Friday, September 28

Poetry Friday: Viggo Mortensen

It's funny, how you think you know someone in the public eye as they come into your world view and then discover they have a life going on you never imagined. I was trolling the remainders section of a bookstore in Berkeley (Moe's? Pegassus?) shortly after the release of the film A Perfect Murder starting Mortensen, Michael Douglas and Gweneth Paltrow. Its a remake of Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder and in the film Mortensen played a poor artist and con man. The remarkable thing is that the paintings in film are actually Mortensen's, not some production artist's idea of what his character would create. They are dark, accomplished, not the work of someone who dabbles.

Anyway, trolling the remainders, yes, and there is a book with Mortensen's name on it called Recent Forgeries (1998 Smart Ant Press). It's got paintings and photos, black and white and Polaroids, and poetry in Spanish and English, and a CD of readings with music by members of the seminal punk band X. Clearly there's more to this Viggo guy as I later discovered he was once married to poet and punk doyenne Exene Cervenka, is fluent in a half dozen languages, and has been running three parallel careers as a poet and painter alongside his acting career. Who knew?

We underestimate damage
done to the sky
when we allow words
to slip away
into the clouds.

I remember making promises
to you outside. We
were watching flowers
that hadn't opened.
A bee darted, careful
not to stick to
your half-shut mouth.
Moretnsen apparently does readings in the Los Angeles area with his son, Henry, and has used some of his earnings from the Lord of the Rings movies to found a publishing house for avant garde artists called Perceval Press. You gotta love a guy who starts a small press whose landing page on their website features art, quoted poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Emerson, and has political news updates.

The boy who cried wolf is
the man who cannot decide.
Can't lie; Never gets away
with it. Save feathers
he finds, believing
they come from
dreamers' wings.

Wishing so hard, he
starts looking like
others, absorbs them.
Wishing like that
wears him out
after a while
and then he feels
sorry for himself
and takes it out
on anyone that seems

He's not just a face on the screen.

Poetry Friday is being hosted over at AmoXcalli this week.

Thursday, September 27


by David Ezra Stein
Putnam 2007

A yearling bear doesn't understand why the leaves are falling off the trees. She tries to help by putting them back where they belong but as the season progresses they fall faster than she can put them back. Finally she gathers them up and takes them back to her lair in a hill just under a tree, lining her cave and stuffing the entrance solid with all the leaves she can.

Snow falls. Snow melts. Spring comes and with out pops the hibernating bear. The buds on the trees seem to welcome the older bear and she welcomes the leaves back.

The child-like qualities of the bear never seem cute, the text never talks down to the reader, and in doing presents an awareness of fall from an innocent perspective. Nature in the end forces the bear to reconcile her desire to put the leaves back with a biological need to sleep and she makes the best of both urges.

In his simple, sweet and loose watercolor style Stein tells us this tale in colors much warmer than his Cowboy Ned and Andy books, and rightfully so. There a quality to the illustration reminiscent of William Steig (the master of the loose watercolor) at his whimsiest.

It's fall, people. Perfect book of the season for the lapsitters.

News & Notes

The past couple of weeks have been hectic, what with getting the girls into a new school routine, the wife starting a new high-power job, getting accepted to grad school, writing reviews for The Horn Book Guide, building a new blog, blah, blah, blah.

Here's the deal. I am backlogged with dozens of reviews I just haven't found the time to get down and one of these days, pretty soon, the floodgates are going to open. This blog has it's one year anniversary coming very soon and I'll be dropping a more full news announcement then about some changes (all for the good) coming from the knowledge lair at the excelsior file.

In the meantime, the Second Annual Cybils are coming up and after spending the past year kicking myself for not participating in the inaugural run I find myself on this year's graphic novel committee. Yeee! You can click on the link above for general info, but here's the line-up for the graphic novel group.

Category Organizer: Sarah Stevenson (Reading YA: Readers' Rants)

Nominating Panel:

Mary Lee Hahn (A Year of Reading)
Alyssa Feller (The Shady Glade)
Katie Zenke (Pixie Palace)
Elizabeth Jones
Gina Ruiz (AmoXicalli)

Judging Panel:

David Elzey (The Excelsior File)
J.L. Bell (Oz and Ends)
Anna (TangognaT)
Snow Wildsmith (My Reading Project)
Angie Thompson (Angieville)

Wow. This is going to be a wild ride. I better keep my hands and arms inside the blog at all times! In the meantime I have to go run some errands. Hopefully I'll be up to speed within the next couple of days. So much to talk about!

Is it time we revisit the Grimmoire?

Monday, September 24

A Poet's Bird Garden

by Laura Nyman Montenegro
FSG 2007

When young Natalie releases her Chirpee bird from its cage it immediately flies to a nearby tree. A phone call brings a group of poets to help her lure her bird out of a tree. The poets in turn try different things to lure the bird down from the tree: They plant seeds and bushes, install a birdbath, tie bright string into the branches but nothing seems to work. But Claude, the neighborhood cat, is the culprit scaring all the birds and once he's dispatched the Chirpee returns to its cage all the branches are full of birds.

It's an oddly charming book that I found more rewarding on a second read. Some of the text follows a rhyming scheme and some doesn't, and that interplay eventually works in a quirky sort of way. Far from being naive, there is a certain innocence both in the story and the illustration that... just... works for lack of a better explanation.

I think the one thing I can't reconcile is why the girl lets the bird out of the cage in the first place and then is instantly concerned that it doesn't come back. I suppose it's one of those things kids do and learn about after the fact. There is never any mention of how the bird got into the tree or any lesson learned, it happens and everyone works toward a solution, and then problem solved. Making this a message book would have killed it, I'm not saying it should have a message. If any message can (and should) be pulled from this it's when in trouble, when in doubt, call a poet to figure it out.

Thursday, September 20

Poetry Friday: Limicks by Ogden Nash

First, that is not a typo. Nash titled these little things Limicks and without finding any hard documentation I believe these were his invention, an abbreviation of a short-form Limerick: short one line, each line short three syllables of a traditional Limerick. I read once (or did I dream it) that some have confused the Limick with a Clerihew but (nerd alert) The Limick's rhyme structure is AABA and the Clerihew if AABB. There are some other differences, but do they really matter?

Nash was one of those mid-century writers of humorous verse who seems to have fallen out of fashion lately. The only people who I hear ask about his books are grandparents and great-grandparents and they think it's a shame his poems aren't widely available. I partly agree because while he did write short ditties that could hold their own against Lear and Florian there is also his much longer poetry which, quite frankly, bores; the observations aren't as fresh as they might have seemed in the 30's and 40's and, on the whole, has the feel of work that was composed and paid for by the word.

That said, I do prize my separating-at-the-spine, acid brown pocket book edition from 1959 that is the 30th anniversary reprinting, and with it the (re)discovery of a poetic form perhaps not practiced anywhere else since. Ladies and gentlemen, good people all, I now present
by Ogden Nash

An old person of Troy
Is so prudish and coy
That it doesn't know yet
If it's a girl or a boy.

Two nudists of Dover,
Being purple all over,
Were munched by a cow
When mistaken for clover.
What? Huh? Only two? Wait, this isn't the book I thought it was (curses!) and it's only selections from that earlier volume! Grrrr. I know there are at least three or four more. Well, now what am I going to do?

A poet named Nash
Scribbled lines in a flash,
Though the limicks he wrote
Didn't raise any cash.

Just tossed that one off. Doesn't seem too hard. Let's see what y'all got out there. Anyone game for adding your own limicks in the comments?

Sara's hosting Poetry Friday this week over at Read Write Believe. Check it out!

Wednesday, September 19

Yeah Yeah Yeah

The Beatles, Beatlemania and the Music That Changed the World
by Bob Spitz
Little Brown 2007

I'm wondering of, when I was a middle school aged grunt, if I even knew about music and musicians that were popular 40 years earlier. That would have been the music between the wars, music of a country climbing out of the Great Depression. The biggest hit songs would have been Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers singing "Cheek to Cheek," Cole Porter's "You're the Top," and Shirley Temple pouting her way through "On the Good Ship Lollipop." In 1975 would I have wanted to read about Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald?

Not on your life. I was mooning over the sensitive lyrics of Cat Stevens, rocking to Elton John (he still had a band and rocked in those days), and beginning to discover the free-format FM radio waves and all they had to offer.

I'm thinking all this as I read Bob Spitz's biography of The Beatles because it occurs to me that with very few exceptions (damn few) there isn't much music history or biography out there for middle readers, and even then I'm wondering how many of those kids even know what they're missing.

My girls know and love The Beatles, they have their favorite songs and as they get older I've no doubt they'll delve into the catalog and rediscover things they never noticed or appreciated before. But will it send them to the library to hunt down their biographies? Will they understand the scope of what music was like before and after Sgt. Pepper was released 40 years earlier? One thing is sure, they won't get their answers from this book.

Is that fair, to pin all that on a single book? Given that the book's subtitle that The Beatles music "changed the world" you would think it would delve into exactly how that change took place. That would require not only a biography of The Beatles as a group and as individuals but also a sense of musical history before, during and after. To that end Spitz gives us a snapshot of the musical scene in Liverpool when the lads were coming up and a bit of gloss on the influences of their time. If it cannot be tied to The Beatles then it isn't included so there's no mention of the folk era in Britain (earlier than in the States), no real mention of the blues of jazz scene (equally important for the effects The Beatles have in that arena after they become popular), and little on their peers and rivals (scant mention of Dylan and The Stones, no mention of The Who, and so on). If their music changed the world there's little proof of it here.

For those of us who lived through the Beatlemania, remember the band's break-up and rumor of reunion, obsessed over magazine articles and books chronicling their lives as the moved uneasily through their solo careers, we each carry with us a cobbled together resource file of tidbits, trivia and stories. Imagine how strange it is to be reading, as an adult, a book about The Beatles and their use of LSD when these things were barely spoken of in our days. It isn't horror or the sudden feeling of age but the matter-of-factness in which the information is presented. Stranger still, reading about the death of their early manager Brian Epstein and discovering in the build-up that he had been depressed, taken a lot of medication, and was found dead in his room while The Beatles were off in India.

I'd always heard that Epstein had died of a brain hemorrhage. Had the facts changed since my teenage years, or was the truth originally covered up to protect his family from the shame of the overdose, accidental or otherwise? If the truth is that Epstein died of a brain hemorrhage from an overdose of medication for his depression it changes the way the story has been told in the past and ought to be acknowledged as a change. When presenting book report material (especially biographical material) I would hope that were there are divergent facts in a story that they be referenced; how else is a kid going to know what to write if one book says the cause of death was a brain hemorrhage and another implies (another problem in Spitz's version) that he did not wake up after taking his medication?

Spitz goes to great length to explain how The Beatles put together key songs that show how their ideas were down the road. For the first time anywhere that I can recall (and I worked in radio and allegedly studied these things) I got the origin of the engineering term flanging which John named off-the-cuff for explaining a special recording effect. Good stuff, but nothing about how other artists used this effect (specific bands and songs would help bolster the subtitle's claim here). George Martin, their producer, is named for all his work and efforts while various "engineers" involved are mentioned often enough but never by name. It's a shame because two of them -- Geoff Emerick and Alan Parsons -- would take their experiences with them when the recorded artists like Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, Supertramp, Jeff Beck among others, further proof of The Beatles indirect (if not direct) influence.

In the end, I find the book itself harmless. It's rich in detail and research but I'm left feeling like it's a Boomer nostalgia relic, a book intended for sale to Baby Boomer (grand)parents to foist onto their (grand)kids who may like The Beatles music but don't see it as the be-all-end-all.

I've thought about this (haven't I ranted about this before?) that there needs to be a rock and roll biography/history series that gives middle grade and YA readers a chance to understand explore the music of the last half of the 20th century. There needs to be biographies on Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin; there needs to be a sub-series on the guitar gods like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughn; kids ought to know the classic rock bands but they also should know about the punk movement (UK and US), disco, new wave, prog rock, grunge as well as they know (or think they do) rap and hip hop.

Open question, feel free to clog my comments with your reply: What musicians or groups or eras do you think would make for compelling reading to our under-served youth?

It would be a massive undertaking but I'm sure there are dozens of music scholars and critics out there who would rise to the occasion. Attention editors: I am willing to discuss the position of supervising series editor. Serious inquiries, please.

Monday, September 17

I Love My Pirate Papa

by Laura Leuck
illustrated Kyle M. Stone
Harcourt 2007

This cracks me up. Not the book but my original notes taken a few weeks back.

This rhyming picture book explores The joy of raising boys Without a mother's love aboard A pirate ship of noise A father's tenderness is buried In text beneath the gruff Exterior of belching lads And other other pirate stuff

First, I don't remember penning those lines, but the handwriting if definitely mine. Second, why I felt the need to take notes in rhyme is beyond me. It happens sometimes, what can I say. Third, if I wasn't going to finish the review-in-verse why the hell didn't I take down some other notes to help flesh out my initial impressions?

It's hard to believe that the current piratemania hasn't played itself out but I suppose as long as the Johnny Depp franchise continues to come out at regular intervals we won't see the last of it for a while. Which isn't to suggest this is a bad book, because it isn't. In fact, it's a nice little tale of a pirate papa indoctrinating his boy into the life of a pirate as matter-of-factly as any parent raises their child with their own beliefs and customs. Certainly there are elements specific to pirate culture but change those out and give them spirited illustrations, as included here, and you could be reading I Love My Amish Papa or I Love My Homeschool Papa. Because the pirate theme is there to deliver a father and son bonding story.

Now, let's see if we can't get more period-based father and son (and father and daughter) picture books out there. We could have I Love My Secret Agent Dad (done in a mid-century retro style to match the Cold War era), and I Love My Cowboy Pa, and perhaps I Reckon Ain't No One Better Than My Pappy Farmer.

Friday, September 14

Poetry Friday: Fifty-third Calypso - Nice, Nice, Very Nice

Kurt Vonnegut wasn't the first author who dabbled in an invented religion as a way of expounding his character's (and his own) operational beliefs. In Cat's Cradle Vonnegut laid out Bokononism, a mash-up of various Eastern philosophies as expounded by a double-speaking guru encamped in the Caribbean paradise of San Lorenzo whose hymnal was composed of calypsos. The second chapter in the book lays out calypso number fifty-three as follows:
Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen --
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, Nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice --
So many different people
In the same device.
The idea behind this has to do with what Bokonon/Vonnegut calls the karass.
"If you find your life tangled up with someone else's life for no very logical reason," writes Bokonon, "that person may be a member of your karass."
Which is as concise a definition as is necessary. So many paths, so many lives we cross, and somewhere along the way we all intersect, intermingle, diverge.
"Man created the checkerboard; God created the karass."
There's more. A decade or so after Vonnegut wrote this calypso a band out of Los Angeles named Ambrosia turned it into a song for their first album. When they started out they were influenced by the harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the prog rock experimentation of King Crimson. They were "discovered" by conductor Zubin Mehta and played with the LA Philharmonic, and were the back-up band for the first Alan Parson's project album before they were ever able to get a recording contract. Most don't remember their early songs like "Holding On To Yesterday" as much as they do their later soft-rock schlock "You're the Biggest Part of Me," "How Much I Feel," and "You're the Only Woman." So sad.

But when they still had their souls they managed to add a few more verses to round out Vonnegut's and had themselves a little classic FM hit.

Nice, Nice, Very Nice
(Vonnegut Jr. - Puerta - Pack - North - Drummond)

Oh a sleeping drunkard Up in Central Park
Or the lion hunter In the jungle dark

Or the Chinese dentist Or the British Queen
They all fit together In the same machine

Nice, nice, very nice
Nice, nice, very nice
So many people in the same device

Oh a whirling dervish And a dancing bear
Or a Ginger Rogers and a Fred Astaire

Or a teenage rocker Or the girls in France
Yes, we all are partners in this cosmic dance

Nice, nice, very nice
Nice, nice, very nice
So many people in the same device

I wanted all things to make sense
So we'd be happy instead of tense

Oh a sleeping drunkard Up in Central Park
Or the lion hunter In the jungle dark

Or the Chinese dentist Or the British Queen
They all fit together In the same machine

Nice, nice, very nice
Nice, nice, very nice
So many people in the same device
So many people in the same device

If I could make *%#@! Blogger accept my audio plug-in I'd have the song linked here. Instead, you'll have to visit someone else's blog to hear this opus.

Thursday, September 13

Vote! Vote! For Octogoat!

I cannot help it, my suggestion for the Adam Rex Contest over at Ironic Sans is the first choice listed. I'm sure most of you have a horse in this race as well, but if you don't and you like to see what Adam Rex can do with my recycler extraordinaire then, please, go vote!

Seriously, my sad little Octogoat is only at 1% of all votes so far, trailing well behind the leader AMBIGUGUS, The Remarkably Unmemorable Man with 27%.

Voting ends tomorrow at midnight EST.

I thank you for your kind indulgence.

Wednesday, September 12

Little Pea

by Amy Krause Rosenthal
illustrated by Jen Corace
Chronicle 2005

Little Pea must eat his candy if he wants to grow up to be big and strong. More importantly, he must eat his candy if he wants his dessert: spinach.

This wisp of a twist on the trials of dinnertime, while cute, feels empty. In order to flesh out the punchline we are shown the daily life of Little Pea and his family, and then later, just to drag it out more, we get a day-by-day description of the different candies he must eat in order to get his reward.

Like I said, cute, but it's the kind of a joke that works better in four or five pages, not 28. James Marshall could have had George and Martha do the exact same thing in a fraction of the words and I would have guffawed. Unfair comparison, to put a cute book against a classic? Tough. I finished this book and immediately went for George and Martha and cleansed my palate.

Because I ate my spinach of cute and needed some real dessert. Am I grouchy this week, or is it just me?

Tuesday, September 11

Walt Disney's Cinderella

retold by Cynthia Rylant
pictures by Mary Blair
Disney Press 2007

No, wrong. This is not acceptable.

Mary Blair worked for the Disney studios from the 1940 through the 1960's and she is responsible for the production art, the "look" if you will, of several key Disney projects including Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland, the "It's a Small World" attraction, Peter Pan and, Walt Disney's Cinderella. She was not a story artist per se though she did make contributions to the projects she worked on. Her primary function was to set the tone and mood for the animators to capture once the art had Uncle Walt's approval.

Outside of her work with the studio Blair made notable achievements in both children's books (I Can Fly) and advertising. I have a very strong visceral reaction to her work, something that comes from having been raised with it, long before I ever knew her name. Her work is an intrinsic part of the mid-century modern artists which include M. Sasek, Aurelius Battaglia, Art Seiden, The Provensens and so on.

I'm going to get all geeky here for a moment and I'll explain afterward. First up is what's called concept art that Mary Blair painted for Cinderella to give the animators a feel for what they were doing.

And how the animators worked toward that concept.

The work wasn't meant to be public, it wasn't as finished, though it isn't without merit. Sometimes these images were intended to depict specific scenes, sometimes they were flights of fancy that would later find their way incorporated into a film. On the one hand it is very beautiful work to look at, and shows just how stunning the film could have looked with a bolder approach. While there isn't anything necessarily wrong about her concept work it was never the way any of her finished work was presented publicly. And to my eye it doesn't track well for younger readers, a little too loose, a little abstract.

You know who is drooling over this? Animation aficionados (aka cartoon nerds) who as kids themselves probably would have been bored stiff by this.

So here we are, the good folks at Disney have exhumed the archives once again to make money off the work of artists who won't see a dime. Mix one part growing nostalgia market of adults who remember the Disney film as a kid, one part growing consciousness in the picture book world of the work of Mary Blair, add a dash of capitalizing on the princess market, pinch a recognized name in children's early readers and voila! instant money machine!

As much as I would have salivated over the chance to see (and own) more Mary Blair work the simple fact is that many of these illustrations just don't cut the mustard. The book attempts to tell the movie version of the story and feels entirely too long; it's as if they approached Rylant with the illustrations they wanted to use and said "Pace the story to match these pictures." I'm just not feeling text these days for some reason.

64 pages? It feels like 264. No, this book should be ignored on all fronts. Unfortunately according to Publisher's Weekly it looks like this is the first of three Mary Blair-related cash-ins: Jon Scieszka has already been tapped to surround concept art for Alice in Wonderland with an undecided author to attack Peter Pan down the road. If Disney Press had half a brain in these matters they'd have Scieszka doing Peter Pan.

For all these transgressions, and no doubt more to come, Disney Press should be spanked.

Monday, September 10

Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal

A Worldwide Cinderella
by Paul Fleishman
illustrated by Julie Paschkis
Holt 2007

Here we have the familiar (if sanitized) fairy tale told with portions of the text excerpted from the telling of 17 different nations. For each sentence -- and sometimes fragments of detail -- text is surrounded by monochrome decorative borders indicating the origin of the text while each spread holds a larger full-color image depicting common aspects of the story.

It's nice to see that many nations have variations of the story with details rich enough to differentiate them, and I like the concept of the book as a whole. I especially like the way Paschkis has filled in the border areas with cultural details, almost as if they are panels in a stained glass window or a an illuminated manuscript. I almost wish the text blocks had some color to them so they blended better with the art.

It's the illustrations that make this book for me because, for all its variety, the text leaves me flat. The fact is, there are many multi-cultural retellings of the Cinderella story as the variations have their own histories and pedigrees. So then why cherry-pick details from many rich versions to make one dull, simplified one? I don't know that we needed another Cinderella story, and without knowing source material I'm left wondering how many of the variations were originally brought to new lands by immigrants and conquerors (the Appalachian variants from German ancestors, Indian variants from the British) or were radically different to begin with and pre-dated outside influences. The concept of an actual worldwide story plays out more like a cultural game of telephone. The more I think about it the more it feels like a multi-culti feel-good tale aimed at pleasing all and offending none. That's my opinion.

Really, I still like it, but more for the pictures.


by Nick Abadzis
First Second 2007

When I heard about this project the first question that crossed my mind was "How do you make the story of the first dog in space interesting?" My second question was "And would young readers even care?"

I'll elaborate on the first in a moment, but the answer to the second question is a firm and resounding "probably not" but that has more to do with a general lack of interest in the space program and nothing to do with this book.

What Abadzis does is completely round out the story leading up to the launch of Laika the canine cosmonaut including the lives of those around her. Laika gives us the backstory on Sergi Pavlovich, the "chief designer" behind the Russian space program responsible for Sputnik. The story begins with Pavlovich leaving the gulag where he was once one of Stalin's political prisoners mumbling "I am a man of destiny." Saying this enough time in double-digit-below-zero temperatures becomes the mantra that saves him until a sound -- and the moon -- appear to guide him towards his salvation.

Flash ahead years later where we're given a brief insight into triumphant launch of Sputnik, the little satellite that launch a superpower race toward space. Premiere Kruschev is impressed with success of the satellite and requests that the Chief Designer push forward to another historic launch in time for the national holiday a month down the road. An impossible task, but our man of destiny will not fail and he calls his team back from vacation to make it happen.

Drop back a few years to a scene in a Russian household where among a little of puppies is a "special" runt with a curly tail. This runt is, of course, the future Laika and she moves about as if she has a destiny of her own. Taken in as a young boys punishment (she is meant to teach him responsibility) she spends much of her time alone in a hall closet, patiently waiting to be understood and loved. When the boy attempts to ditch the dog in the river she falls in with a street dog that shows her how to survive the lean streets. Eventually she is caught and sent to a special research facility that is raising dogs for a special government program.

Here in the dog kennels we meet his handler, a young female apparatchik who is finding it hard to separate her scientific background with her love of her charges. She has come to recognize all the dogs in her care by their character, their strengths and weaknesses, and it's clear that she recognizes in Laika those same special qualities that all with eyes eventually see. Her patience, her loyalty, her trust in those worth trusting, make her the ideal candidate for her vigorous training program. As it becomes clear what Laika will be used for the scientists begin to have misgivings. Even Pavlovich is uneasy about the fact that in order to guarantee a successful launch for Kruschev he must send Laika up with no plan for retrieval. She is a dog of destiny.

What Abadzis does in the end is create a story so rich that the reader will have a difficult time separating out the fact from the fiction. It is not impossible to believe what the dogs are thinking and dreaming because Abadzis has done his job of treating them as equal to humans. He includes supporting documentation at the end of the book but none of it (from what I can tell) is the true life story of Laika, and certainly not her autobiogrpahy. There is the ring of truth to every panel, so much so that I initially thought it might be eligible for the Siebert Award until my boss reminded me that the award went to books that were entirely non-fiction. Oh, yeah. That would preclude elements like talking dogs and unverifiable conversations -- or would it?

Up to now I have left out a crucial bit of information: this is a graphic novel. It almost shouldn't make a difference and I left that bit of information out from the beginning deliberately. The question has come up about how one is supposed to review a graphic novel without showing pictures of the work. The answer is already out in the form of printed music reviews and reviews of gallery openings. True, for the casual review those items appear in print with either photos to document the work or with references to other shared cultural knowledge that a reader can draw conclusions and inferences from. But it is possible to discuss the graphic novel in terms of it's content and never talk about the art; not because the art isn't worth mentioning but because the graphic novel is no more successful than any other media without a good story to hang it's decoration on.

Ultimately, I'm not sure who the audience for this book is, but I know that they will be richly rewarded for their interest. I believe if you click on the panels below you can read the page more clearly, or if you'd like to check out the excerpt from this book that includes this page you can visit the First Second website.

Saturday, September 8

Snakes with Wings and Gold-digging Ants

by Herodotus, aka Cicero
Father of History
Penguin Great Journeys series 2007

While on my recent travels I stumbled onto a couple new series put out by Penguin books, smartly packaged 120 page excerpts from the various titles in their Classics backlist. In the Great Loves series they include ruminations on love from writers as varied as Virgil, Casanova, Freud, Nin and Updike. They've also done a similar series of excerpts from historical epics (Beowulf, The Iliad, &c.) and the Great Journeys series which includes historical records and reportage from the likes of Orwell, Marco Polo and the dude, Herodotus.

This stuff is perfect plane/train reading while traveling, and it was while I was reading it that I realized that these things could be used to help teach history and culture to teens. They're short and designed to send the average reader hunting down the originals in the Penguin catalog. Which, in a classroom environment, means that a student can chase down the things that interest them. If I'd had world history presented to me this way back in the day I'd have probably done better in school. I think this kind of presentation of non-fiction could answer some of the problems I have with textbooks.

I was so fired up by this book and the presentation of these series' that I decided to use this book for my critical essay requirement for grad school. When I was just about done with the spit-and-polish on the essay I went back to the application to double-check on the page count and noticed that they specifically requested the essay make reference to the writing process, the craft of writing, how writing can change the world and cure communicable diseases worldwide.

Okay, I made that last part up, but it was clear I had to write a totally different essay. What follows is the essay I didn't send.
I hated history as a teen. As far as I was concerned history, the factual recounting of what had taken place in the world, was as dead as the trees it was printed on in textbooks. The word itself teases by containing the word “story” but what was offered up was an anemic tale at best, a neutered account of names and places in oversimplified contexts meant to impart a greater meaning.

What I needed - what is needed in general – was to go to the source. Young readers are constantly struggling to understand the world and their place in it and history, presented in an engaging manner, can provide that. By using historical documents and texts that speak of the world in a first-hand way, that show history as a raw tale of events, readers can filter and conceptualize within the context of their own personal truths and understanding.

For those who doubt this sort of thing can be done I only need point to the first book in the new Penguin Great Journeys series entitled Snakes with Wings and Gold-digging Ants, a selection from the writings of Herodotus. In a scant 115 pages we are treated to alleged first-hand accounts of the peoples and histories of the North African region as they existed 400 years B.C. by a man classically known as Cicero, The Father of History. With that little information alone as introduction the book plunges into some of the more extravagant histories ever recounted by an unreliable narrator.

Herodotus admits that he has heard fantastical tales of the people of the region but decides to limit his accounts only to those stories and events that he has witnessed with his own eyes... or second-hand from those he feels are reliable. A fair enough claim for a historian to make, but then he goes on to recount events from which he couldn't have possibly been witness, and worse, claims to see things that we know to be patently untrue. He uses historical accounts from various peoples of the region to pick apart Homer's account of the Iliad and provides an alternate interpretation. He notes, and approves of, the various polygamous tribes he encounters and makes many references of practices adopted by the Greeks that were clearly borrowed from others.

Things get trickier when he claims that no people live beyond the eastern edge of the great deserts of India (essentially all of Asia), or that there are tribes of native Indians whose semen is as black as their skin. To modern ears these claims smack of a blindness reminiscent of sailor's tales that you could sail off the edge of the world (or presidents who insist on the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction and that invading armies will be received favorably as liberators). It then becomes imperative that readers – and I'm speaking of young readers in particular – come to understand the historian within their times, in context, and to extrapolate from that how this “factual” information can be used to generate false assumptions. The Father of History suddenly looks to be nothing more than the gatherer of regional tales, the paterfamilias in a continuing line of storytellers.

It can be risky to introduce young adults to the idea that first-person history must always be viewed with skepticism as it opens the doors for micro-revisionism and unchecked bias, but as a tool for teaching critical thinking of what makes history meaningful the risk is worth taking.

Whether or not Herodotus's errors were deliberate, they do still hold up as a window into what was popularly believed at the time. His reportage would leave something to be desired by modern standards, but that's exactly the point in the study of history; the truth of the moment changes as it is understood from the standpoint of a later time.

There is a certain shrewd brilliance in this collection, pulling excepts that clearly read like an adventurer's travelogue meant to tantalize. No doubt Penguin would like it if, their appetite whetted by the excerpts, readers went hunting down the larger editions within their back catalog. Where this smörgåsbord-style of study lacks the coherence of a traditional world history textbook its presentation makes up the difference by providing engaging historical documents – first-person accounts at that – with the promise of bringing history to life.

Friday, September 7

Poetry Friday: A Balanced Meal

School finally started in this neck of the woods and in honor of that I thought I'd trot out this little lunch box surprise.
A Balanced Meal
by David Elzey

I brought my lunch to school today
With all my favorite stuff,
Like French toast topped with gravy
And burnt marshmallow fluff.

My sandwich includes pickled eggs
With jam and sauerkraut,
Hot mustard and green jelly beans
Between two slabs of trout.

Inside my Thermos that I filled
With cream of liver soup
I added chocolate covered ants;
They melted into goop.

And don't forget to brings some fruit
For snack, my father brays.
I prefer to eat green grapes
All smeared in mayonnaise.

I have the finest lunch around,
The best in any grade.
You couldn’t find a better meal
So... do you want to trade?
The funny thing is, I keep offering to make the girls a lunch to take to school but they'd rather have the school hot lunch. You don't think this poem could have anything to do with that, do you?

Thursday, September 6

The Big Question

by Wolf Erlbruch
Europa Editions 2003
translated from the French
by Michael Reynolds

The unasked question* is answered in this picture book by a passel of parties in accordance to their nature. So I can spoil you, says the Grandmother. To obey orders, charges the Soldier. You're here simply to be here, states the Stone adding one of the concrete clues to the question at hand. Page after page, each gives their answer to the question in a format that seems to be popular in books from the Old World. In one small bit of humor a Duck flatly exclaims "I haven't the foggiest idea" which, when you think about, makes some sense for a duck. Cat believes the answer rests in licking and Rabbit believes it has to do with petting. Even Death, his skull perched atop a clown suit (adding further evidence to the mountain of proof that clowns represent evil, if not evil incarnate) has his say.

Each double spread includes a simple illustration, characters in block color with simple line drawings, that are perfectly suited to the book's approach: They look as simple as their answers but everything is more complicated than it appears. A perfect book to introduce the concept of a life purpose and to get little minds to thinking... or to settle in with and accept on the surface as a example of perspective. At the very end Erlbruch includes a sheet of reproduced register paper to record future questions and answers for young readers, an open invitation to start asking even bigger questions.

But what could be bigger than *Why are we here?

Wednesday, September 5

Four Pictures By Emily Carr

by Nicholas Debon
Groundwood 2003

Travel broadens the mind, there's just no other way to explain this discovery. While traveling through Europe I stopped in an art gallery, in Amsterdam, that contained Australian Aboriginal acrylic paintings. I'm not going to mix things up here by showing you what they look like, but I had an immediate draw to them and when I got home I began researching Aboriginal art.

Hitting the shelves at the library I wasn't happy with what I was seeing so I requested some inter-library loans. In the meantime I browsed the general art survey section hoping, perhaps, to alight upon some information by chance. And there among the titles was this book. Something familiar about it, the name? Yes! The same artist who did the book The Strongest Man in the World: Louis Cyr. Huh, look at that. I hadn't even thought to see if he'd done anything before. I must be slipping, or busy, or something.

In this book Debon uses four paintings by the Canadian artist Emily Carr as a framing device to tell her life story. That's a bit of a stretch, really, as it isn't so much a biographical book as it is a collection of sketches centered around four of Carr's works. Utilizing graphic novel-esque panels to present her life we are shown; Carr's early life living and painting the landscape and the Native people of British Columbia; Her studies in Paris before the Great War when she was in her late 30's, including her first exposure to modern art and her inability to handle feeling confined by cities; Her inclusion in a retrospective of Canadian artists after abandoning her painting that puts her in contact with other artists and reinvigorates her; Her later years living like a gypsy and painting in nature.


Like a portrait that only shows you a single expression, a surface that contains hints at deeper emotions and subtext beneath, Debon ends the examination of his subject without further comment. So much is left out, so many missing details, that the book could not be considered a biographical account by any stretch of the definition. It is an impression at best, a multi-faceted portrait of one artist by another presented in format that doesn't quite work. There are narrative aspects to the segments and some illumination around the events surrounding the representative paintings, but the exercise ultimately feels empty.

After this and the Louis Cyr book I have to say that at least Debon seems to be getting better at telling stories with his pictures but he still hasn't got the hang of what it is that makes his subjects interesting. With both of Debon's books I'm left feeling ... eh ... with no desire to dig further into the lives he's chronicled. Perhaps that's why I didn't find this book earlier.

Tuesday, September 4

The Arrival

Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine / Scholastic 2007

Okay: wow.

I have this feeling everyone is going to fall all over this book (if they haven't already) for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Tan put four years into researching and preparing this book and every minute of every day of those four years is visible on the page. In his wordless tale of the immigrant experience you get the full feeling of the stranger in an extremely strange land, where daily life requires complicated negotiations, huge adjustments, and calls to question what it means exactly to understand the cultural "other."

It's a tale of a father going abroad on his own to negotiate a new life for himself and his family, to settle in and save up enough to bring his wife and daughter to the new land of opportunity. Along the way the main character meets up with several others who have their own tales and experiences to share. It's a city of strangers, of immigrants, this new and unusual world, and all the "back homes" are shown in a variety of metaphors for all the reasons one would seek shelter in a new land. Betrayed by their homelands, stories are told of dark, mammoth tentacles flailing about the edges of the old worlds, the giants that vacuum up citizens in cleansing raids, the militaristic fascism that captures the hearts and minds of young men and exact payments in the form of life and limb. The Arrival then is nothing short of a fantastical look back at the history of the American 20th century... or a forward-looking landscape into a world we have yet to envision for ourselves.

Like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, this book is neither fish nor fowl, neither a picture book nor a graphic novel, though it more closely resembles the latter. In testimonial Art Spiegelman refers to this as "a novel told in graphics (not cartoons), a wordless story that uses the language of silent cinema." And like those early silent movies -- often created by immigrants and for the entertainment of immigrants -- the universal language is that of humanity, of people dealing with one another, sometimes harshly and sometimes humorously but always bound by the spirit of the struggle and survival that binds them together.

I said it a while back and I'll say it again: the graphic novel in children's literature needs to be recognized as a separate beast from either traditional fiction or picture books, and they require their own awards. I'm not necessarily insisting this book deserves any of the ALA awards but it is inane that a book like this could be considered along side picture books or traditional narrative fiction; Worse, it would be criminal not to consider this book worthy of those awards. The problem isn't going to go away any time soon and the longer it goes unaddressed the more problematic the situation will become.