Wednesday, December 26

The Year in Review

Or rather, not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Year in Review?

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

So it goes.

Wednesday, December 12

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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