Friday, April 11

A Joker and a Jack

Uncle Shelby's Zoo: Don't Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies
by Shel Silverstein
originally published by HMH Publications Inc. (Playboy) 1963
HarperCollins 2008

My Dog May Be a Genius
by Jack Prelutsky
HarperCollins / Greenwillow 2008

In these waning days of his tenure as Children's Poet Laureate, Jack Prelutsky and his publishers (who also happen to be Silverstien's publisher) give us another of his larger poetry omnibuses. For as much as I like to pick away at Prelutsky I have to give the man credit for his consistency and his ability to deliver the exact tone of poem that children like to read over and over.

There's hardly any subject new under the sun when it comes to topics for poetry but "A Letter From Camp" sounds a bit too close to Allen Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" for my comfort. And then there's "The Underwater Marching Band" which had a cadence that, I swear, made me start humming along with Sandra Boynton's (of all people) "The Uninvited Loud Precision Band."

Rife with puns and wordplay, fart jokes and concrete poems, Prelutsky provides an ample smorgasbord for young palates.
I Thought I Saw

I thought I saw BBBBBBBBBBB
dive down into the CCCCCCC.
Could I believe my own II?
I'm not so sure, I'm not YY.
That would be eleven bees, seven seas, two eyes, too wise. As we say around the house; pretty clever, toilet lever.

Then he's got stuff that comes off like a cross between Hilaire Belloc Greek wrestling with Ogden Nash in front of the hearth, with a tip o' the hat to William Stieg's CDB:
A Bear is Not Disposed

A bear is not disposed
to dressing up in clothes,
not even underwear,
A bear likes being bare.
Indeed. Emphasize any one word in that last line like an actor's exercise for a variety of meanings.

* * *

Shel Silverstein was his own dog, so to speak. His early years were spent drawing cartoons of army life, as well as writing and drawing his observations for Playboy magazine. He also wrote lyrics to something like 800 songs that were recorded by people as diverse as Johnny Cash ("A Boy Named Sue"), The Irish Rovers ("The Unicorn"), and Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show ("The Cover of the Rolling Stone").

I point this out because I want to show off how much I know about Uncle Shelby. No! Wait! I point this out because there's something about the spirit of Shel Silverstien that comes though most of his work, that sense of the absurd married to the real. I say most of his work because occasionally that spirit is missing, for whatever reason, and in the case of the reissue of Don't Bump the Glump! I feel the spirit has left the building.

Of course, the spirit did leave the building in 1999 when Silverstein died, and I half-suspect this book wouldn't have been reissued if he were still with us. Maybe I'm wrong, because his Evil Eye enterprise renewed the copyright. It isn't that it's bad, but it feels early, like a man working out his style, and doing so on Playboy's payroll.

Most of what we have are short little poems about imaginary beasties, each with its own little watercolor illustration to go with. One that hit me like a ton of bricks is the following. I could have sworn I've actually heard a recoding of Uncle Shelby playing his guitar and singing to this. Is this a buried childhood memory, or something my synapses concocted on their own.

The Slithergadee has crawled out of the sea.
He may catch the others, but he won't catch me.
No you won't catch me, old Slitherdagee
You mat catch the others, but you wo---
From the man who wrote the song "I Got Stoned and I Missed It" and was posthumously admitted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002. Thanks, Shel

* * *

Check out the Poetry Friday round-up this week over at A Wrung Sponge.

Thursday, April 10

Me Hungry!

by Jeremy Tankard
Candlewick 2008

Edwin the Caveboy is hungry, but Ma and Pa Cavepeople are busy (Pa is trying to figure out how to navigate a peanut with a club, Ma's got a gaggle of younger kids to deal with), so Edwin decides to go hunting for himself!

Rabbit hides, Porcupine is too sharp, Tiger is too mean, it looks like Edwin will go hungry until he comes across a Mastodon who shares his hunger and together they go in search of food. Feasting together on apples, Edwin calls out "We busy!" when called to dinner by his Pa.

Tankard knocked it out of the park last year with Grumpy Bird, his picture book featuring a bird with an attitude problem. This time around the only thing holding back my enthusiasm is that the illustrations feel a bit thin. They're lacking the density, the texture of the multiple layers. Same charming characters, same great, vibrant colors. Same playfulness. Perhaps someone suggested that the backgrounds in Grumpy Bird didn't "track well" with younger readers. I heard someone say that. I scoffed when I heard it, to the dismay of the adult scoffee.

To those who might be worried about Edwin's "cavespeak," believing it might be as horrid as the goo-goo Junie B. Jones dialect, fear not. Everyone in Me Hungry! speaks the patois of subject-verb -- adults, animals, and kids -- implying the early development of language instead of cloying malapropisms. It works, it's fun, nothing cloying about it.

Want to see a recent interview with Jeremy Tankard? You should, he's a great dude, and the Imps over at 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast pull together a great one with the man. Go here, and tell them I sent you.

You can also see my interview with Jeremy from a while back here.

Wednesday, April 9

All Aboard: A Traveling Alphabet

concept by Chris L. Demarest
illustrated by Bill Mayer
McElderry Books 2008

Alphabet books. If asked, how many adults (outside the world of publishing or kidlit blogging) could name a favorite alphabet book they had as a child? I did ask people, casually, in a non-scientific poll and not one could name an alphabet book they loved.

"Wasn't there a Dr. Seuss alphabet book? I probably had that."

They might have been thinking about On Beyond Zebra, which goes beyond the normal alphabet in Seussian style. The fact is they don't generally remember alphabet books. The reason is that they hold such a temporary spot in our progression as readers, a mere blip on or reading radar. The reinforcement of shapes and sounds, with images to match, can't quite lodge itself in the same memory sensors as those books that hold deeper meaning for us.

Which might be why it seems like everyone wants to come out with a new alphabet book every season, because who can recall the last memorable alphabet book?

To answer my own question there is one alphabet book I do remember, and that Sendak's Alligators All Around, part of the Nutshell Library. What I remember about it is there's more story than letter reinforcement, the alliteration of letters and sounds, and the plain fact of alligators doing silly human-like things. I think what I like most about it, what I remember, is that it's less interested in teaching me as a young reader, and more about entertaining me.

All to say that while I don't necessarily hate the alphabet book, I sometimes don't understand the point of one. Some serve as a game ("can you find the letter C?") and some are about reinforcing the sounds (those alligators again) but so many seem to be designed as clever concepts for adults to enjoy. It's a bit like the way modern animated feature films include adult jokes for the those in the audience who are sitting with young ones, a way to entertain the family. But what adult needs to have an alphabet book similarly made palatable to their tastes in order for them to show an interest with a child?

Let's get around to the book at hand. All Aboard! is an alphabet book in the style of romantic travel posters. Each page features some element of travel -- the smokestack of a steam steamer, a canoe on still water, a biplane from above -- each with a letter of the alphabet worked into the design in some fashion. They also include a word beginning with the letter appropriate for each illustration, for example the word "jump" along with a fish leaping to swallow a fishing fly.

This last example is a perfect illustration for what I don't like about the execution of this concept. The J in this case is supposed to be found in the shape of the fish, the way it's tail flips to create the tail of the letter. The problem is that it isn't an exact letter shape but a general shape and as such isn't obvious from looking at the picture.

Other letters are hidden in some clever ways that make them almost impossible to find. The H in the highway illustration is made from the edge of the highway, the double yellow line down the center, and the long shadow of a cacti plant crossing both. It's not impossible to see once you know it's there, but using the edge of the highway is a sophisticated form of shape recognition that might be just outside the bounds of young eyes that are still getting used to more than 2-dimensions.

The concept of using old travel posters as an illustration style I think is great, but since this is probably aimed at adults it would have been nice if the illustrations were a bit more true to their source. A skier making a downhill run, the S in the trail behind the skis, would have benefited from a bit of something that made it look a little more... like travel poster. Instead we get a skier against a white background which, besides being dull, doesn't convey the sense of the concept. All it would have taken is an alpine ridge, a stylized mountain edge in the background, perhaps a Swiss chalet. Similarly, the previously mentioned Highway illustration would have made more sense with a retro station wagon loaded with camping gear going through the desert instead of what we do get, an 18-wheeler making a hairpin turn.

If that sounds like I'm being nit-picky remember, I'm part of the intended audience. There's little point in making the illustration resemble travel posters from the early part of the 20th century for those born in the 21st who have no frame of reference.

I find it amusing -- that is, I smirk when I think about it -- that this book as a credit for the concept and another for the illustrator. It isn't quite a writing credit, is it? And in the forward the artist talks about the challenges of working with the editor on how to fit the alphabet letters into the illustrations. So if the artist and the editor are doing the heavy lifting... is it really worth mentioning who came up with the concept?

Yeah, I've got this idea for an alphabet book. Something with letters somehow worked into old travel posters. You guys can hammer out the details, I'll be in Jamaica drinking up my advance if you have any questions...

It's a bit like a Hollywood-type saying "Let's do Die Hard on a boat!" and getting story credit for it in the movie and ten grand for each word in his pitch. Is this the future of picture books, "conceptualists" instead of authors? I hope not.

Tuesday, April 8

The Pigeon Wants a Puppy

by Mo Willems
Hyperion 2008

Well, I think the pigeon has jumped the shark.

I know, I know, there are many out there, legions of you perhaps, who feel that Mo and his beloved blue bird can do no wrong. To be fair, it isn't a bad book, it's just that the pigeon seems to have... changed.

First, we're seeing more facial expressions in the pigeon, and many of them seem rather feminine to me. Nothing wrong with the pigeon a boy or a girl, or gender neutral, but this time around it feels more pronounced. That in and of itself isn't a problem. But the punchline is that the pigeon doesn't know what a puppy is and is frightened when it finally meets one and, well, it acts a bit too girly in its fear. It isn't that a boy can't be frightened of a big dog, or that kids don't like the concept of a pet more than the reality, it's that when the expressions leading up to the reveal feel feminine, a stereotypical girl reaction leaves a bad taste.

Am I off base, reading too much into this? Relax, old man! It's just a picture book for kids, I hear you say. I still say the pigeon has some other problems.

We began with a pigeon who wanted to drive a bus. Well, that's just silly, and as much as it pleaded with us we wouldn't let it drive the bus. There was a great little hint that we were supposed to talk back to the pigeon because the bus driver told us not to let anyone drive the bus.

Next, pigeon finds a hot dog, which had a cute little ducky to act as a foil, asking all sort of annoying questions. I couldn't help thinking about a bird eating another animal's meat, but that's the kind of thing only an adult would worry about. Still, the pigeon's antics amuse and entertain in keeping with our previous experience.

Then the pigeon wanted to stay up late, which is a common problem among children and adults. The pigeon uses every trick in the book and there's a creeping sense that perhaps the pigeon isn't so unique. Yes, kids want to drive the bus, but they cannot, but pigeons should even less so. And kids are always finding things on the ground to put in their mouths, but a pigeon and a hot dog are a wacky combination. Not wanting to go to sleep? That feels a bit to pedestrian for the pigeon. You could have substituted a character from any other book and it wouldn't have made a difference.

Now the pigeon wants a puppy. It has some unrealistic ideas about what puppy ownership means - watering it like a plant, riding around on it bareback -- but this doesn't feel odd enough. Of course, the punchline of this book makes more sense and I almost would have preferred the book start there.

But there's something else going on here, something a bit more strange. The pigeon is acting like it has an awareness of itself that goes beyond the book. It's a hard thing to explain, it's almost as if the pigeon is aware of its popularity in the world and has become spoiled like a star. There's a lack of innocence, almost as if it's playing for the camera. These closer, more expressive (yet still simple) line drawings are showing us a pigeon who knows its being watched. The coy cuteness is more Actors Studio than playground, the anger is studied. The bird is veering dangerously close to self-parody inviting young readers to say "Okay, we know you're going to get what you want, I guess we can put up with all your mock protesting to find out what happens when you get it."

If you read Mo Willem's blog on a regular basis you will see the sort of adventures kids propose for the pigeon as he posts some of the choice ones he gets from time to time. They capture the absurdity of the pigeon books, which is what bothers me about ...a Puppy. Don't Let the Pigeon Punch Himself sounds a whole lot more fun!

I know adults and children can't get enough of pigeon, and I was among them for a while. I don't think the franchise has capsized just yet, but that bird is going to have to pop off with something truly unexpected next time or else it's time to abandon ship.

Monday, April 7

How I Learned Geography

by Uri Shulevitz
FSG 2008

When his family is exiled from Poland, a young boy and his parents take refuge in nearby Soviet controlled Turkestan. Too poor to afford bread, one day the boy's father comes home with an enormous map of the Eastern Hemisphere. At first the boy is resentful of his father's actions because of the hunger, but the next day -- and many after -- the boy loses himself in the map, memorizing place names and imagining himself all over the world. In the end the boy forgives his father because he realizes the map gives back much more than the temporary fulfilment of physical hunger.

Based on Shulevitz's own experiences it's hard to figure out whether this is a personal memoir or a story about loving geography. Of course it's both, but it enters that same between world of another expat, Peter Sis, with his recent bio-memoir-picture book The Wall. The story reads like an old tale, partially because of its austere setting, but the flights of fancy also add that sense of something Old World. Shulevitz tells us a variation on the old Yiddish expression that sometimes a person needs a story more than food, the idea that feeding the mind can have greater value at times. Indeed, for a boy living the life of a refugee, having a singular point of refuge from his daily plight isn't such a bad trade-off in troubling times.

Shulevitz provides us with some biographical notes at the end, in addition to a pair of drawing he made as a boy that show his interest and development as an artist. One is a map drawn on the back of an envelope (all he had to draw on) done from memory of the large map, the other a cartoon he drew as a teen living in Paris that echoes one of the scenes from the book. The connection between his life, the influence of the map, and his drawings all come together in this bit of back matter (more back material at the end of a picture book!) and give an already strong book a weightiness it might not have had otherwise.

Friday, April 4

Poetry Friday: my sweet old etcetera

from America At War
poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn
McElderry Books 2008

Yeah, I'm back in the Friday Poetry round-up, for the month at least. Can't let National Poetry Month drift without mentioning some sort of poetry. I'm taking the liberty this week of cross-posting two different poems from the same collection because, well, just because. Does poetry need a reason?

This collection, America At War, groups poems by the wars America has participated in one way or another. A while back I mentioned this collection and included a Carl Sandburg poem, one I'm pretty sure I had to memorize in seventh grade. This time around we have a little e.e. cummings, and despite the fact that it's about a letter from the front, I like the refrain and the subtle bawdiness at the end.

my sweet old etcetera
e.e. cummings

my sweet old etcetera
aunt lucy during the recent

war could and what
is more did tell you just
what everybody was fighting

my sister

isabel created hundreds
hundreds) of socks not to
mention shirts fleaproof earwarmers

etcetera wristers etcetera, my
mother hoped that

i would die etcetera
bravely of course my father used
to become hoarse talking about how it was
a privilege and if only he
could meanwhile my

self etcetera lay quietly
in the deep mud et

cetera, of
Your smile
eyes knees and of your Etcetera)

Yes, quite. Dreaming of your Etcetera. People should sign love notes to one another that way. And why not?

Check out the Poetry Friday round-up this week over at Becky's Book Reviews.
My other post is lurking over at is lurking over at fomagrams.

Thursday, April 3

Keep Your Eye On The Kid

The Early Years of Buster Keaton
by Catherine Brighton
Roaring Brook 2008

I'm all about giving kids a more rounded cultural education and I think film is one of those areas where American kids are really at a deficit. I once met a teen who was planning to study film when he graduated high school who had never heard of Orson Wells, couldn't name a single film from the 1960's, didn't think black-and-white movies were any good because "they didn't have special effects or any good equipment," and told me that the best film ever made -- without a hint of sarcasm -- was Goonies. I have since run into many kids of many ages who haven't got a clue of movies made before they were born. The only solution is the same for what we expect when teaching kids about historical figures in science, politics, and other areas of cultural history: start 'em young.

Brighton's picture book recounting of the early years in the life of silent comedian Buster Keaton is a great start in that direction. Told in the first person, which I thought was neat, we get the years from Keaton's birth to his early days in movies. He starts taking a fall as an infant down the stairs while traveling with his Vaudeville parents. He picks up his name from Houdini who uses the slang of the time for taking a tumble, or a buster. Despite laws aimed at keeping children under the age of seven off the stage his parents have him doing his prats as part of the act. At a young age he discovers the modern technological entertainment of the day -- movies, just coming into their own -- and decides that's the future. A falling out with his dad causes him to light out on his own and, with a little luck, gets started on his career in silent movies.

In the back matter (is it me, or is there more back matter appearing at the end of picture books these days?) Brighton explains that Keaton was a known storyteller, prone to exaggerating or making up facts about his life. His getting sucked out of a window during a tornado and landing without a scratch, included here for example. Makes a good story, dovetails nicely with one of his most famous gags in a silent movie when a house wall falls but misses him as he's standing where the open window lands. But is it true? No one knows for sure. Does it help balance out the story arc in a technical sense? Most definitely. Does it belong in a non-fiction picture book where a young reader is getting their introduction about an historical figure? I'm not so sure. And what of the unsubstantiated partial truths -- the possibility that Houdini didn't meet Keaton until he was grown, long after he acquired his nickname? Is this merely a way of introducing Keaton to an audience who might know Houdini and can better connect this new person in a familiar setting?

Brighton's story sense and illustration style are perfect for this book. There is a certain Little Nemo in Slumberland look to the illustrations -- rich in details and physically exciting -- that rings true with the era of the telling.

Despite some of the factual misgivings, I think this book and a couple of his short movies -- One Week at the very least - would make for a fine introduction to a slapstick comedian many (myself included) feel was much better than Chaplin.

Care for a sample? Here's are the last 7 minutes of Keaton's One Week

And if you want something a bit more substantial, rent Sherlock Jr. My preference is for the restored edition with the Club Foot Orchestra soundtrack.

Wednesday, April 2

Daisy Dawson is On Her Way

by Steve Voake
illustrated by Jessica Meserve
Candlewick 2008

Daisy is a daydreaming little girl who can't seem to get to school on time because she gets distracted along the way. There are worms to move off the sidewalk and butterflies to hold and release. And on this particular day she finds that something strange has happened, that she can speak with and understand animals. First it's with Boom, the dog, then with the hamsters at schools, then the horse and the barn cat, all with only the slightest bit of surprise on both sides.

Daisy isn't just a talker, she's a nurturer. When the hamsters get out of their cage at school she hears them exclaim with delight as they discover yummies in someone's lunch. She lures them back to their cage with a promise of a snack from her own lunch later. And with Boom she always backs an extra him a sandwich to feed him while on her way to school.

Trouble comes when Boom disappears and Daisy discovers that he's being held by the new dog catcher, one step away from disappearing for good. With help from the other animals they go on a rescue mission to save Boom. There's a happy ending, but not one the reader would have guessed, and Daisy's world is put to right. At the end Daisy muses with her father on the ability to talk to animals and there's a suggestion that it's something children can do naturally until one day when the magic of it wears off. For the time being, Daisy is enjoying her stay in this fantasy world.

I notice that the spine of this book is labeled with a "No. 1" implying that we've got more of Daisy coming at us in the future. There's an easy-breezy simplicity to the storytelling that makes it a good fit for young readers so I'm not troubled by this being the first in a series. I'm not sure how I'm going to feel if future books are always about Daisy talking to animals because I think that can wear thin pretty fast, but if talking animals happen to feature as part of stories dealing with a young girl and the flights of her imagination then I see no problems.