Tuesday, March 24

all the wrong people have self-esteem

an inappropriate book for young ladies*
(*or, frankly, anybody else)
by laurie rosenwald
bloomsbury 2008

when rosenwald's first book came out, and to name but just a few: RED YELLOW GREEN BLUE, i snatched it up because i had this funny feeling it wouldn't be around long. her picture book of colors, made of jaunty rhymes and bold collage graphics, was a feast for those hip to, well, bold graphics. but it wasn't exactly kid-friendly. granted, there were parents who didn't feel their children required fluffy bunnies and simplified illustrations with big bold print to teach them their hues of blues and millions of vermilions, but beyond the occasional stocking at some modern art museum gift shops, this was a tough sell.

then back i january i saw rosewald's new book on the counter of a book store half way across the room and knew i'd want it. i didn't even care about what was inside (though later i did) and merely flipped through the book quickly to get a sense of it.

whoa. this is no picture book. oh, no, this is no free to be you and me. no, this is about dealing with angst. tween and teen angst. girlie angst, with a dash of empowerment and a dip of the playfully absurd, but still very much angsty.

there's a lot of potential for pissing off adults in this book. playing against her bold graphics, rosenwald tosses out observations, confessions, examinations, and exercises designed to challenge and confront the complacency in the world young girls (and boys) find themselves in. the two page spread on "where babies really come from" probably won't surprise as many teens as it would the parents of those teens who would prefer to believe their children are still to young to hear these things. the various elements that challenge body image, well, we could certainly use more of those, and the anecdotes like the one about getting kicked out of yoga class are certain to sound familiar to anyone who has found the seriousness of some situations to be ridiculous.

but occasionally rosenwald kicks out a little rant that borders on intolerance, which seems at odds with her intent. like the tear she goes on against those self-identifying as victims of peanut allergies. i'm going to give her points for bringing up a topic that i think has much deeper roots -- environmental illnesses that are only treated as symptoms without ever divining the cause -- and for taking on the victim mentality, but to suggest that people with peanut allergies should either "die or, you know, whatever. deal with it." misses an opportunity to make a reasoned case about the real problems. in some ways her approach mirrors the ill-formed thought processes of teens who in their own arrogant ways believe they understand the world as few others can -- a sort of my-way-or-you're-an-ignoramus kind of world view.

all the wrong people have self-esteem is brash and brassy, a book that's not afraid to stick its neck out, and the kind of book that would be right for certain teens. i'm just afraid that the teens this book would appeal to either don't have self-esteem problems or would find the confrontational nature of some sections of the book off-putting. an interesting experiment that succeeds as much as it fails.

Wednesday, March 4


The Good Neighbors, Book 1
by Holly Black and Ted Naifeh
Scholastic Graphix 2008

The set-up for this graphic novel is about as generic as you an get: mopey teenage Rue's mother has disappeared and her father is suspected of murder. Of course, like every teen novel where a parent is accused of murder, the teenage protagonist knows it can't be so, and in searching out the truth that other inept adults cannot fathom (and adults always have to be clueless for this type of story to work) discovers a family truth, a secret buried and kept from our teen hero who is coming to terms with who they are in the world.

Now, since this is author Holly Black's world that hidden element needs to be something a little more... fantastical, shall we say? So the truth is that Rue's mother is a faerie, and her disappearance has to do with a betrayal by her father that has sent her back into the faerie realm. Rue now has to navigate finding her place in two worlds, and all sorts of mortal and immortal conflicts must be quelled. Eventually.

I don't think I can say flat out that fantasy is not my thing, but I can say that I'm a little tired of vampires (or vampyres), and this reminds me of nothing less than a vampire story swapped out with faeries (or fairies). I suppose there are those deeply invested in the milieu who will berate me for failing to appreciate the subtleties between these two worlds, but here all I can see is another story of "otherness" that pits a halfling between parallel worlds. With the waning of vampires (who took over when interest in boy wizards dropped off) we're seeing the crest of other fantasy elements vying to take over, and faeries are going to have it out with zombies in the very near future of YA literature. I suspect the unicorn contingent (and I mean brutish, violent unicorns, not those My Pretty Pony poseurs) will no doubt follow.

Personal preference aside, I never cared for Rue, never felt like I could relate to her. Maybe it was a double-blind on my part -- a brooding girl AND a faerie halfling -- but whatever, Black never gave me a well rounded portrait of a character I could latch onto. I didn't buy the handling of the murder, or her father's arrest, or their family "friend" who may be at the root of why Rue's mother disappeared. Never mind Rue's ability to go unseen and the fact that her invisibility and disappearance seems to go unnoticed by others around her, or that her friends are flatter than the pages they're drawn on.

Visually, the illustrations felt stiff. It's something I'm noticing more and more, perhaps it's always been there and I'm just now seeing it, but it feels like graphic novels aimed at teens are drawn in a very lifeless way. I find myself looking for the traditional action lines in the characters and the compositions, something that givens them life. A still from a Bugs Bunny cartoon is more expressive, and in the end with graphic novels aren't visuals half your story? If you want a reader (okay, me) to buy into a fantasy world you're going to have to convince me that it's something more that shrouded bunches of trees and creeping ivy. It has to live and breath under its own rules, but it has to express some sort of movement. Even the cheap-o animation of the 1950s had some of the best and expressive backgrounds created in the history of cartoons. You can't tell me it's impossible to achieve the same effects in a black and white graphic novel fifty years later.

Oh yeah, this book lingers in the back of my throat like acid reflux.

As this was one of the finalists for the Cybils in the YA graphic novel category I felt like I really had to make sure I put all these emotional responses at bay and come to terms with whether or not I felt it best represented what was available this past year. The most compelling reason I felt it didn't deserve the win was that the story really is only the first part of a larger story. Too many untied threads, to much left up in the air, ultimately not a stand-alone title. It's unfortunate that every year series titles are pushed through the Cybils because invariably the consensus is that they don't hold up against stand-alone titles and take up space in the final panel that could really make for more of a contest and less a process of elimination.

In the end it hardly mattered, the judges were near unanimous in their decision on Emiko Superstar.

Monday, March 2

Piano Starts Here

The Young Art Tatum
by Robert Andrew Parker
Schwartz & Wade / Random House 2008

This year's winner of the American Library Association's Schneider Family Book Award is a picture book biography of legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum' early days. It follows Tatum as a young prodigy who can barely reach the keys of the family piano up to his days as a young man when he starts to make a name for himself and move out into the world on his own. Rendered in Parker's loose watercolor illustrations, the book has the cozy feel of American nostalgia, the warm fuzzies of a bygone childhood era free of strife and fear.

That isn't entirely a sarcastic summary, but there are may things about this book that stick in my craw the wrong way.

Let's talk about first-person for a moment. The book opens with Tatum introducing us to the house he was born in, to his father the mechanic and his mother the church singer, and the room where the piano is located. In these first four pages author Parker accompanies narrator Tatum's tour of his early days in simple language and images that are placed on the page like snapshots in a photo album. The initial feeling is that of sitting in the room looking at the images as Tatum stands over your shoulder explaining what you're looking at.

But then there's a shift, and a young Tatum is shown on tip-toe plunking away at that piano as he explains in the text how one day he just started playing. His mother enjoys his etudes than suggests he go outside and play while there's still light.

But because of my bad eyes, day and night, dark and light, don't really matter to me.

Because Tatum had cataracts in his eyes from an early age, was blind in one eye and could barely see out the other. That information isn't in the text, and coming five pages in on the picture book I'm suddenly struck with the question: How could Tatum be narrating what I'm looking at if he can't even see himself? If day and night mean nothing to him, how can this narrator explain that I'm looking at the house he was born in. And with a young Tatum's appearance in the illustrations we jump out of the detached viewpoint and into a more observational mode. It's an odd shift, and this change of perspective goes toward a lot of my confusion over this book.

Only in childen's books do we see stared reviews for biographies written in the first person; in the adult world we call his "historical fiction" no matter how well researched. To have Parker, speaking in Tatum's voice, describing to us what Tatum himself could not have seen calls to question a great deal of authenticity. We are being shown the world through Tatum's eyes, which is a pretty good feat for a nearly blind man.

Now I'm an adult (by age at least) and I can tell when to send up the flashing warning signs, but the young readers this book is aimed at aren't necessarily going to have the same abilities to question what they are being shown. They'll understand the difference between an illustration and an photo of a house, but not that the first-person voice is a construct of an author to tell a story. It may be accurate to a degree, but not factual in the sense we would normally expect from a biography.

I jump to the back of the book at this point, hoping to find that the author is quoting Tatum from his own autobiography. Nope. Parker lists over half a dozen titles, only one specifically about Tatum, and leaves us no clue as to whether or not he's paraphrasing other's research or rephrasing Tatum's own words for the audience. I'm on guard now.

Two pages later Tatum talks about a summer night being too hot to turn on the lights, about playing the piano while the neighborhood kids go around catching lightning bugs in bottles. For a kid who can barely see I find it curious that from his distanced perch inside the house, at night, he can see their jars grow lighter as they continue to catch the luminous insects. I've seen my share of lightning bugs, and I'm having a hard time believing a nearly blind boy can see the glow of these bugs growing from a distance.

I get what Parker is doing, He's showing us a slice of Tatum's early days, about how he was segregated from a normal childhood, listing the titles of songs he did (or might have) played on the piano during those years. But what does Tatum think about this, how does he feel? Does he wish he were out there running around, or has he found such a home and refuge in music that he no longer misses these magical moments. The image on the page isn't even of Tatum but of silhouettes black against the dark blue of night catching little flecks of gold. This is as it would look to normally sighted children, this magical nighttime scene, and the absence of Tatum from the illustration suggests his point of view. It becomes as deceptive as the authenticity of the narrative, it makes the cautious reader wary of every depiction. If nothing else the image and words convey an emotional weight that might not be accurate or honest. A reader could walk away from this book imagining Tatum happily playing the piano on a summer's eve, enjoying the magical glow of jars full of lightning bugs when the truth could be the exact opposite.

The story proceeds with some more troubling undertones that might escape a younger reader. Tatum's father and a friend take the boy to a nearby bar where he performs songs he has learned by ear. There are coins stuffed in the boy's pockets and late at night they have to sneak in so as not to wake Tatum's sleeping mother. Clearly what Tatum's father is doing wouldn't meet with his mother's approval, and in fact might be more exploitative that the text lets on. Even if he didn't object -- and many young boys might have found it exciting to perform in bars for adults -- we still have no idea what Tatum thinks about any of this. Did he resent these clandestine performances, did he suspect his father taking a cut of the money, would his mother have put a stop to it if she found out? It was as if Parker, in showing us the world through Tatum's eyes, has extrapolated the boy's blindness to include his thoughts and feelings.

Another curious omission comes between Tatum's barroom days and his performance on local radio. During that time Tatum attended a school for the blind and was given structured musical training. As depicted in the book Parker would have the reader believe that Tatum merely progressed to larger and larger venues. Even if Tatum's developed his unique style on his own it is impossible to know how much of an influence this musical training had on him. Even if he rejected what he learned -- and that he learned it from another visually impaired black musician named Overton Rainey -- his style would be informed by what he learned or rejected.

Yes, a picture book is limited, and concessions need to be made, stories need to be condensed for the audience. But for a book set in the 1920's and 30's I would think that readers would be interested to know that there were schools for the blind with instructors who were African American. And speaking of history, I think I'd like to know that this story took place in the Toledo of the 1920's and 30's; without and real points of reference this story could have been set in the rural parts of the South during the 1960's. Both eras might seem long ago and far away to today's readers, but there's a world of difference between the two and there's no reason for the reader to be kept in the dark.

The American Library Association says "The Schneider Family Book Awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences." I'm left wondering if the "artistic expression" of Tatum's experience, as depicted by Parker, trumps the authentic emotional aspects of the subject's life. I question whether young Art Tatum's life as warm and, as depicted by Parker, innocently carefree, and if that's really an honest expression of the disability experience.