Friday, March 14

The Chicken of the Family

by Mary Amato
illustrated by Delphine Durand
Putnam 2008

It is the sacred duty of the eldest child to deviously taunt the youngest sibling. If one can do so with the aid of middle siblings, all the better. It is equally the duty of the youngest sibling to both believe the most gullible lies delivered by the oldest sibling and find an equally clever, but innocent, way to get their revenge.

And so we have The Chicken of the Family.

Henrietta is woken from her sleep and told by her oldest sister Kim that she isn't really a member of the family, she is a chicken, acquired from the farm down the road. Middle sister Claire's job is to go along with the joke, the support of two people saying the same thing giving the statement the weight of truth. Henrietta doesn't believe it's true until she wakes up in the morning and finds an egg in her bed and a couple of feathers on the floor.

Certain now that she is truly a chicken she runs away, down the road to the farm where she takes her rightful place in the chicken yard. Henrietta has no qualms adjusting to her new life as a chicken, scratching and taking a dust bath and playing follow the leader.

Kim and Claire arrive with a directive from their parents to admit their prank and bring Henrietta home. The only problem is that Henrietta is enjoying herself too much, feels she really is a chicken, and refuses to follow. Exasperated, Kim decides to call for back-up from her parents but Claire has decided to stay -- she's broken away from her sister's scheme after seeing what fun it is to be a chicken. Henrietta and Claire do trundle on home just in time to see their older sister getting chewed out for causing this fiasco.

"Sometimes it's good to be a chicken."

Indeed, sometimes embracing your gullibility is no different than embracing what makes you unique. Accepting what her sisters have told her, Henrietta is free to discover what it means to be different. She knows she's not a chicken on some level, just as she doesn't run away to get her sister in trouble, but along the way she's learned something about herself, about another culture (if you will), and about the things others will do to control you.

Yes, this is a deeper reading that a light and fluffy picture book deserves, but it's true: sometimes it is good to be a chicken.


by Barbara Lehman
Houghton Mifflin 2008

On a train trip between cityscapes young girls watches as her view in a black tunnel is replaced by a vibrant countryside. When the train is flagged down mysteriously the girl notices she is the only one on the train who isn't asleep. Stepping off the train she finds a group of people gathered around a tree where a person and their plane have become lodged. What isn't apparent until she reaches the tree is that the people are all tiny, as if the remained frozen the height they were from her train window perspective. While the people are as real as the girl, the plane in the tree is one of those balsa wood planes with a rubber band powering the propeller. Once she has rescued the tiny pilot she returns to the train and resumes her ride home, out the of the fantasy and out of the tunnel, back to the city where she lives.

Out in front of her townhouse, standing in her stone yard, she looks up and sees the rescued pilot and a co-pilot flying toward her. They come with a gift of thanks, a small seedling for an apple tree that is planted in the crack in her stone yard. As a parting shot the girl sits on her stoop admiring her now-grown tree while all over the city other trees have begun sprouting up, no doubt from kindred daydreaming souls looking to return nature to the cities.

Lehman set herself an impossible bar with The Red Book a few years back and, unfairly perhaps, everything since has been measured against that amazing snake-eating-its-tale fantasy. If the impression -- mine at least -- was that her subsequent books (Museum Trip, Rainstorm) were increasingly weaker attempts to capture lighting in a bottle, Trainstop manages to stand apart from the others, on its own and with very sturdy legs. As with her previous books Lehman mines the theme of a child's daydream world, but here the idea of an fantasy taking place while the rest of the world sleeps, coupled with the message of bringing nature back to the cities, is perhaps the strongest, most direct message delivered yet. Where in previous books the children imagine or discover worlds for their own purposes and keeping, Trainstop gives us a child looking to share her fantasy with the world. It's almost a subtle environmental message, a quiet Lorax making a last call on those with eyes and ears enough to still listen.

For those unfamiliar with Lehman's work, the book is as wordless as her previous books, filled with the same thick-outlined ligne claire illustrations that are her trademark. Probably the simplest of her picture books to date, but no less engaging. I think what I'd really like to see is what Lehman can do with the long-form: graphic novels. Her sense of pacing, her imagination, I think make her an ideal candidate for an extended fantasy romp a la Sara Varon's Robot Dreams or, on a more picture book level, Regis Faller's The Adventures of Polo.

I can hope, can't I?

Wednesday, March 12


by Arthur Geisert
Walter Lorraine / Houghton Mifflin 2008

The children in Pig Village trek up the hill to wallow in the official mud hole. After their frolic they move on to the paint yard where colored liquid is dispensed onto the ground for a more vibrant wallow. As their playtime comes to an end the parents of Pig Village meet them to help supervise their collective bathing in a large agitation tub, followed by being hung out to dry on long clothes lines, and then it's all back to Pig Village, one and all.

Yes, it's wash day in hog land, or Hogwash, as the play-on-words title suggests. And as a synonym for nonsense there's probably no better title for the goings on here. Geisert's wordless picture books (not a graphic novel, mind you) traffic in these silent movies concerning the goings on of anthropomorphic pigs. He produces color etchings for illustrations, a process that renders lines a little rougher than most drawings, here giving the artwork a fussy sort of distance from being too clean.

I have to admit, there's a certain quality to Geisert's books that leave me cold, and it might be the lack of warmth in his art that counteracts the whimsy. I wasn't as impressed with his previous book Oops! because it attempted to slow down a situation -- a house falling apart -- into a book-length set of stills that made a dynamic situation stagnant. At least with Hogwash there is more of a linear narrative, and on the whole I enjoyed it.

This time around I did find one illustration that caused me to wonder about the scale of the pigs in this land. At the point where the piglets are being sent to line dry there is a wind-driven motor made with two magnets that looks like a child's science project. It's the most basic motor that can be made, and it's hooked to a power coil that appears to be copper wire wound around a wooden thread spool. Backing up, looking at the communal bath, their water is heated in what looks like a giant tea pot -- or is it a normal sized teapot?

Are these miniature pigs? Toys? If they are to this scale, these pigs would be about a quarter of an inch tall. I thought that could be an interesting reveal to first give you a world of unusual pigs and then to show you that they're smaller than insects, a world within a world as it were.

It's fun, I liked it, I just wasn't as wowed as some people get over Geisert's books.

Sunday, March 9

Throwing Hollywood a Bone

I don't generally run news items but I stumbled onto this in the Hollywood Reporter. While I can see why Warner Bros might be interested in adapting Jeff Smith's Bone Chronicles I can't imagine any justice being done unless they give it Lord of the Rings treatment, i.e. a trio of movies and not a 90 minute cartoon.

We can hope, right? It is the season of hope, after all. Movie watchers demand change, too!

Saturday, March 8


The Art and Life of Wayne Thiebaud
Susan Goldman Rubin
Chronicle Books 2007

A book so luscious you want to lick it, that's my blurb for this one.

For those unfamiliar of artist Wayne Thiebaud, of any age from middle grade up, this is a great introduction. Better, it explains Thiebaud's growth as an artist and the circuitous route he took to get there, working as a commercial artist, in department stores, drawing cartoons for Disney, and farthest from his thinking was the fine art paintings that have been his claim to fame. What I like about this gentle message of an artist discovering himself is that while he always knew he wanted to do art he wasn't forced to make a decision before he was ready. As he was mentored by individual artists and made his living as a working artist he gained a lot of experience that would later become useful as a painter.

I think there are a lot of creative souls in the schools who know they want to do something with the arts but don't really understand how one figures this out. When I was in high school the idea of working as an artist, of making a living, meant what was called commercial art which primarily meant advertising art. If a high school student said they wanted to be an artist that's what was on offer, that was all anyone really understood about art. If a guidance counselor could have suggested how I could channel my interests in photography and graphics into, say, book design or children's books I think my life would have been very different. If someone could have put this book into my hand, showing me how a fine artist found his footing and did some artful floundering along the way, my life would have taken another very different direction.

So, yeah, I hold some real high hopes that this book finds some middle grade and teen readers who are interested in what the life of an artist looks like.

The book itself is beautifully put together. Chronicle really gets it right, with practically each spread featuring one of Theibaud's luscious cakes, tempting candies, or angular intersections faced with text in white set against an ever changing compliment of backgrounds. The paintings influence the color palate which, by design, give this book an appropriately artistic tone. Honest, just pick this book up and leaf through and ask yourself why all books on art can't look this good.

The gals (can call you guys that?) over at 7Imp did a much better job covering this book that I seem to be able to manage right now. Check out their review and then check this book out.

Friday, March 7

An A to Z Treasure Hunt

written and illustrated by Alice Melvin
Tate Publishing UK 2007

The English alphabet is only 26 letters. There's only so much you can do with an alphabet book. Not that people haven't found ways to make an alphabet book informative (Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehrlet), thematic (C is for Caboose, about trains, and A is for Astronaut, about space, both by Chronicle Books), and they can certainly be entertainingly clever (Sendak's Alligators All Around). The world of alphabet books even includes non-alphabet books like Seuss's On Beyond Zebra and Tony DiTerlizzi's G is For One Gzonk. So with so many good (and bad) alphabet books it does take something to stand out from the pack.

Let me hold off one second more before talking about the book at hand. I have to say that I have twice tried to pick up the Steve Martin-Roz Chast The Alphabet from A to Y With Bonus Letter Z! -- twice, I tell you! -- and I have yet to finish it. Somewhere along the way I find myself wondering if there's a scientific name for belly button lint, what our pets think when they see us changing our clothes, that sort of thing. I can't tell if it's intended for kids or adults, I can't get into it, I can't help wondering if it's one of those extended New Yorker gags that sounds funny as a concept but could never be executed.

So today I stumble onto this slim little paperback and wonder if the hunt of the title makes it one of those I-Spot sort of books. Before I can open it I can tell the paper is nicer that I expected, with French flaps decorated with little men using semaphore to initiate (in the front) and conclude (in the back) the hunt.

Wait a minute, who published this? Tate? Like the museum in England? Sure enough. What's a museum doing printing an alphabet book?

I'll tell you what they're doing, they're making an interactive craft book out of the alphabet. F is for flag, and sure enough there are three strands zipping across the page but only two have little triangle flags running along them. The third strand is blank and on the bottom of the page the reader is suggested to find some scrap fabric and make little flags to glue into the book! L is for leaf, which asks you to collect an autumn leaf (don't harm a living tree) and add it to the page. Buttons are collected to decorate the tops of cupcakes. Your portrait (photo or drawn) is requested to fill in another illustration. A goose's egg requires glitter and glue. A snake would like some sequins for it's scales. The King requires a playing card to complete the royalty. Every page is a small craft project that reinforces the alphabet illustration, but it also allows each book to become an artifact unique the owner. It's fun, simple, almost Montessori in its approach. Color me impressed.

It's certainly the kind of thing a museum would publish because, on one hand, it's totally impractical. Once you start adding things to this book it will become lumpy, will shed bits of glitter and whatnot, and the binding is really too tightly glued to allow for opening flat without falling apart. In fact, this may be another of those books that ultimately works better for adults because I was instantly thinking about how, instead of using real buttons and playing cards, I could use magazine photos and color photocopies of real objects to make collages out of each page. Maybe this is a good project for an artistic teen to take on over the summer as a holiday gift for a younger relative. Even if you don't ultimately agree that it's a great book you have to admit there has to be something to an alphabet book that sets the mind in motion like this.

I don't know where you're going to find this... Powell's maybe? I doubt the library is going to want to circulte such a participatory book. Perhaps the children's section of a museum store. It's worth a gander.

Wednesday, March 5


Poems by Alan Katz
Drawings by Edward Koren
Margaret K. McElderry / Simon & Schuster 2008

Okay, once again just to make sure we're all on the same page: do not give your book a title that can be used against you in a review. You would think editors would be the first to understand the rules of making a book review-proof. Of course, it's also a good idea to make sure the content followed the same rules, not just the title.

Katz is no Shel Silverstein (he's not even Jack Prelutsky), but so much about this book feels like that's what the guilty parties were trying for. It's 179 pages of short, silly poetry accompanied by line drawings is squarely aimed at those who have worn out their copies of Where the Sidewalk Ends and It's Raining Pigs and Noodles.

All the usual topics are covered -- too much TV, failing grades, turns of phrases, wordplay -- but so much of it falls flat. Rhymes and near-rhymes have the feel of having being culled from a reference book with the rest of the poem built awkwardly around them. There are ways to break the meter within a poem, and then there are just broken feet. And some of these poems seemed designed to deliver a punchline but don't have the substance to prop them up. I think there's a picture-book's-worth of poems here that are good -- maybe a couple dozen or so -- and the rest reads like contractual filler.

I know kids in their poetry phase can't ever get enough of the humorous verse, and this will easily break up the monotony of rereading the same six or seven books for this crowd, but I don't suspect it will get the same level of repeat readings.

Question: where are the women poets who write volumes of humorous poetry? Is nonsense considered the province of male poets, and is this why boys stop reading poetry?