Saturday, July 28

On Holiday

And a proper one at that. Call it a belated honeymoon (when did we get married?), a little adult time, or a celebration of someone taking (and passing we trust!) the Bar Exam, my sweetie and I are headed off on a major two-city tour of Europe.

Which means that I'll be dark here until sometime around August 12th. I'm hoping to just chill for a couple weeks and come back refreshed and ready to hunker down with some writing. I'm also hoping to come back with one or two discoveries of my own. Okay, maybe a picture book or two, and the Dutch equivalent of Dick and Jane.

And speaking of Jane, I hope to finally get to my review of The Plain Janes when I'm back home. Short version: I think I like it. But there's another book in queue I most decidedly did not like and I just can't decide whether it's worth the time to even think about. Maybe something by Garth Nix? We'll see.

Catch up with y'all in the dog days!

Friday, July 27

Poetry Friday: There's a little ambiguity over there among the bluebells

and other theater poems
by Ruth Krauss
Something Else Press 1968

First you put an image in your head of Ruth Krauss, author of children's classics The Carrot Seed and Open House for Butterflies. Now you paint a picture in your mind of the late 1960's with hippies performing experimental theatre. Superimpose those two images and you get this odd collection of poetic playlets.

Clearly some of these are merely poems that play with the mind's abilities to imagine their execution on the stage but if the jacket copy is to be believed some of them were actually performed. Some of the work in this collection eventually made it out in other "mainstream" collections but I treasure stumbling on this for-a-quarter-at-a-library-sale score (library sales are made of awesome!) and it's always good for a quick cheering-up, especially when I didn't realize I needed cheering up.

There's a little ambiguity over there
among the bluebells

What a poet wants is a lake in the middle
of his sentence
(a lake appears)

yes and a valid pumpkin
(a pumpkin appears)

and you should slice up language like a
meatcutter abba dabba dabba dabba yack
(sliced up language appears)

It's fine we have inhibitions
otherwise we'd all be dead
(all drop dead)

or flat on our backs
(all roll over onto backs)

yes and everyone on rollerskates in bed
(everyone on rollerskates in bed appears)

and a delayed verb

and an old upright piano
(an old upright piano appears)

(all bow together to the audience and then to each other)

goes to the piano and begins to play
(everyone dances)

It's funny what context can do. With only the slightest of changes and a few more "acts" this could easily play out as a picture book text, or as-is in one of her collections of smaller poetic musings with tiny spot illustrations by Sendak. But on a stage in front of adults, well, things look a little different. What makes a pumpkin valid, and is it a real piano that appears or an actor representing a piano? Conceptual theatre indeed.

Bonus time!

I'm including another poem from the collection that speaks directly to the combination of children's literature and theatre.

Winnie-The-Pooh and William Shakespeare

Winnie: How sweet to be a cloud

WS: when daisies pied and violets

Winnie: floating in the blue

WS: and lady-smocks all silver-white
and cuckoo-buds of yellow hue

Winnie: Iniquum fatum fatu

WS: Cuckoo cuckoo cuckoo

Winnie: every little cloud
always sings aloud
it makes him very proud

WS: on every tree for thus sings he

Winnie: Winnie Ille Pu
Winnie Ille Pu

Together: Ecce Pu Ecce Pu
it makes him very proud
cuckoo cuckoo cuckoo
to paint the meadows with delight
to be a little cloud
Ah, the Bear and the Bard.

Thursday, July 26


by Alice Hoffman
Scholastic 2002

Boy, was I in some sort of mood when I wrote the following incoherent mess:

Simplistic and predictable, it reads more like an outline for a larger, deeper, more satisfying book. While it's a quick and easy read it isn't really enough to make a mediocre TV movie out of. Too bad. You wait for it to get good and it speeds right to the end.

Hm. I wonder how I really felt about it.

I can't for the life of me remember why it was I picked this up because I'd long been disappointed in Hoffman's books before this was published. Another in her books that deals with water and mermaids, I'm wondering if she has some inner aqua demon she's exorcising or if she's trying to corner a particular market.

One thing I've noticed is that she seems to have always been writing the same sort of fiction all along, only now that there's a "legitimate" place for a certain school of YA and middle grade fiction Hoffman seems to have found an appropriate home. Her adult books have always felt to me like the kind of thing brooding teenage girls would read (and wish they'd written).

So what's it about? As "I'm coasting this week" continues we find me looking back into my reading log and writing this illuminating summary:

Oak Grove is a town afraid of water following a bad flood years ago. Martha dreams of escaping this sterile town to visit the world cities her mother once danced in. Her best friends are orphaned foundlings who dream of the sea, brothers whose mother was a mermaid, their father a fisherman. When the trio decides to run away to the ocean fate, and flooding, bring all truths to light.

Truths. Such as they are, given that there is mermaid sex involved and boys with feet like salamanders. Further details of the story are fuzzy other then the fact that adult characters were thinly drawn and the fear of water in the town was ludicrously played. I'm pretty sure this was the book that made me wonder if a girl (let's face it, no boy would touch this) who had the patience to finish this wouldn't feel insulted.

This warmly human and unconventionally magical tale celebrates the power of finding your true identity.

That's from the Scholastic website. Yeah, I don't think anyone's finding any identity here, much less their true identity.

Wednesday, July 25

The Dream Stealer

by Gregory Maguire
Clarion 1983, Reissued by Houghton Mifflin 2002

A demon called the Blood Wolf will kill all in a small Russian town in order to gain access to a magic doll with powers to defeat the animal. Two small children see a vision of the Firebird and hunt down the Baba Yaga in order to learn the meaning of the omen. An old tale of a beautiul woman, a motherless girl and the collective dreams of a town that build toward a showdown in the Russian countryside.

That's what I thought a few years ago when I wrote it but today I think something totally different:

What a crappy plot summary!

Yes, continuing my "week of coasting on old material" I've dredged up another from an old reading log I kept. This book, however, is much better than my initial summary and in a lot of ways my favorite Maguire book.

Long before he made a name as the king of fairy tale retellings Maguire took on three different classic Russian folktales -- Vasillisa the Beautiful, the Firebird and miscellaneous tales of the noted witch Baba Yaga -- and wove them into a very compact (140 pages) and well-told tale. (If I'm wrong call me out, but I don't know of anyplace else where these tales are all interwoven like this.) I remember the shock of starting this book, expecting it to be light and fluffy, suddenly compelled by the power of the book's voice to sit right where I was standing and read the book without stopping. I can get sucked into a book like most people but I have never before been so instantaneously and summarily been zombified by a book.

The night is dark, and the wind is high and strong and smells of snow: so gather close around the fire, my little friends, and I will tell you a tale of Baba Yaga the witch.

So it begins, and like a yarn told in the quiet of the night by a fire and entire world opens up, a world that exists in folktales that may never have existed anyplace on Earth at any time. It's a tale that taps directly into the vein of historical storytelling, echoing backwards and forwards in time in ways are rooted deep in the sub-conscious. These places, these people, this interconnection between humans and animals, between what is real and what is magical, all dredged from some part of our reptile brains like an inherited collective memory. I'd like to make the claim right now that the oldest profession is, in fact, storytelling and we have the cave paintings to prove it. The need to procreate is a survival mechanism as a species, but it's the need to create stories that feeds our souls and keeps us going.

Yesterday I referred to Daniel Pinkwater as a Zen master; today I'm calling Gregory Maguire a shaman. I am sincere on both counts, without an ounce of hyperbole, and I hope that doesn't discredit me in the process.

There are two things I do not understand concerning The Dream Stealer and they have nothing to do with the story itself. First, I do not understand why this book has never been issued in paperback. Hardcover retellings of classic Russian folktales, they don't fly off the shelves because they ask a lot of a reader (or a reader's money source); mainly they make experimenting with the book a costly proposition. Release this book in paperback, cut the price in half, and you're giving your potential market an opportunity to make a better fiscal risk. I hate to put it in those terms but if publishers are afraid to reissue titles for fear of making back their costs then I don't see why the thinking can't go the other way. Why does the hardcover need to be the proving ground? Go the other way, take the chance on the paperback, I say.

Second, why can I find no one else whose heard of this book? Everyone knows Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and even Maguire's other books for middle graders, The Hamlet Chronicles but no one seems to know about this book. Am I the only cracked person on the planet that thinks it's any good, and is everyone else just too polite to tell me? Is there some conspiracy involved, or some curse surrounding the Baba Yaga that rings bad luck upon you like saying Macbeth in a theatre?

What is it?

Tuesday, July 24

Fat Men From Space

by Daniel Pinkwater
Dodd Mead 1977; Yearling Revised edition 1980

On the perpetual eve of my pending holiday abroad I find myself a little too distracted to maintain my blogging duties. To be honest, I tend to spaz out a bit before trips which, my wife can attest, makes me a bit of a pain.

But amid my chaos an old reading journal has come to the rescue! A re-purposed page-a-day diary served as my notebook of choice for recording my kidlit reading a few years back, inaugurated with this title which was a re-read from fifteen years earlier. What follows is my original "review" to myself from 2002.

A boy's newly installed tooth filling is a radio that can pick up the frequency of alien spaceships poised to attack the Earth. The fat men from space have come to eat all the Earth's fattening junk food and intend to enslave Earthlings to constantly feed them. Held captive aboard the alien's "spaceburger" the boy is only a witness, but all ends well as the alien's attention is diverted to a giant potato pancake in space, leaving Earth with nothing but healthy food to eat and the warning that junk food will attract sinister aliens.

Funny, reading that now, how much I seemed to be aware of summarizing for an audience and not so much writing openly about what I think. Sure, there's the note at the bottom that read "badly, charmingly illustrated by the author" but where's the surliness, where are my teeth?

Ah, but that's just it you see. I can't bite this book because it was Fat Men From Space that brought my adult self back to children's books. This book cracked open a door (that was later blown wide by Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat) that brought me to where I am today. Sort of. It's a long story and not worth delving into right now. The point is that in a way it was my first kid-book-as-an-adult and you always remember your firsts with a certain nostalgic glow. even in the rereading I don't remember feeling any less enchanted.

Naturally I stalked the wild Pinkwater after this and discovered what may turn out to be a Rosetta Stone for setting my gears to grind, which was Young Adult Novel. Pinkwater the writer (as opposed to Pinkwater the dog breeder or Pinkwater the NPR commentator) has a very sly way of dishing up simple morality plays with a healthy mix of Zen and Dada-ist art influences. I do not believe for a moment that this combination is glibly applied because when you look at the careful way he turns his stories onto their sides you can see the ribbons of oft-told stories of outsiders and conformity that he's woven into a whole new cloth. He's not a genius, he's a Zen master. If you are open to it he'll whack upside the back of your head, but even if you are closed to the lessons in his temple you can still enjoy them for what they appear to be on the surface: silly stories with strange characters and unusual lessons.

Sunday, July 22

No Talking

by Andrew Clements
Simon and Schuster 2007

It's boys versus girls in a 48 hour dare to see who can talk the least.

The agreement is made during lunch when Dave, who had gone the entire morning without speaking as an experiment, reaches his boiling point when Lynsey blathers on and on about a sweater at the mall. "Don't you ever shut up," he effectively says, prompting the inevitable argument over which gender talks the most. Finally Dave throws down the gauntlet, betting the girls that they couldn't go two whole days without talking. One handshake later the contest is on.

The rules are simple: beginning at lunch the next day, and for the following 48 hours, the fifth graders at Laketon Elementary will not talk. An exception is made for school where they are permitted only to answer a direct question from the school faculty and staff and they can only answer in three-word sentences. Additional words uttered beyond the first three are marked down as demerits, the side with the least being the winner. And since the contest extends outside of school this includes the school bus and home. Overnight infractions incurred out of earshot of other students are reported on the honor system to their respective captains Dave and Lynsey the following day.

Early on there are a couple of accidental outbursts from students who clearly were acting in the moment but quickly the students adapt and adjust. In the classroom the teachers are a little confused by their student's inability to express themselves in anything other than broken or fragment sentences, and they are even more baffled to find the halls absolutely silent during the passing period. While one teachers is frustrated that the kids seem to be playing a game with her another finds the exercise perfect fodder for his masters thesis in the way communication, language and education fit together. The science teacher intercepts a note between students that explains the situation and after considering informing the other faculty decides instead to let them figure it out on their own.

After a de facto faculty meeting to discuss the situation the principal elects to hold an assembly the next day and inform the students that the game or contest or whatever has officially ended, citing the disruption in school. And it appears that the students are going along with her decision but in the end they are determined not to let it go. The inevitable showdown occurs in the lunchroom when the principal figures out Danny is the ringleader, best to use in her divide-and-conquer attack. When pushed to defend himself he exceeds his three word limit by looking at his fellow students and shouting defiantly You have the right to remain silent! Stunned, the principal returns to her office to rethink both her position and her strategy.

Do I have to tell you how it ends? Do you think one side wins over the other? Even if you can guess the inevitable outcome readers will enjoy seeing how it all plays out, though I'm not convinced the target audience will buy the sudden solidarity among the boys and girls that comes as a result.

Clements gets off to a rough start in the book, using a couple of chapters with shifting time lines to hook readers. I found it a bit confusing and finally gave up trying to figure out what events took place when hoping for the best. A few chapters in it chugs along and holds pretty true to a straight narrative. I know I kept thinking "C'mon, let's get the story rolling" and wondered if less sturdy readers would get as confused and give up before getting to what is an otherwise fun little ride.

Can I also say a little Hooray! for a cover that doesn't follow in the style of the Clements' covers previously illustrated by Brian Sleznick? You know, the kid holding something at arms' distance partially covering their face? Yeah, gone. It makes it hard for kids to recognize a Clements book on site -- Ooo, look! Another book by that Frindle guy! -- but at the same time it opens up the book to readers who might have shied away from those other titles because they'd feel like they were a series and had to start from the beginning. That's one of those questions of brand, where you want readers to recognize a book on sight but you have to be careful you aren't making them look too serial.

That's all I got on this one. It's got humor, Gandhi, a battle of the sexes, and adults making asses of themselves. What more could a kid want in a light read?

Saturday, July 21

I'm a Pill Bug

by Yukihisa Tokuda
illustrated by Kiyoshi Takahashi
Kane/Miller paperback 2006
originally published by Fukuinkan Shoten Publishers, Japan 2003

Do you know why the pill bug lives near humans?
Do you know how a pill bug deals with an ant? What about a frog?
True or false: a pill bug eats concrete.
True or false: a pill bug eats its shell once it's shed.
True or false: a pill bug sheds half it's body at a time, each half on a different day.
Did you know pill bug poop was square?

The book opens with the pill bug speaking to us. Hello! Do you know what this is? Do you know who I am? And from there it's a quick study into the life and habits of your average pill bug. Using simple torn paper collage and the occasional drawn line the book takes on a quiet, unassuming portrait of an insect never before (as far as I know) given a starring role.

We used to call these things roly-poly bugs, but I heard pill bug just as often and until this book I never really understood what their purpose was. They are recyclers, eating dead and decaying organic matter. They also apparently eat concrete for its various minerals and, like the crab and shrimp to which they are related, can swim for a bit if necessary.

It is one of those strange truths that occasionally you can learn more from a single read through simple children's picture book than a week's worth of science lessons. I don't mean to suggest that everything that can be taught should be reduced to clear picture book format lessons, but books like this would certainly do more for retention that most dry textbooks. The Kane/Miller website is slight when it comes to the book's background, offering that the illustrator "Kiyoshi Takahasi was working as an oil painter when he began to create picture books about insects and plants with the detailed and real life drawings for which he is widely known."

I can't fully explain this book's charms beyond noting that it's just a neat little book all around. Can I hope there are more quaint books like this in the future?

Monday, July 16

Houdini: The Handcuff King

by Jason Lutes
illustrated by Nick Bertozzi
with an introduction by Glen David Gold
The Center for Cartoon Studies 2007

Right. This is how it's done.

The life of Harry Houdini is great material for young readers, for all readers, and the perfect subject for a graphic novel. On the surface this may seem an obvious choice but with Houdini: The Handcuff King we have a single event in the early life of Harry Houdini -- a single stunt, a handcuffed jump into the Charles River on May 1st, 1908. The act itself isn't one of his most stunning feats but the presentation of this event allows readers to get a well-rounded glimpse of the man and a bit of a peek into how intricately Houdini planned and controlled his illusions.

Up before dawn, Houdini inspects the handcuffs to be used later in the day, selecting the perfect pick from his array of tools for opening it. When his wife Bess comes in they practice the still-unproven pass-off kiss which was considered crucial for Houdini's escapes. In a nicely understated way it provides one of several pieces of foreshadowing that help build a quiet drama. Leading up to the event we also get to see much of the behind-the-scenes action of Houdini's confederates, the people in charge of his security, publicity and secrecy. Indeed, lake all good magicians whose job it is to divert your attention away from the trick within the magic, Houdini's people were there to assure all the elements were in place to assure the deception was complete and visually miraculous.

There are other bits of information incorporated into the story to fill out Houdini's character and the give background to the times. This background, which includes some anti-Semitism (Houdini, nee Ehrich Weiss, was Jewish) and the lengths to which Houdini had to calculate protecting his secrets with body guards, may not have all taken place in this one day but best exemplifies what can be done with a "true" story in good hands. Naturally, this can only be accomplished if one is presenting a slice of a character's life where the telescoping of time and place are necessary for various dramatic reasons.

I'm thinking back now to a book I reviewed recently about Louis Cyr, the strongman, told in graphic format and realizing through comparison what I found lacking. In telling Cyr's entire life I was left with the overwhelming sense of eh. I don't know that I feel like there needs to be a Rosebud moment where a person's life needs to add up to something that can be encapsulated in a single image, but there are moments in an individual life that can stand in for the whole or at least give a reader a sense of knowing something about the person they didn't know before. Whatever I thought I knew about Houdini before, I wasn't aware of his entourage or the way that Houdini used publicity and spin to create buzz about his events; I knew even less about Louis Cyr going into his story and afterward I felt I knew even less.

Beyond the graphic novel, this book begins with an introduction by Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil and a professed magic aficionado. In the introduction we are given a brief but fairly detailed summary of Houdini's life, work and times. The book concludes with some analysis of particular panels within the story, giving background and back story to things like Bess' on- and off-stage life with Houdini and advertising in Houdini's time. There is also a bibliography and a single page explaining the process of producing a graphic novel.

I hope this initial offering from The Center for Cartoon Studies is a promise of more things to come.

Sunday, July 15

The Giant of Seville

A "Tall" Tale Based on a True Story
by Jan Andreasen
Abrams 2007

Playing off the size of the subject at hand, this book isn't so much a tall tale as much as it's a tale about a tall gentleman named Captain Martin Van Buren Bates.

Captain Bates has arrived in Seville, Ohio hoping he has found a suitable place to start up a home. The Captain's concerns center around his (and his wife's) eight-foot frame. Captain Bates has arrived by train with his legs stretched across the aisle over both sets of seats, his torso hanging out the window to accommodate him. He makes his way to a rooming house in town and inquires about a room for the night. When he sleeps in a normal bed his legs from the knee down hang out the window, warmed at night by the fire set and stoked by the boarding-house owner. In the morning he eats an army's worth of flapjacks. He joins everyone at a dance that night and while he's mindful of bumping his head on low ceilings he manages to break through the floor and climb out the basement embarrassed.

In the end Captain Bates decides it's time to move on, that he and his wife could never settle in Seville, but the townfolk have a surprise for him. They have begun the framework on a proportionally sized home for the Captain and his wife. And that was how Captain Bates became the giant of Seville.

When it comes to tall tales we make allowances for exaggeration because that's a large part of what American Tall Tale folklore is about. Pecos Bill lived with coyotes and used rattlesnakes for ropes and rode tornadoes the way other cowboys rode broncos. Paul Bunyan clear-cut the Dakotas and dug the Erie Canal with the handle of his axe (and with the help of a giant blue Ox named Babe). And where folk heroes were based on real people -- Mike Fink or Davey Crockett -- their real exploits were often exaggerated, retold, or taken out of context in ways that made them sound more interesting than they might have been if truth had been strictly adhered to.

I'm mentioning all this because there really was a Captain Martin Van Buren Bates who was nearly eight feet tall and was married to a woman just slightly taller than himself. Given that this story is based on a real individual would put its telling in semi-fictitious camp, asking us to forgive certain exaggerations in favor of telling a tale based on truth. But the only truth in this story is the fact of the man himself and his setting up home in Seville upon retiring from the circus; Everything else is pure fancy, and most of it a little baffling to me.

A railroad car might not be the most spacious of accommodations for an eight foot tall man, but he wouldn't be able to stretch his legs across the aisle and hang his upper body out the window. Nor would he dwarf the folks of Seville so much that they all appear half his height -- that is to say nearly four feet at the tallest. And assuming even a short bed at five feet long the Captain's legs might have been able to rest on the window sill (as they do in the first shown illustration) and not bend at the knee outside the same window (when you flip the page).

Yes, I am being picky about this because the exaggeration, and the inconsistency of the exaggeration, undercuts the telling of the story almost as much as the factual detail included at the end of the book undercuts what we have read up to that point. Davey Crockett fought at the Alamo and was a US Representative but he also allegedly killed him a bear when he was only three years old. Killing the bear wasn't the important part of the legend, it was doing it at a young age. Being tall doesn't make one a folk legend, it's what you do with it, and it requires more than sleeping with your seven foot long legs hanging out a window or falling through the floor. The Captain was a tall man and he fought in the Civil War and worked with the circus but none of that comes out in the story, and you can't just hang a tall tall on a tall person and expect that to be the whole story.

Ultimately this is a dull little story that attempts to make a real person legendary without really giving the reader anything to feel awestruck about. Honestly, the man may have weighed as much as two hefty men, but are we supposed to find heroic his eating enough pancakes to feed a town? Perhaps if that eating brought with it the strength and prowess of a John Henry...

Here's a new rule of thumb for future picture books: No more "based on a true story" books. Either tell the story of a real person or make up a story inspired by a true person or event -- without mentioning the source. No more of these hybrids or attempts to lend credibility and weight to flimsy storytelling.

Saturday, July 14

Ned's New Friend

By David Ezra Stein
Simon and Schuster 2007

I'm not going to pretend I wasn't disappointed, but you can only be disappointed if you have expectations. The problem is that I really liked Stein's first outing with Cowboy Ned and Andy and it was hard not to want more of the same.

This time around Cowboy Ned and his faithful horse Andy have hit the end of the dusty trail in Abilene. After a clean shirt for Ned and oiled hooves for Andy they are about to enjoy a couple of well-deserved root beer floats when...

SHE walks by.

Clementine. Oh. My. Darlin'.

One look at this creature of beauty and Ned is frozen, tripping off the boardwalk and tumbling into the streets of Abilene along with the root beer floats. She offers the fallen gent a hankie to clean up with and lets him know he can return it the next day at her place on the edge of town. Mr. Horse does not like, no sir, he does not. For one thing he's out a root beer float and for another thing that scented hankie wields some sort of power over Cowboy Ned that aims to lose him his best friend in the whole wild west. Andy knows it's serious when Ned actually takes a bath in preparation for returning the hankie the next day.

That night, after a dream of Cowboy Ned and Clementine drifting into the clouds in a balloon leaving him behind, Andy plots to dispose of the hankie Ned has placed for safekeeping under his pillow. But the perfume causes Andy to sneeze, sending the hankie out onto the street. A dimwit robber tries to use the hankie as a bandanna but the perfume tickles his nose as well and gets him caught. Eventually the hankie drifts into Clementine's rose bushes where it remains lodged for the night.

Cowboy Ned and Andy arrive at Clementine's the next day but Ned is despondent at having lost the lovely lady's hankie. Andy sees the hankie in the bushes and realizes that it's more important that his friend be happy so he retrieves it and all is well. At the door Clementine sees that Ned's brought his horse with him and she invites them both in for cookies.

And then all three of them are shown flying off in a balloon of bliss.

If you think I have a problem with Ned going soft at the sight of a twig-thin damsel you'd be part right. If you think I have problems with a jealous horse, well, no, I don't have a problem with that.

What really bothered me was that this book is visual, it lacks the previous books boldness of color. Compared with the open plains and nighttime skies, the town of Abilene is rendered in a sort of inky clutter that doesn't register well with the eye. The loose, practically dry brush effect from Stein's previous book here looks almost sloppy. The sitting room at Clementine's place has a wall paper pattern and carpet so busy, and at the same time so splotchy, that I wondered if had been created by the same author. From page to page each version of Cowboy Ned was different enough -- a little thin here, a bit rotund there, moustache too big or some weird caterpillar shape -- I had a problem with that for some reason. Not unlike the problem I had with Edwardo a while back.

If Babar or Curious George looked different from book to book and page to page would these books have been popular or still be the classics they are today? I'm not suggesting there's a connection between consistency of image and a books place in the pantheon of children's literature, but at some basic level don't readers want to be able to identify the characters on the page?

Am I being too cranky about this?

Friday, July 13

Poetry Friday: The Wussy Boy Manifesto

I should state up front that this poem uses some colorful language, in case you're a fan of such things. Or not.

In a previous life I worked at a radio station as the Director of Public Affairs programming. Basically I oversaw the non-music programming that fulfilled our FCC requirements and allowed us to maintain our license. That sounds much more important than it really was; my duties primarily consisted of making sure there were public service announcements for DJ's to read and chasing down show producers to make sure they were actually filling their allotted time.

Did I mention some salty language forthcoming?

Anyway, one of the things I was able to do was help my friend Rachael put some slam poetry on the air. During National Poetry Month we were able to present the slam live from a local bar over the airwaves. And when I say we it was mostly Rachael's doing; my role was mostly administrative, making sure different departments talked with one another, that sort of thing. Radio is a great medium for poetry , especially something as dramatic as a poetry slam, with hooting crowds of drunken locals and Olympic-style judging. If satellite and the Internet hadn't gutted radio's appeal from younger audiences my interest in radio might not have waned. Another topic, another day.

Explicit content imminent!

We were extremely fortunate our first night to have Big Poppa E at the slam. Eirik Ott presented, out of competition if I remember correctly, a poem that was making his name in the scene. Among those in the know, his presentation of The Wussy Boy Manifesto practically constituted a command performance, a greatest hit with the promise of more to come. Despite the language issues (did I mention those?) I can't help but wonder how many teenage boys would benefit from more poetry out there that spoke to them on this level.

Without further ado...


my name is big poppa e
and i am a wussy boy.

itʼs taken me a long time to admit it...

i remember shouting in high school,
“no, dad, iʼm not gay!
iʼm just... sensitive.
i tried to like hot rods and jet planes
and football and budweiser poster girls,
but i never got the hang of it!
i donʼt know whatʼs wrong with me...”

then, i saw him,
there on the silver screen,
bigger than life and unafraid
of earrings and hair dye
and rejoicing in the music
of the cure and morrissey and
siouxsie and the banshees,
talking loud and walking proud
my wussy boy icon:
duckie in pretty in pink.

and i realized i wasnʼt alone.

and i looked around
and saw other wussy boys
living large and proud of who they were:
ralph macchio, wussy boy;
matthew broderick, wussy boy;
and lord god king
of the wussy boy movement,
john cusack in say anything,
unafraid to prove to the world
that sensitive guys much kick ass.

now i am no longer ashamed
of my wussiness, hell no,
iʼm empowered by it.

when iʼm at a stoplight and
some testosterone redneck
jock fratboy asshole dumb fuck
pulls up beside me
blasting his trans amʼs stereo
with power chord anthems to big tits
and date rape,
i no longer avoid his eyesight, hell no,
i just crank all 12 watts of my car stereo
and i rock out right into his face:
(devil sign and morrisseyʼs voice)
“i am human and i need to be loved
just like everybody else does!”

i am wussy boy, hear me roar

bar fight? pshaw!
you think you can take me, huh?
just because i like poetry
better than sports illustrated?
well, allow me to caution you,
iʼm not the average every day
run-of-the-mill wussy boy you
beat up in high school, punk,
i am wuss core!
(flash “wc” gang sign)

donʼt make me get renaissance
on your ass because i will
write a poem about you,
a poem that tears your psyche
limb from limb,
that exposes your selfish insecurities,
that will wound you deeper
and more severely
than knives and chains and gats
and baseball bats
could ever hope to do...

you may see 65 inches of wussy boy
standing in front of you,
but my steel-toed soul is
ten foot tall and bullet proof!

bring the pain, punk,
beat the shit out of me,
show all the people in this bar
what a real man can do
to a shit-talking wussy boy like me

but youʼd better remember
my bruises will fade
my cuts will heal,
my scars will shrink and disappear,
but my poem
about the pitiful, small, helpless
cock-man oppressor you really are
will last

Now, perhaps you'll be wondering how we managed to get that on the air without the FCC getting Renaissance on our own butts. We knew up front that slam poets have a certain tendency to bring "challenging" language and subject matter with them, and we covered our asses as best we could by having them all sign agreements (reluctantly) underscoring they were not to use obscenities during the broadcast. There was a bit of grumbling about taking on the FCC but neither the poets nor our station could withstand the cost of a single fine, much less a legal fight. In the end, some poets censored themselves (or mouthed the words) while others ignored the agreement, leaving us praying some religious group wasn't planning (another) FCC drive to have our license removed for indecency so they could buy up our frequency and run religious programming wall-to-wall.

We ran the National Poetry Month Slam two years in a row without a single complaint that I am aware of.

Of course, a large part of slam poetry is performance. I'd have loved to drop the video in here for y'all to see but you're just going to have to hit Poppa E on his site and watch it there.

Wednesday, July 11

The Crows of Pearblossom

by Aldous Huxley
illustrated by Barbara Cooney
Random House 1967
Weekly Reader Children's Book Club edition

I have been meaning to write about this for a long time now and finally got the push when I was over at Bottom Shelf Books. The kick in the rear was this line in a review of The Flower by John Light: If Aldous Huxley and Edgar Allen Poe teamed up to create a children's book, this would be it.

What if it were Aldous Huxley and Barbara Cooney?

Mr. and Mrs. Crow of Pearblossom are the kind of characters you don't find in children's books; she's the housewife prone to badgering her husband and he's a chauvinist who insults his wife. No, really. Every day (except Sundays) she lays a new egg in her nest, and when she comes back from her shopping she is despondent to find the egg missing. One day she discovers old Mr. Snake who lives in the base of their cottonwood tree has been eating the eggs, and when Mr. Crow finds her crying he wonders if she hasn't been overeating again.

Oh, but it gets better. She suggests that he go down to the base of the tree and kill the snake to which he points out that isn't a good idea. She accuses him of being scared. He replies that he isn't scared, just that he doesn't think her idea was very good. "Your ideas are seldom good, I may add," and with that he's off to visit his friend Owl.

Owl hears the story and hatches a plan. They hop down to the alfalfa field and make a set of eggs out of the clay. After baking them at the top of the chimney they paint them to look like Mrs. Crow's eggs which they then place in the nest and go about their business. "Wait and see," says arrogant Mr. Owl when Mrs. Crow asks what they are for.

Mr. Snake arrives and -- nyum--nyum! -- two eggs to eat. Two eggs that sit in this stomach like the rocks they are, giving him bellyaches so profound that he ties himself in knots, literally. Finally, in his attempt to rid himself of his bellyaches Mr. Snake strangles himself across the branches of the cottonwood tree. Mrs. Crow arrives home, sees the dead snake, and proceeds to lecture his corpse on the wickedness of eating other people's children.

In the short epilogue Mrs. Crow has managed to hatch four families of seventeen children each and she uses the snake as a clothesline for the baby diapers, which is the books final illustration.

The end. Brave New World indeed!

There is a short note explaining that this was Huxley's only children's story and I think we can be grateful for that. He wrote it for his niece Olivia who "spent long periods of time with him and his wife Maria in their desert house" out on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Olivia was five years old when she received this Christmas "gift" from her uncle in 1941.

My copy, the Weekly Reader Children's Book Club edition, was one of a handful of books parceled out over the vacation as part of the club. I remember how there would be the newsprint weekly and then every few weeks a package would come in the mail with a new book from the club. The only other book I remember receiving was Harry the Dirty Dog but I know there were others.

Still, what a book! I know the story has stuck with me all these years because it's just so damn odd. It wasn't until much, much later that I understood the dynamics of the adult behavior in the book. Mrs. Crow's nagging and Mr. Crow's dismissive remarks would never get past an editorial intern today.

Or would it?

If Stephen King were to author a story like this for kids with adult characters who behaved this way would an editor chuckle and give it a green light, knowing they had Stephen King on board to guarantee sales despite the darkness and questionable behaviors?

Wait. Maybe I do want to see what Stephen King could do with a story like this.

Tuesday, July 10

How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin?

by Margaret McNamara
illustrated by G. Brian Karas
S&W / Random House 2007

This book screams out "teacher book" and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Charlie's the smallest boy in Mr. Tiffen's class. Whenever they line up tallest to smallest he's always at the end.

Today when they came to class Mr. Tiffen had three pumpkins on a table at the front of the room. He asked his students to guess how many seeds were in each pumpkin. The tallest boy thought there must be a million. The self-assured girl in the class flatly stated that the middle pumpkin had exactly 500 seeds in it. Other guesses were made and then finally Mr. Tiffen asked Charlie if he had any suggestions. "All the best guesses have already been taken," he says.

The only thing left to do is to open them up, separate the seeds from the pulp, and come up with a way to count them. The following day the class divides itself into counting groups. The group counting the large pumpkin is going to put them into sets of twos. The middle pumpkin group is grouping by fives. Charlie all alone is counting the small pumpkin's seeds by groups of tens. As expected, the twos group has the most groupings, followed by the fives and tens, but when actual tallies are made it turns out that the small pumpkin held the most seeds of them all.

Of course, Mr. Tiffen knew what he was doing. He knew that the more lines on a pumpkin the more seeds it contained because the seeds formed on the inside along those lines. He also knew that the darker a pumpkin's skin determined how long it was on the vine, and darker fruit had more time to develop seeds. In this exercise the largest pumpkin was the lightest in color and had the fewest rib lines.

And for once when they were lined up to go out they went smallest to largest, with Charlie at the lead.

This breezy book has the perfect feel for a fall school day. The colors of the art and tone of the text work together to bring a palpable sense of those early fall school days when lessons take the shape of play. It's also a lesson in knocking down the arrogant and self-assured kids a peg which I almost could have done without. Yes, kids will brag that they got the biggest pumpkin and learn that size doesn't matter, but in telling the tale it reinforces the idea that the bullies are always tall and that size is an issue to be combined with science and math lessons.

I guess I assumed that schools stopped making kids line up according to height, if they ever did. Whatever.

It's a minor point, none of the issues surrounding Charlie's size are addressed outright and the assumptions made or implied don't get in the way. I was more impressed to learn about how color and lines effects the amount of seeds contained in a pumpkin and I'm wondering if that translates to other things as well, like the edges on English cucumbers or the number of sides on a banana.

A pretty keen lesson-plan-in-a-book.

Monday, July 9


by Marc Rosenthal
HarperCollins 2007


There's an old adage that care should be taken when choosing a title that can instantly sum up someone's opinion.

Using the "nothing ever happens around here" idea we see a boy kick-the-can dejectedly through town while endless calamity takes place behind his back. At the very end something does happen that makes him change his mind. To be honest, the exercise it took to get there left me underwhelmed, to the point that I don't remember what happened and don't have the energy to go back and find out.

This kind of gag is old in the comics world, classic versions of which were presented in MAD magazine in the 1950's by artists like Harvey Kurtzman and Basil Wolverton. The unstructured layouts across the spreads in this book had me longing for the borders of a traditional comic book precisely because it was the anarchy contained within the panels that made the gags funny. Having all the action scattered around the pages diffuses the energy; you wind up seeing things happening separate from the boy, not necessarily in proximity to him. The fact that they're all connected in a Rube Goldberg-esque hodgepodge doesn't really track. Thus making it easily forgettable. Did an elephant get hit in the face with a pie? Why did the the man fall out of the window? Who's chasing whom? And why is this girl just following along and not pointing things out to the boy, since she can clearly see what he is missing?

So many questions, so little desire to follow them up.

Sunday, July 8

Dream Factory

by Brad Barkley and Heather Kepler
Dutton 2007

The "fur" characters (including those not wearing fur, like princesses) have gone on strike at Disney World in Florida at the beginning of the summer. This forces the Disney folks to hire scab labor to fill in so that vacationers can continue to enjoy "The Happiest Place on Earth" without the ugly bits of the outside world creeping in. But this book isn't about any of that.

Instead, the story follows the recent high school graduates who have answered the call to replace the striking workers, kids with little conscience about being scabs with loftier problems like what to major in at college and what to do with the rest of their lives. And even then this book isn't really much about that.

This book is could easily be called Summer at Camp Disney with a good dose of typical high school shenanigans and petty teen behavior and, naturally, mismatched lovers. While the contract negotiations continue these kids are housed dorm-style in a commandeered hotel and are quickly thrown into a prelude of what college is like while dipping into all the experiences corporate life has to offer. There are morning meetings and rules and regulations and even some team-building exercises designed to bring the couldn't-care-less rabble in with the party line in the House of the Mouse.

And at it's core, it's a teen romantic comedy stacking a heartbroken Cinder Ella and her second generation Disney geek Prince Mark Charming against Chip-n-Dale mates, the Uber-Achieving triple-major snob Cassie and her killing-time-before-inheriting-the-corner-office flounder Luke.

If you need help drawing a line between points A and B on a map explaining what Luke's Star Wars geek parents gave him as a middle name (beginning with the letter S) then perhaps you will find the narrative full of surprises. That could be said about much of the book, where so much information is parceled out over long stretches in ways that might insult quicker readers. Do we really need the protracted mating dance that takes place between all these characters? In a word, yes, because that's the way the book is structured.

Told in alternating viewpoints, chapters narrated by Luke and Ella, the plot chugs along more or less linearly and yet each time we switch viewpoints there is the strange sensation we've read it all before. It's as if in one character's telling of event we can guess what the other would think/feel/do so that when it happens there's a sense of deja vu. The device of giving Ella and Luke their own voice essentially doubles the time it would take to tell the same information from an omniscient viewpoint. Sad, really, because there's still a fun little story trapped inside this ping pong plot.

Ella's lost her brother in an accident and she's still processing that information when she gets word that her parents are pulling up roots to go work on a mission overseas. Ella is shuttled off to live with an aunt in Florida until the fall when she's supposed to start college in Vermont. Adrift and on her own she jumps at the opportunity to work at Disney World just to keep herself busy.

Luke's problem is that he's got the corner office at his father's company all sewn up, but he doesn't want it. In fact, he doesn't know what he wants because all his life he's been seen as the prodigal son destined for the corner office. While everyone else would kill to have that kind of security (like his fellow fur crush Cassie, who has her eyes on being the wife of the guy in the corner office) all Luke wonders is what it would be like to be free.

Luke and Cassie are already an item when Ella waltzes into the picture. What attracts Luke to Ella is her ability to question and seek out answers about life's larger questions, a natural effect in the wake of becoming unmoored from her family. When Mark does a last minute fill-in for an injured Prince Charming it becomes obvious to all her friends that perhaps Ella has finally landed her prince.

A team-building scavenger hunt designed to make the scab employees more knowledgeable about the park pairs competitive Cassie with Mark, whose father worked the park as a young man himself and is by virtue the person to beat when it comes to Disney trivia. Luke and Ella make a go of it as teammates but the awkwardness of their feelings for one another, the fact that they are otherwise engaged in relationships, and an undertow of petty jealousies pushes and pulls against them.

Everyone can see that Luke and Ella are destined for one another and all that remains is whether or not they can muster the effort to make it happen before the end of the book.

I could take or leave this book -- the formula is strictly Disney Channel Original Movie. That said the thing that truly irks me about this book is the cover. Why go through the trouble of telling a book from two viewpoints and then deliberately cut the potential readership in half by making the cover pink. Yeah, technically this is Chick Lit, but it doesn't have to be and there's no reason to automatically assume a male reader wouldn't want to pick this up because it happened to partly deal with relationships. I'll grant you, using Disney by name throughout the book could render some problems with the art department being able to use copyrighted material on the cover, but is this really the way to go, is this really the best you could do, Dutton?

Let me answer that: No. Sell the story, don't sell genre.

Saturday, July 7

Close to the Wind

The Beaufort Scale
by Peter Malone
Putnam 2007

Piggy-backing a bit on my addition to Poetry Friday I discovered a unique non-fiction picture book that really illuminates a somewhat obscure (to landlubbers like me) bit of nautical lore and arcana and makes it fascinating and beautiful.

Francis Beaufort was a British Naval Officer in the early part of the 19th century who, after five years of observation and rumination, developed the 13-point wind scale notation for recording wind conditions at sea that is still used to this day. Before they could accurately measure wind speeds there was no formal gradation of various wind conditions at sea until 1810 when Beaufort laid out his scale, not unlike the systems used for rating a hurricane's force or an earthquake's severity. Beaufort's scale uses the appearance of the sea surface, the effects of the wind on land, and what a typical man-of-war ship could expect in terms of its sail trim and speed.

Malone sets up the book this way: Each spread contains a page of text facing a beautifully rendered illustration. On the text side it begins with on of Beaufort's points on the scale, followed by the diary entry of a 12 year old boy aboard a fictional ship named the Zephyr, concluding with a paragraph and sidebar notes explaining some aspect of the diary's narrative. The information is always related to the text in some way, enriching the whole rather than tacking on trivial bits to make it somehow more user-friendly in a DK Eyewitness sort of way. I not only know now what a knot means in terms of a boat's speed I also know how it was measured with a fine spot illustration showing a typical knotted rope used for such purposes. And if I ever come across the reference of reefing a sail I'll not only know what it means I'll know precisely how it's done. It's also good to know that, if you are forced to sail near an enemy port in a storm, you can avoid being attacked by running their flag up your mast -- begging the unanswered question: how many flags did a ship have on hand for just such emergencies?

The diary entries themselves create a narrative as the Zephyr moves from a dead calm (Beaufort 0) at port in Italy across the Atlantic and through a a hurricane (Beaufort 12) off the coast of Barbados. This sort of structural force on a narrative can be harsh and yet Malone's handling of the information deftly weaves it altogether with practically no attention to the seams.

In addition, the book concludes with a short biography of Beaufort's military career, a map of the Zephyr's journey, a spread explaining the construction and labeling of a tall ship's various sales and masts, a glossary, and a short bit about the fate of ships after they were decommissioned (mostly made of oak, they were broken down and turned into furniture). That's a LOT of information to pack into 36 pages, yet it never feels forced or crowded.

The art isn't icing on the cake, it's a separate dessert in and of itself, and a flambe at that. Malone manages not only to capture the incredible detailing of the ship's rigging but from angles and perspectives you wouldn't expect: above and off the port side looking down, on an adjacent mast witnessing the reefing of the sails, bird's-eye-view looking down to show the condition of the sea. Simply outstanding.

I'm never quite sure who the intended audience is for a non-fiction picture book with this much information because it always seems to me like the target audience would view a picture book as "babyish". Hang it all, any kid (or adult) with an interest in sailing, storms or what life could be like on a 19th century sailing vessel should check this out.

Friday, July 6

Poetry Friday "Derelict"

I'm taking the plunge and joining the Poetry Friday melee. And when I say melee I'm using the more archaic meaning of "a group of diamonds, each weighing less than 0.25 carat" both in reference to fellow poetry bloggers and with a particularly oblique reference to the subject of my inaugural post.

The poem is from a collection called Song of Men which, when I first came across it, brought a smirk to my face that never fails to return every time I see it. The pub date on my copy (obtained at an estate sale) is 1918 from Houghton Mifflin , though Amazon shows it's still available with a pub date of 2006. Who knew there was still a market for a book of poetry with so rugged and manly a title?

There is a bit of explanation, a bit of history, that precedes the poem in the book but I'm going to dive straight in and give some particulars afterward.

by Young Ewing Allison

Fifteen men on the Dead Man's Chest—
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
The mate was fixed by the bos'n's pike,
The bos'n brained with a marlin spike,
And Cookey's throat was marked belike
It had been gripped
By fingers ten;
And there they lay,
All good dead men
Like break-o'-day in a boozing-ken—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of the whole ship's list—
Dead and be damned and the rest gone whist!—
The skipper lay with his nob in gore
Where the scullion's axe his cheek had shore—
And the scullion he was stabbed times four.
And there they lay,
And the soggy skies
Dripped all day long
In upstaring eyes—
In murk sunset and at foul sunrise—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of 'em stiff and stark—
Ten of the crew had the Murder mark—
'Twas a cutlass swipe or an ounce of lead,
Or a yawing hole in a battered head—
And the scuppers glut with a rotting red
And there they lay—
Aye, damn my eyes—
All lookouts clapped
On paradise—
All souls bound just contrariwise—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.

Fifteen men of 'em good and true—
Every man jack could ha' sailed with Old Pew—
There was chest on chest full of Spanish gold,
With a ton of plate in the middle hold,
And the cabins riot of stuff untold,
And they lay there,
That had took the plum,
With sightless glare
And their lips struck dumb,
While we shared all by the rule of thumb—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

More was seen through the stern light screen—
Chartings no doubt where a woman had been!—
A flimsy shift on a bunker cot,
With a thin dirk slot through the bosom spot
And the lace stiff dry in a purplish blot.
Oh was she wench…
Or some shuddering maid…?
That dared the knife—
And took the blade!
By God! she was stuff for a plucky jade—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men on the Dead Man's Chest—
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
We wrapped 'em all in a mains'l tight
With twice ten turns of a hawser's bight
And we heaved 'em over and out of sight—
With a Yo-Heave-Ho!
And a fare-you-well!
And a sullen plunge
In the sullen swell,
Ten fathoms deep on the road to hell!
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!


You've got gore and pirating and treasure and all sorts of poetic manliness going on. Brained by marlin's spike? Yawing holes in heads? Purplish blots of clotting blood? If this doesn't have Hollywood Summer Movie written all over it... oh, wait.

Young Ewing Alison? I thought Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that Yo-ho-ho! bit in Treasure Island. Yes and no. Stevenson is responsible for setting the tone with following lines:
"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest-- Yo-ho-ho, and
a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil had done for the rest--
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"
But it was Allison who in 1891 fleshed out the story of the Dead Man's Chest, a treacherous bit of reef located near the island of Tortola in the Caribbean with a history of wrecking ships. You can jump here for a complete rundown on Allison, the background to the legend behind the poem, and annotations for the poem itself. Apparently there was even a Broadway musical version of Treasure Island that used Allison's verse in 1901 and saw a revival in the 1970's.

Given the amount of pirate information floating out there culturally this might not be such a bad addition to an educational framework. Since we all pick up a little Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! along the way, might as well feed it to the kids from the source. Give or take a little Stevenson.

Thursday, July 5

13 Little Blue Envelopes

by Maureen Johnson
Harper Teen 2005

I sincerely doubt that I could possibly add anything to the din of reviews that have been generated over this book in the past couple of years. That said, I did read it, and this is what I'm thinking.

I'm thinking about how, when you're a kid with a creative or artistic bent, you keep hoping you've got some secret benefactor that's going to send you on a journey of discovery; or how a patron is magically going to hone in on your secret inner thoughts and just know what it is you need and give you all the tools necessary to achieve total inner success and happiness; or about how no one understands you but maybe someone does out there and, despite any discomfort, they'll not only be able to call you on your faults but give you the inner strength to actualize your inner butterfly;

Or perhaps you've reached the end of high school and you've earned your jaded cynicism and you know that, no matter how "perfect," answers to the questions you have about your future don't magically get solved in the course of a single trip abroad; how you get to that point where you become a "realist" in the sense that, as nice as the fantasy is, the underlying truth is that no one is ever really given that chance to freely explore their young adult world without developing homesickness or at the very least becoming bored because -- let's face it -- there's nothing romantic about being 18 and aimless;

And for the sake of argument, even if you read a book where a crazy dead aunt left you envelopes with instructions to retrace her final footsteps, and despite your inner cynic you sort of find yourself wishing you could follow on a trip like that yourself; and even if you gave in and ignored all the chance and allowed for the possibility that you'd come out okay in the end, you still secretly hope that the protagonist falls apart in the end and settles for a dull "no place like home" scenario even though you know that would be sad and wrong;

And after all that, no matter how old and crusty you may be, or how young and idealistic, you still might not want to admit to certain bone-deep truths.

Like how much you enjoyed the book.


by Ranulfo
Harper Teen 2006

On the surface Shakespeare's Hamlet contains all the elements necessary for great Young Adult fiction. There's a remarried mother, a devoted-yet-tragic girl, a sadistic vengeful boy, the haunting of the dead, meddling friends and families, in-jokes and meta-drama, double-crosses and, yes, even multiple premeditated murders. Perhaps the murder isn't a necessary element for YA when a good suicide will do (and Hamlet has one of those as well) but it does add a bit of spice to the mix.

But at it's core Hamlet is a tragedy, and one of the most tragic of all the Bard's works. In drama the tragedy concerns itself with an individual driven to self-destruction through their own fate or character flaws or some other overpowering force. Hamlet's father is dead, we later learn (from his father's ghost) murdered by his brother, Hamlet's mother remarries said brother, and the young prince is urged onto a mission of revenge against all parties. He plays at madness as part of his vengeful scheme and though it pains him on some fronts to take down innocents along the way, the collateral damage of is a necessary part of his single-minded determination. Hamlet correctly draws out the guilt of all parties and the bodies pile up as emotion grips the court. Hamlet pays for all this righteousness with his own life.

No such luck here with Joker, and if that counts as a spoiler then it should also serve as a warning that the book isn't so much an adaptation of Hamlet as it is a relatively bloodless variation on a loosely-based theme.

I think it's safe to say that wearing the skin of a bear does not make the person a bear, nor does it empower that person with any bear-like qualities. Wearing a necklace of shark's teeth neither gives the bearer the bite nor the ferocity of a killer. So it follows that fashioning a costume of modern dress over the amateurishly assembled fossil remains of Shakespeare does not necessarily guarantee a fully engaging tale of teen angst or feigned madness, much less anything resembling great literature.

Particulars need to be rearranged for our modern age. Apparently we can teach school children the blood and guts of Hamlet but we could never tell the same story in a modern setting for fear of offending. We open with Matt -- our modern Hamlet -- reeling from his parents divorce. No, his father is not dead just drunk and broken from having been fool enough to let this cypher of a Gertrude slip away from him. The interloper in this case isn't even a relative but some smooth-talker from the sales department at dad's company. The dead party in this case is Matt's best friend Ray who died off-stage in an arson fire set at a hostel. Matt may be feeling some guilt over this because it was a holiday trip he backed out of, but his feelings are a bit muddied here. Already, by splitting up the death-and-remarriage, and by making that death a random act on another character rather than a personal loss integral to the plot, Ranulfo has drained the story of it's potency.

In an attempt to bring out Matt's inner demons Ranulfo has created the character of the Joker, a demonic free spirit who, if removed entirely from the book, alters nothing. Serving as alter ego and as inner devil, the book's title character does little to convince us of Matt's internal suffering or of providing Matt much in the way of wayward guidance. At best Joker seems a literary contrivance aimed at convincing readers of some dark, sinister force at work behind the scenes. Sorry, no such luck.

Ophelia -- Leah -- is as much the clinging girlfriend as she is in Hamlet. Here a modern retelling might have shown us the greater reason for her devotion, or better mirrored what Hamlet/Matt was once like before the great tragedy came. There's a fine line between undeveloped and under-developed being trod here, neither being a great position to take.

And on and on it goes. Hamlet's journey abroad with Rosencranz and Guildenstern is a mere blip of self-exile at a trailer parked along the beach, with the messenger's bloodshed replaced by dropping out of society to join the circus. The play-within-a-play becomes Matt's attempt at social commentary through artistic expression -- an abusive retelling of the musical South Pacific -- and not the thing wherein he captures the conscience of a king. Finally, where bodies should be piling up, Ranulfo has Matt running away to the big city for an encounter with anti-WTO protesters that leaves him feeling like he needs to return home.

Home to what? On the bus ride home Matt dream all his possible futures (well, a handful at least, and only the most extreme versions) but in the end comes back to Leah, to his senses, and mostly to the conclusion that love beats anger and vengeance any day.

And that's just not Hamlet.

Tuesday, July 3

Clarence the Copy Cat

by Patricia Lakin
Illustrated by John Manders
Dragonfly/Random House 2007

Clarence the cat comes from a long line of proud mousers, but Clarence refuses to carry on the family business. Shamed and shunned his reputation precedes him as he is sent from restaurant and deli, rejected for failing to live up to the expectations others have of a cat with his lineage.

One day Clarence finds himself on the stoop of a building where instead of being sent away he is brought inside. The building is quiet and filled with books: Clarence has been adopted by a library! Fascinated by his new surroundings Clarence spends his days perched atop the copy machine watching people come and go, gaining the name Copy Cat in the process.

Things seem to be going well until the day a mouse appears. Panicked that he may have lost his new home Clarence attempts to prevent the mouse from returning by using library books to block mouse holes along the baseboards. "Mice eat paper, you know," Clarence's new owner reports and it's only a matter of time before Clarence fears he'll be back out on the street.

Then, as a mouse is scurries across the floor causing havoc in the library, Clarence finds himself unable to get any traction on the glass top of the copy machine while blinding lights flash in his eyes. After it appears that the mouse has finally vacated the premises Clarence discovers that all those lights were the copy machine making larger-than-life prints of his frightening face, and those images fell to the floor under the machine where they surely scared off any mice who might have entertained entering the library.

It's a happy ending for all as Clarence takes up his spot in the sunny window at the library, finally at home.

Yeah, I like this. And 90% of why I like this is because of the illustrations. Manders illustrates with a verve in his lines and humor in the expressive movement of his characters. There is a looseness in his style but it doesn't come across as sloppy or unfinished. I couldn't help but feel like this is the sort of book an animator would draw in his time off a la Bill Peet, though I found no information on Manders having ever worked in cartoons. He's illustrated over a dozen titles and written none of them, which sort of makes me glad because I would hate to discover that he was another illustrator who needed to be filed in the "better seen and not heard" category.

What about Lakin's story? Serviceable. I think the copy machine solution is clumsy at best and we never really understand whether Clarence is afraid of mice or doesn't believe in harming other living things, which makes him just shy of endearing. Kudos to the editor who matched Manders up with Lakin because I think this book was made entirely in the illustrations, by the lines rather than between them.