Tuesday, January 29

A Taste of Colored Water

written and illustrated by Matt Faulkner
Simon and Schuster 2008

LuLu and Jelly can't believe that Abbey saw a fountain in town that bubbled colored water; they have to see this for themselves. When their Uncle Jack needs to make a run into town the kids beg to go with so they can investigate.

Oh, but this is the Deep South, and it's mid 1960's, and the town is crowded with freedom riders and picket-carrying activists and officers of the peace wearing gas masks and toting vicious attack dogs.

Yeah, way to make childhood innocence serve an educational purpose there, Faulkner.

I think there's a valid premise in showing kids having to face certain adult realities and misinterpreting the world they find themselves in. Kids know it's not polite to stare but the first time they encounter, say, a legless war veteran or someone with palsy they actually have to make hard connections and cement the memories that make the concept relevant. Likewise, any child raised ignorant of segregation and racial bias isn't going to understand a concept like a sign over a fountain that says "colored" until they see it all in context.

What Faulkner is attempting here is a dual lesson on segregation with a dash of Civil Rights Movement. While the town is in chaos, the kids wander off to investigate the fountain, leaving the ensuing riot to play in the background, just off-stage. A sheltered country kid (and these kids are pretty dang sheltered) going into town is going to be more enraptured by the hubbub and leave the fountain to another time. Something big is happening in this town with buses and protesters and police everywhere and we're supposed to accept that these kids would rather run up a hill to see what color the water is that comes from the bubbler?

Then, as LuLu and Jelly discover the fountain is no different than any other drinking fountain (except for the word colored hanging on a sign above it), they witness the protesters (what they call a parade) getting hosed by the fire department and they finally (!) feel moved to the point of shouting and feeling dizzy. (I guess there's no guilt quite like latent white childhood guilt to make a point about race relations in this country.) Finally a cop with an attack dog tells them they need to leave and off they run to the safety of their Uncle Jack who's worried about where them dang kids ran off to.

Honestly, I think there is a genuine story here in the innocence of childhood and in not understanding the segregated ways of adults. But in order for a child to understand what's at play here you have to explain to them (or assume they already know) the use of the term colored, the contentiousness of the Civil Rights Movement in the south, and then explain why no adult in the end of the story bothers to explain to LuLu and Jelly what it was they witnessed. With the exception of discovering that colored water is exactly the same as regular "white" water (duh) the kids ain't haven't learned themselves nothing.

In the lengthy afterword (note to publishers: if a picture book requires a lengthy afterword for the adults edification, or to filter and share with children, then the message of your book has failed) Faulkner explains how this book didn't come from his own experience, having grown up in a Northern town. He goes on to speculate about how his child-self might have questioned his Southern world as filtered through his growing Northern consciousness. It's as if he's saying "I wasn't one of these kids, but if I were I would have done things differently, I'd have asked some hard questions!" The fault in this thinking -- which ultimately explains the lack of understanding that informs the book - is that if Faulkner had grown up with these kids in the sticks he wouldn't have had his fancy Northern knowing that would have allowed for such questioning. Short of saying he knows what it's like to be black person during the 1960s because he was once excluded from a game of dodgeball as a kid, I think Faulkner's afterword turns a slightly flawed book into an arrogant reductionist view of a crucial problem in this nation's history.

I didn't start this review hating this book, but now I do.

Altogether, One at a Time

by E. L. Konigsburg
illustrations by Gail E. Haley, Mercer Mayer, Gary Parker and Laurel Schindelman
Atheneum 1971

I would have hated this book as a kid. I would never have picked it up. I would have started the first story and felt alienated by the language of it, an almost disjointed voice. I would have jumped around and looked at the illustrations for the stories and would have walked away, never to give the book a second chance.

In this collection of four stories we see kids being kids, and not always nice ones. A boy invites an odd (read: dyslexic) kid to his sleepover party at his mother's urging and comes to hate that boy more because his best friend actually likes the kid; Another boy who spends his time with his grandmother when his parents are away shows his insensitivity when a cloud-covered meteor shower triggers sorrowful regret in his elder that he doesn't immediately comprehend; A girl in fat camp is shown how to achieve her inner beauty with the aide of a counselor who is in fact a ghost; A mother tells her daughter of what it was like being bused to school and how in dealing with the prejudice she encountered began to see herself as an artist.

I find Kongsburg voice to be very stilted in these stories even as an adult but like where they go and that I'm not always sure where she's headed. The clues were all there in the fat camp story and yet I missed that it was a ghost story until the very end. Actually I began to think there was something supernatural when she kept talking about this treasure trapped inside a blob of plastic -- I thought it might have been her heart -- but by the time things started to reveal themselves it was over. The thing is, as an adult I think these stories are great for opening up young reader's minds to question behavior and the morality of what is right and wrong. I an also see an adult trying to convince a skeptical kid to read these stories and watching them squirm just as I would have when I was in my middle school years.

This question of audience is coming up more and more for me lately. In a recent workshop we referred to there being a problem with gatekeepers, the adults in publishing who make the decisions and have to be appeased before the writing can even reach it's target audience. It came up because we were reviewing a story that contained what some felt were inappropriate images and ideas that others felt would have been happily accepted by kids. If the adult gatekeepers are pre-censoring stories because they are afraid of the possible backlash or wish to impose their own moral thinking onto a story, that's a bad thing for writers. In some ways what I liked about these Konigsburg stories was the exact moral ambiguity that I saw others actively attempt to shut down. We have come dangerously close to the edge totalitarianism when one side takes the moral high ground and the other side shrugs it off.

I may come back to these stories in a few days and see if my feelings still hold. At least I can say they make me want to reread them.

Interesting note on the cover shown here: This is the most recent edition available from Aladdin back in 1998. What's curious is that on my first edition copy the illustrations on the cover are the same except for that one on the bottom of the girl in the golden braids. On the original cover they use the mirror of that illustration that shows the story's protagonist, a black girl. Did the folks at the Aladdin imprint think it would smack of tokenism to keep the black protagonist on the cover, or were they trying not to scare off too many potential white customers? The collection is due to be reissued sometime this year as I understand it, here's hoping they're going back to the original cover.

Sunday, January 27

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

by Judy Blume
original Penguin edition 1972

Where's the struggle, and what's the resolution of that conflict? What does Peter want, exactly? Is Peter even the main character? Everything I learned last week in lectures and workshops is turned upside down! Grad school has ruined reading for me!

Okay, I'm calm now. But it is an interesting, if serendipitous, choice for me at this time. These collected stories of title character Peter and his younger brother nicknamed Fudge do have a connecting thread throughout, which is a turtle named Dribble that Peter wins at a birthday party on the first page. It would be tempting to make a case that the turtle is the main character for the book but that would be silly. It's Peter's story by virtue of his narration, his view of the world, but it's almost entirely the exploits of Fudge that makes Peter the "nothing" of the title, the ignored older brother. It's an interesting cheat because all Peter wants is the same fawning attention his brother receives but but only gets when Fudge has (again) done something to mess up his life. Peter never solves his own problems and in the end his only growth as a character is that he's come to acknowledge that his baby brother's exploits occasionally net him unasked-for benefits.

Those who care about spoilers, bail out now, I'm about to talk about the ending. Not that it matters because it isn't like it's any sort of real resolution, but to be fair to those who like their surprises...

The book opens and closes with a pet, the turtle Peter wins at a birthday party and the replacement for that turtle who is lost when Fudge swallows it. When Peter gets a puppy its with the wink of humorous understanding that he isn't likely to lose the dog to his brother's gastronomic misadventures, but what the hell sort of a consolation is that? This kid Fudge has knocked out his own teeth by flying off the monkey bars and cut his own hair with -- and Peter makes a point of this -- a pair of very sharp scissors stored under a bed. Hello! This kid may find he can't swallow a puppy but that doesn't mean he isn't potentially a lethal vivisectionist.

But back to the dog. Peter has never mentioned wanting a dog, never really wanted anything but to have his brother not mess up his life, and all we see time and again are a pair of loving parents who don't freak out (which is good) but can't seem to reign in the terror of tiny town. And for all Peter has to put up with he's given a puppy for companionship. After all he's endured throughout the book Peter is essentially told "we love you, but we've got our hands full with your maniacal brother so here's a puppy to give your the companionship we can't give you."

Anyway, structurally it was interesting to see how one could fashion a book out of connected stories, essentially a dual character study of a rambunctious snot and his nothing of an older brother. And that poor tortured turtle.

Friday, January 25

Little Golden Book Favorites

Goodnight, Little Bear (1961)
Chipmunk's ABC (1963)
The Bunny Book (1955)
by Richard Scarry
Golden Books 2008

At first blush there isn't really much one can say about these classic picture books featuring early Richard Scarry artwork. The stories themselves are practically ur-picture book archetypes: the little bear that won't go to bed and "hides" on his father's shoulders; a basic animal ABC book; an exploration between parent and child about what a bunny will be when it grows up. But then, another look and we see that two of the three stories feature a father prominently in a nurturing role. Why does that stand out to me?

These thoughts are quickly replaced by the art. Staring at these anthropomorphic woodland creatures I can't help but think how awkward they look. They're stiff, almost as if Richard Scarry didn't know how to draw animals doing human things.

No, wait. Richard Scarry knows exactly how to draw animals and in putting them into human clothes he has captured the true awkwardness of the situation. Just as a house pet looks ridiculous when forced into baby clothes or doll accessories, the animals in Richard Scarry's world look as if they are happily playing along but clearly not cut out to be handling knives or riding bikes and whatnot. In a way, Scarry has preserved some of the animal dignity by recognizing that they aren't human. Though he has forced them into human clothes, homes and situations he has not negated their animal nature to make them more human.

Suddenly I am aware that modern animal picture book illustrations go out of their way to give the animals more of human fluidity in their movements, more of what animators call an "action line" in their stances, and less anything even resembling animal anatomy. Compare these happy little Scarry animals...

With the pose of this friendly little bear, one of the four food groups in Emily Gravett's Orange Pear Apple Bear.

Let me state right here that Gravett's book is pure genius, using only five words (four of them in the title) to riff on color, shape and size, so I don't mean to suggest that I find fault with it. But Gravett's bear throughout holds the sort of contrapposto perfected by masters of the Renaissance and contains no resemblance to a real bear at all aside from it's most characteristic of shapes. It's as if there is a human being trapped inside Gravett's bear, while the Scarry animals are as stiff as a taxidermist's diorama. Look again at the small mouse above attempting two-handed to cut that cheese and compare it with the cocked ease of that bear who has skillfully just pealed that orange.

Sometimes I wonder about the use of animals as human stand-ins in picture books. Have studies been done to show that children better connect with animals in picture books -- there are a LOT of animal books out there! Do we use animals to teach them about creatures in the world, or are they a calculated way around the thorny issue of racial representation and the possible cost in sales through alienation? Have children become so desensitized to the novelty of walking-talking animals that they now expect them to look and behave human instead of a playful-if-accurate representation?

I think it might be interesting to see if smaller children can tell the difference, or have a marked preference, in the various styles of illustration or if an animal in clothes is an animal in clothes no matter how stiff.

Friday, January 11

The Race of the Century

"retold" and "illustrated" by Barry Downard
Simon & Schuster

Put. The Photoshop. Down.

Seriously, this is one of the most atrociously illustrated books I've seen in a stretch.

Retelling the Aesop Tortoise and Hare fable what we have goes beyond the usual anthropomorphic animals, it actually grafts human features like eyes, lips, hair and teeth onto the animals to create a creepy Island of Dr. Moreau Special Animal Olympics. Tortoise remains on all fours with his toffee brown eyes and toothy grin but hare has his rabbit head and tale plopped onto the toned body of an aerobics instructor. Equally disturbing is the fact that the images are rendered in a spectrum of gray-muted colors resembling the mystery meat platter from an industrial cafeteria.


Wednesday, January 9

A Couple of Toon Books

Benny and Penny in Just Pretend
by Geoffrey Hayes

Otto's Orange Day
written by Jay Lynch
illustrated by Frank Cammuso

Toon Books/RAW Junior 2007

In a word: Disappointing.

The first releases in a new imprint from he editorial team of Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman are probably best described as comic books packaged as graphic novels for the younger set. If they didn't have such a high pedigree (Spiegelman's Maus being royalty among American graphic novels) I would almost call them cynical and calculated in their attempt to cash in on the current interest in sequential storytelling art for children.

Otto is a cute kid/kit who has a thing for the color orange When his aunt sends him an orange lamp she found he finds himself the owner of a genie who grants his single wish to turn everything in the world orange. Very quickly the downside of his wish becomes apparent when orange lamb chops don't taste so good and orange traffic lights cause accidents. Unable to retract his wish, Otto and his aunt manage to trick the Genie into correcting the problem by treating him nice and appealing to his centuries-old hunger.

With Benny and Penny we have a typical sibling problem of learning how to lay together. Benny the elder of the two is looking to play pirate but when his younger princess-dressed sister wants to join in Benny resists. Forced to play with her sister Benny convinces his sister to play hide-and-seek so he can hide her away and deliberately not find her. After a while he realizes it's not as much fun to play alone and after a scary moment where he's afraid his sister is lost Penny reappears and they continue to play together.

As comic books for emerging readers, these are fine. The problem I have is that they don't aspire to be anything more than comic book material, and to that end I find it hard to understand how they can justify their packaging and price. $12.95 is a bit steep when you can hit the comic book store and find similarly appropriate (and ultimately disposable) material -- albeit produced by a TV network and filled with ads -- for one third the price. Even if you wanted to go with higher quality you can find reprinted Mickey Mouse comic books at two-thirds the price and double or triple the pages without ads.

There is very little in content that separates these comics from similar age-appropriate material in I-Can-Read series titles. If the intention of the books from this imprint are to give comic books a viability in traditional book marketplace, to pull them from the ghetto of the den of the comic book stores that might mystify adults looking for quality comic material for their children, then adjustments will need to be made.

It's disappointing because where Mouly and Spieglman have the resources and connections to bring known comic creators before younger audiences this enterprise has the feel of bandwagoning profiteers.

Monday, January 7

2007 Cybils Graphic Novel Finalists

The second round of Cybils nominations went up this morning, including the Graphic Novel category for which I am a judge this year. Going in was a little nervous that perhaps I would be at sea in this category, that I'd have a lot of reading to catch up on once they shortlists were posted.

Nope, most I either already own or have read. Actually, only one title was new to me. I'm not saying which because I don't want to suggest that somehow it is a lesser title and automatically on the outs.

I was about to say that 'd reviewed more than half the nominees here but a quick look through the archives prove that is not true. It's no secret to me that I read far more than I can review -- time, the avenger! -- but I was certain I had something to say about a couple of unrepresented titles in the past.

Overall I'm very happy with the shortlist and am looking forward to seeing how all this plays out. If you haven't checked out the nominees in all the categories, or haven't got a clue about the Cybils at all, head on over to Cybil Central and check it out.

Wednesday, January 2

Thoreau at Walden

by John Porcellino
from the writings of Henry David Thoreau
with an introduction by D.B. Johnson
Center for Cartoon Studies/Hyperion
April 2008

Moving to New England a few years ago I felt compelled to finally be a good citizen and read Walden. It was one of those books assigned to me back in high school that I never go around to because I could never get into it. Thoreau was not approachable to me then -- not as approachable as Cliff Notes, for all the good they did me -- but time and experience and an open mind have helped. I found myself nodding and agreeing with appreciation, and recognized instantly how much misery in life and thought Thoreau could have saved me had my mind been ready for it when I was a teen.

The idea then of taking Thoreau's key ideas -- the man did ramble -- and converting them into an accessible graphic novel format seems almost too easy. The man goes into the woods and builds himself a home trying to remove himself from the trappings of his 19th century materialist society. The man gets off the grid before there really was one. For two years he observes and meditates and tends to his navel gazing through his diary. In the end he returns to the world he left, his experiment over, hoping to report back to the world what he has learned and gained from the experience. No one really cared at the time but History and English teachers have since come to his rescue and changed all that.

The way Walden is presented here a young reader might surmise that a poet went into the woods one day to commune with nature, occasionally to journey into town, he had various and occasionally profound insights that still ring true today, and then rejoined society and hoped to spread the word.

It's Walden Lite and among it's sparse illustrations one might glean what it is Thoreau is all about, but most likely not. It is precisely Thoreau's verbosity that is at issue because in streamlining his thoughts into what can be illustrated Porcellino jettisons the process by which Thoreau comes to his conclusions. Short scenes where a cartoon philosopher view nature from the lake or while crouched in the forest convey a certain mise en scene but they also reduce Thoreau to a mere back-to-nature lover and fail to connect with what he draws from these moments. Thoreau lived in a house he built in the woods, stated in this graphic novel in a single panel showing the cabin, but in Walden Thoreau makes much of how he came to the land, how he chose the spot for the cabin, how he built it, what his supplies cost. It's the details that underscore what he's going on about, the idea of living by the labor of his own hands, and sadly we are shown none of it here.

The book does try to cover the topics most relevant to Walden -- befriending a rat, the night in jail, communing with nature -- but, again, as illustrated we are treated to panel after panel of minimalist drawings which fail to engage precisely because they contain so little information. In one panel an illustration of Walden Pond is rendered so generically it's inclusion almost seems an embarrassment. There are ways to suggest place and to present visual information using the barest of lines -- think of the portraits of Al Hershfeld -- but what we have here suggests a cartoon landscape drawn without a point of actual reference. Porcellino may have gone into the woods at Walden, as have I a year or so ago, but I don't recognize that place in these drawings.

Interestingly, the forward is by another artist who has tackled Thoreau himself, and I believe rather successfully. D.B. Johnson has three illustrated books for the picture book crowd that turns Thoreau into a bear and isolates specific moments from Walden to illustrate their point. Henry Climbs a Mountain takes Thoreau's night in jail and makes it easy enough for a child of six to understand, and it's more sophisticated than the way Thoreau's words are illustrated in this graphic novel. Its unfortunate because up to this release I have been excited by the books coming from The Center for Cartoon Studies. I'm going to chalk this one up as a miss and hope for more forthcoming titles along the lines of Satchel Page and Houdini, The Handcuff King.

In the meantime, if you need a shortcut to Thoreau, Cliff Notes and their ilk are readily available.