newspaper." Some of the statistical information is a bit dated (I think fewer than 65% of the population gets their news from TV anymore), and many people under the age of 25 might never have even heard of the man who was once considered "the most trusted man in America", but the strategies for approaching a paper are solid even for the most dubious of news sources.

I'd also like to suggest a couple book titles that I think are essential not only to understanding the news in all its formats but in understanding the power of how media and the written word can be manipulated. The first is a handy little tome that's been in print for over 50 years now called How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff. In it's breezy 80 or so pages it covers some of the ways information can be misused, including how simple charts can be manipulated to create certain effects (i.e. most infographics in USA Today) and how certain words can imply meaning that isn't necessarily or completely truthful. This book, along with it's equally slender partner The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (and perhaps the US Constitution) should be required materials in every high school backpack.

John Allen Paulos' A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper would be another highly recommended title for anyone who actually wants to understand the news. Middle grade and YA readers are consuming information all the time but understanding -- even questioning the quality of that information -- is given little attention. This book reaches into news stories and pulls out their numerical "facts" and plays around with them so show that how a number is stated often misleads or misrepresents the statistical information involved. it is nowhere near as dry as I'm making it sound here.


In 7th grade my social studies teacher (ah, Mr. Grove) suggested we not limit ourselves to local newspapers and that we expand our horizons to include reading one of the prominent newsweeklies, either Time or Newsweek. It was very deliberate on my part when I caught my mother in a distracted moment and told her I need $12 for some school supplies and, oh, could you make it a check and leave it blank so I could fill it in? Four to six weeks later my mom met me at the door when I came home from school holding my first issue of Time magazine aloft, demanding to know when I subscribed. I explained it was for school and she scowled; I assumed it was because I hadn't been fully honest though I later suspected it was because Time was considered the more conservative party line newsweekly and my mom was decidedly more liberal.

I read Time magazine cover to cover. If I had read any of my class textbooks as religiously as I read that magazine I might have actually earned some good grades. I can barely remember what the heck the Treaty of Ghent was but I vividly remember to this day the special edition concerning CIA-taught torture methods used in Central America (this was in the late 1970's, which shows that torturing political prisoners abroad isn't a recent phenomenon). I even remember the specific names of some of the torture techniques, so vividly were they drawn and planted into my head.

Just a thought: What if, instead of textbooks, we published weekly magazines for students that contained materials and lessons for all their classes? They could keep the magazines and build a collection -- use their art class to build storage boxes and teach them how to bind volumes -- and have a growing library of all their studies! Naturally they would have to hold the same quality of commercially produced magazines, but the content could be solid and being produced on a weekly basis would allow for current (and relevant) events to be placed contextually alongside one another. Or is that just too radical an idea, to make educational materials fun, relevant and interesting?

By the time I hit high school I had switched to Newsweek and mailed in a "bill me later" subscription postcard for Rolling Stone magazine. I paid for RS with money from my first job and am proud to say I was a subscriber back in the 70's when it not only covered music but politics and popular culture and had staffers like Cameron Crowe, Hunter S. Thompson, Joe Klein, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, P.J. O'Roarke, among others. As I got older, RS seemed less hip and I ventured into Spin (for culture more than music, the first magazine that featured a monthly column on AIDS while the Reagan Administration denied its existence) and even later Options (for music that was way off the charts).

I sorta miss what those magazines did, and did for me, over the years and I don't know that there's anything really picking up that slack today -- maybe Mojo for the hardcore music purists out there. Most of what kids seem attracted to in magazines today is what they have been told to like, the crassly created advertisement delivery devices we recognize as Teen Vogue (or anything with the word Teen in the title), FHM (the triumphant return of misogyny), and, yes, Rolling Stone which has lost so much of its original backbone that it doesn't even rate as a cartilaginous fish much less the political shark it once was. It isn't that there aren't good magazines out there, it's just that the bad ones have got their alluring tentacles down to a science.

For the young set, yes, go to the library and check out Cricket and Cobblestone and all their relatives , and for the slightly older kids I'd say purchase a subscription to a newsweekly and a topic-specific magazine of their interest (Communication Arts, Sports Illustrated, Found, Premiere, ReadyMade...) in their name. Even if they end up reading them out of boredom at least they're reading, right?


The Bat Boy. The Alien that predicts presidents. Elvis sightings. These and many other fine pieces of American journalism have all appeared in The Weekly World News the "mock tabloid" creation of those geniuses behind The National Enquirer. This gem appears in supermarkets all over the country and as much as I hate to admit it I don't think there's a humorous periodical that's been able to touch this since the collapse of Spy magazine.

It's hard to imagine a more perfect publication: it appeals to those who believe it's every fiction and to those who "get" the joke and feel all the more superior for it. I have seen the WWN's rival, The Sun, and there's just no comparison. And what else can you buy that provides this much entertainment for a buck. You practically can't get a candy bar these days for a dollar.

But is it quality reading? About ten years ago I read an article about how journalism graduates were having a tough time finding jobs because newsrooms were downsizing and papers were consolidating and one of the best paying jobs were at the tabloids. So, despite their lowbrow sensibilities, you've got Berkeley and Columbia and Northwestern grads pretending to be redneck Americans complaining about liberals and creating detailed histories of the appearance of Jesus on foodstuffs. It might all be crap but it's well-written crap. Bring one home every once in a while and see if it doesn't replace a night of television.


I'm sure they're still out there but not like they used to be. To some extent, you're reading one. These days what many people put on the Internet in the form of web sites and blogs is exactly the sort of things one finds in zines. Opinions, how-to articles, factoids, more opinions, computer generated designs or cut-n-paste masterpieces, whether fan- or hobby-based or thematically connected, the zine was a first step toward the democratization of the individual voice that is now the given hallmark of the Internet. DIY (do it yourself) was the mantra, born out of the punk movement, and is as alive today as the nearest photocopy store.

Instead of suggesting readers go in search of zines, I'm saying they should get out there and produce a zine of their own! Why? Because it's fun, because it involves writing (which requires reading), because it is an activity that staves off summer boredom, because in a rule-filled world it offers an escape from rules and expectations. Did I mention fun?

I mean it. I've created a few zines in my day and despite never turning legit and running a media empire I did manage to get my zine picked up for distribution and actually sold a few copies to strangers in places as exotic as Singapore and Portland, Oregon. It was always a financial loss but I never did it for the money.

Having gone to art school I learned quite a bit in a formal setting about layout and design, printing and binding processes so I didn't need much in the way of instruction. But in this post-print age kids might need some visual inspiration and instruction and for that -- yes, you guessed it -- I have a couple books to recommend. Whatcha Mean, What's a Zine? The Art of Making Zines and Mini-Comics by Mark Todd and Esther Pearl Watson is a great sloppy mess of an instruction manual for the serious and casual zinester alike. It covers the full range of topics, from what to write about, how to lay it out, printing types and styles, even resources for conventions and libraries that collect and display zines. This book can be read in a day and used as a spring board to produce several issues of a zine throughout a single summer; everything in this book took me years, and a lot of trial and error, to learn on my own.

For more of a read about a zine, with a bit of how-to thrown in, try Zine: How I Spent Six Years of My Life in the Underground and Finally...Found Myself...I Think by Pagan Kennedy. Kennedy reprints the eight issues of her zine and gives explanations and historical background for her personal zine, which brings up another great point about zines. Many zines out there were personal narratives, observations through the individual eye on a particular subject or interest. Even if the zines were little more than expanded diary entries or summaries of what happened at different music club shows the zine somehow managed to elevate the personal life into something slightly more meaningful.

I would totally be remiss if I failed to mention Francesca Lia Block and Hilary Charlip's book Zine Scene: The Do It Yourself Guide to Zines. In addition to being co-penned by the slinkster-cool Ms. Block this book has a very grrl power feel to it, but a totally suburban-acceptable grrl power. A gay friendly, totally suburban, grrl power vibe. Like zines, books about them take on their own personalities and choosing the right book makes all the difference. Boys will probably want the Whatcha Mean... title while girls would do well with any two of the above. There's also plenty of zine info on the Internet, of all places.

I'm not trying to suggest that zines have the power to act as a form of therapy, morale boost or increase a zinester's sense of self-worth... although they can. As the saying has been hacked to death, the journey is the destination, and a zinester's journey no less so. With a little financial backing (and the promise not to meddle) plenty of bored summer readers could become, overnight, content providers for their friends in need of some good summer reading, if not future media moguls.

Let a thousand zines bloom!

* * * * *

I'm pooped. A little over six weeks ago I conceived this idea of suggesting alternatives to summer reading and, as with most of my projects, bit off way more than I could chew. To meet my own expectations I probably should have started six months ago, but that's not when I originally conceived the idea.

After each of the five posts in this series I usually had a couple other ideas that I realized could have fit, a couple more titles, some better worded suggestions. That's just the nature of the beast, isn't it? I joked with myself that I should probably start collecting these leftover ideas for another installment about summer reading next year.

Next year. A year ago I hadn't even started blogging about kidlit, I couldn't have conceived where I would be this year. Perhaps by this time next year I will have an entirely different approach to summer reading to share. Perhaps not. We'll see.

Thanks to those of you who have checked in, both in the comments and those who have lurked in silence. If this has been a help to you or a reader in your life, if you found any of these ideas successful (especially if you have any success stories) I would love to hear about them. I am also considering some back-to-school ideas for a post at the end of the summer, taking suggestions for essential reading that might be a bit off the beaten path. Feel free to drop me a line at delzey (at) gmail (dot) com.

Thursday, June 7

Redefining the Classics

Children's bookstore. A woman enters carrying her dog, four year old son in tow. All are wearing designer clothes. The sales associate greets them.

"Do you have any classic Peter Pan?" The woman asks.

The woman follows the sales associate but pauses as they reach the books in a spinner rack. The associate continues on toward the Classics section. She looks at the several editions available, some complete and some abridged with glossy pages and nicely illustrated.

"Oh," she says flatly, "Nothing a four year old can read on his own?"

The sales associate apologizes for the misunderstanding. The woman backtracks to the spinner rack and holds up The Berenstain Bears and the Green-Eyed Monster. "Something classic, like this," she says.

The sales associate suggest that perhaps Disney has an adaptation in that format, but it isn't carried in the store.

"Well, how's a four year old boy supposed to learn about Peter Pan?" she whines.

"I know parents that have read the story to their children," the sales associate says.

"Really," says the woman, leaving the store thirty degrees colder than when she entered it.

Little Louie Takes Off

written and illustrated by Toby Morrison
Walker Books 2007

Little Louie is a bird who hasn't yet learned to fly, though not for lack of trying. It isn't that flight scares him, he just hasn't got the knack of it. And he loves to sit and watch all the planes fly around in the sky. When it comes time for his family to migrate poor Louie still hasn't learned how to fly and he is forced to take a plane and meet up with his family later.

But taking the plane means Louie arrives before the rest of his flock and for those few days he's on his own and lonely. One day while waiting his ticket for his return flight blows off the roof of the building where he is staying. Panicked, he jumps after it, suddenly realizing that he can fly. The ticket lands in the enclosure of a penguin who Louie quickly befriends.

Louie meets up with his family who are happy to see him, and that he's learned to fly. When it comes time to return home Louie passes his return ticket on to his new friend so that she may finally know what it means to fly.

Everything old is new again, and this time it's a very 1950's feeling book. It isn't only the Continental blues and pastel reds and sleek streamline moderne lines of Morrison's illustrations but in the story, the easy-leisure pace of the story that doesn't feel forced or obvious. Where other books I've seen have tried to capture the feel of the mid-century picture book I had to keep checking to make sure I wasn't looking at a reprint with this one. If I were giving awards for Most Retro-Looking Picture Book (seeing as everyone has an award these days, why not create yet another?) I'd have to say it would be a tie between this and Cherry the Pig.

I'm really crossing my fingers and hoping this is a trend -- and a trend picked up by talented artists and writers and not a trend picked up and hammered into submission by publishers or arrogant graphic designers who don't understand story -- because I think there is a lot to be said for the old storytelling ways, the old picture books, which makes them classic and evergreen. I am seeing dozens of new picture books and so few that seem able to rise about their self-conscious gooey-ness, their animal cuteness or smarmy graphic superiority. Modern stories can be told, and new graphic approaches are welcome, but so much out there feels tired right out of the box, so many dead trees in hardbound limbo waiting for the grim pulper. Really, is it any wonder picture book sales are soft when there are so many flaccid offerings?

But not this one, no sir, no ma'am.

Wednesday, June 6

Heat Wave

by Eileen Spinelli
illustrated by Betsy Lewin
Harcourt 2007

Lumberville is headed for a heat wave. Small changes are made to accommodate the small town's citizens -- the Sunday sermon is shortened, the movie theatre (before the days of air conditioning) is closed. But day by day as the heat wave lingers the people of the town cope as best they can. Kids sell lemonade but eventually resort to selling ice. Fanning oneself gives way to multiple showers a day. Men and women strip down to the barest of clothing and take refuge in the shade. Beards are shorn. By week's end people are sleeping outside, on fire escapes and rooftops and eventually many in the town congregate at the river to sleep in the cool coming off the water.

And just before the heat wave breaks they all share the same dream while they sleep: they dream of cool rain. And just as abruptly as a heat wave, the book is over.

In both text and image the story recalls a by-gone era of small town life. There is a quaint nostalgia in a time before the modern comforts of the climate-controlled malls, for communities that would still rally around their commonalities even in discomfort. Subtle details in the illustrations speak to the early part of the 20th century -- a wood stove in the basement, two spinster sisters keeping their perfume in an ice box, an old dome-shaped parlor radio -- but many others (squirting each other with hoses, sleeping in hammocks) remain contemporary.

Lewin's breezy watercolors with their lose sumi ink outlines capture the wilted, wavy quality of the heat where her warm palate (and occasionally relief from cool blue highlights) sets Lumberville glowing in the heat. That's a flowery way to say that the pictures capture the loose, slightly uncomfortable feel of the heat wave while at the same time remain fluid and fresh.

No one asked me, but were I editing this book I think I would have ended with a wordless coda showing the townsfolk of Lumberville about their business in cooler times, just a simple city scene in cooler tones of color (I was starved for green!) to offset the heat wave and give a glimpse into what things looked like when they weren't so hot. It can be a tricky proposition to know when to end a story, or to even suggest when a story needs more information. I don't think the book is flawed as it stand, I would have enjoyed a bit of balance, a breather after all those pages of heat (and a dabble of cool) to feel refreshed.