Wednesday, July 29

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins

An Illuminating History of Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins,
Artist and Lecturer
by Barbara Kerley
illustrations by Brian Selznick
Scholastic 2001

The story of Waterhouse Hawkins is one of those odd ducks that are at once as fascinating as they are forgetable. Waterhouse (as he apparently preferred to be known) was a (self-taught?) naturalist artist who (somehow) managed to find himself commissioned to make life-sized models from the fractured, (incorrectly) recreated fossils of dinosaur bones that had been discovered at the end of the 19th century. Working with the scientist Richard Owen, renowned for his ability to reconstruct animal physiology with only the slightest of fragments, Waterhouse was able to present to the public their first glimpse at the creatures who once populated the planet.

Kerely does an interesting (not necessarily positive) thing here and separates Waterhouse's saga into three parts: London of the 1850s, America in the 1870s, then back to London. It's an unusual story arc because Kerley isn't telling a life story or a biography so much as she's highlighting the years of Waterhouse's fame. His proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, you might say. While this isn't necessarily a problem it does leave us with a story whose narrative arc is based entirely on this nebulous rising and falling of Waterhouse's fame.

Additionally, the "climax" of the narrative arc culminates in Waterhouse upsetting Boss Tweed in New York where he is at work building a palace to house a new collection of dinosaurs. Pissing off Tweed in a public forum, Waterhouse returns to his workshop to find his works in progress smashed to ruins and carted away where they were buried in Central Park. Waterhouse then returns to London for his final act which, at least here, consists of reflecting on new knowledge that renders his creations inaccurate, pondering what great new discoveries might be on the horizon.

While this isn't quite a "history" of an individual, as promised in the subtitle, we do have a drawn out vignette of a Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins. The "illuminating" aspect might be defined simply as presenting the reader with a rough sketch of a minor player in the history of anthropology. Going back over this, I'm surprised by how little I actually learn about the subject. I also don't find myself caring whether or not he gets funding to make his sculptures, or find I'm involved enough with his American undertaking to feel horrified at the destruction carried out in his workshop.

The information provided does, however, suggest answers to these problems.

I think I would have preferred the book not be about Waterhouse as an individual, but about the process that led to the creation of these sculptures. I would rather have seen a story about how Waterhouse and Owen came together, worked together, with a little comparison between the scientist and the artist and how their fields inform each other. Seeing their struggle to recreate what had never been seen or recorded would make for a nice triumph that would naturally lead Waterhouse to America, as it did.

From there, some background on Boss Tweed and political corruption in New York, along with some public sentiment either way about the dinosaurs, so we can get a feel for the showdown to come. Then, big showdown, work crushed, Waterhouse returns to England, complete with coda about how his statues are there to this day.

I know, I know, a review isn't supposed to rewrite or tell the author how they should have written their book. But in trying to understand why this didn't work for me I had to try and envision a way in which the story could have worked. Sometimes I don't think it's enough to say "this didn't work, and here's why" without offering an alternate possibility. Clearly my suggestion isn't the book Kerley set out to write, but the book, as written, is only a mildly entertaining and easily forgettable tale.

Monday, July 27

Humpty Dumpty Jr: Hardboiled Detective

Case #1: The Case of the Fiendish Flapjack Flop
written by Nate Evans and Paul Hindman
illustrated by Vince Evans and Nate Evans
Sourcebooks / Jabberwocky 2008

A hardboiled detective series for the chapter book set is a welcome addition to the... wait. Aren't most chapter book series mysteries of one sort or another?

Yes, and with good reason. The mystery story has the opportunity to instantly engage a reader. It makes them feel smart as they puzzle through the clues and watch the hero attempt to solve the mystery before falling in the clutches of the evil villain. In this case, responding to a distress call HD finds Miss Patty Cake has been kidnapped, her secret recipes stolen. But before our hero can get on the case he is accosted by by a street urchin named Rat who thinks HD has kidnapped his morning meal ticket. They join an uneasy alliance, collect clues, and hit the case hard. With the Humpty Dumpty Jr series we have the added benefit of puns. Our hero is a good egg who can be counted on to crack the case and leave no yolk untouched.

There's a lot packed into this series, perhaps just a bit too much. Giving us characters straight from nursery rhymes is fine, if familiar (c.f. Jasper Fforde's The Big Over Easy for an adult version of this same sort of theme), and blending it with the hardboiled noir stories of Raymond Chandler set loose in New Yolk is fine, but when blended with mythological and other anthropomorphic animals surrounded by humans, well, it feels like one element too far. Does the precinct captain need to be a minotaur, and does the police chief need to be a rhino? And how do they fit in with the rest of the fairy tale characters like Little Jack Horner and the Queen of Hearts?

And while I can appreciated replacing guns of traditional detective stories with a magic egg beater and a magic pinwheel, the introduction of this element gives the book a fantasy turn that turns the whole mess runny. Kids who can appreciate the humor of the genre would just as easily understand water pistols filled different liquids that could have destructive effects to various characters. In fact, HD does resort to milk-filled balloons to fell a cake dragon into a soggy mess. But having the egg beater change things uncontrollably, or to have the pinwheel freeze people with the coolness of peppermint candy dilutes the hardboiled atmosphere. Some genres and settings just can't be blended successfully. Moonraker, anyone? Was there anything more ridiculous than Bond in space?

Recently the question was raised about introducing satire or parodies of genres that younger readers wouldn't likely to be familiar with. The argument was that without understanding the point of reference the point of the humor was lost. The counter argument is that the satire plants the seeds, that when readers are older they'll get the joke. Sort of like watching Bugs Bunny cartoons and not getting what Humphrey Bogart is doing begging for spare change until you see Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I would have to say that in order for the humor to be appreciated down the road the satire must be impeccably faithful. The goal is for the reader to one day have an "a ha!" moment that ties them back to their original experience with a fondness and a newer appreciation. If the derivative material is weak, when the reader comes to experience the source they come to feel betrayed.

Watch a kid's reaction when they encounter Lord of the Rings after Harry Potter and learn the subtle difference between homage and borrowing.

All of this to say that I think kids at the chapter book stage would truly enjoy a clever series that mirrors Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade a little more closely. Kids love mysteries and that includes trying to solve them, unlike with HD Jr. where Rat withholds evidence until it's expedient for him to "suddenly remember" something new. The reader should be able to connect dots and make guesses beyond vague recollection of villains in the first few pages who might have escape prison but have to do extensive monologuing toward the end in order to explain their motives.

For readers sharp enough to catch the puns, and like a little more humor than an A to Z Mystery can deliver, but find The Time Warp Trio intimidating this just might do the trick.

Sunday, July 12

Richard Scarry's The Great Pie Robbery

and Other Mysteries
by Richard Scarry
The Great Pie Robbery 1969
The Supermarket Mystery 1969
The Great Steamboat Mystery 1975
reprinted by Sterling 2009

Sam Cat and Dudley Pig are detectives.
They find children who get lost.
They catch robbers who steal things.

Really, folks, that's as much as you need to know, that and the name Richard Scarry, and you're off. Sam and Dudley are as dingy a pair of anthropomorphic animal characters as Scarry has ever created. As with all Scarry animals, they bolt through scenes of mayhem and destruction (often of their own making) in their bumbling attempt to catch the criminals, bright-eyed and unblinking.

As any kid will tell you, with Richard Scarry books the devil is in the details. Small mouse creatures stand and stare at their antics like silent witnesses, stand-ins for young readers amazed and startled by the anarchy. A chase scene between the heroes and the villains runs through an intersection of vehicles and workers that invite comment and notation, each incidental character clearly in the middle of an adventure all their own. Incongruities abound, like a restaurant called "The Five Fingers" in a world where no humans are present, where a worm is seated at a table with a hammer, saw, and screwdriver for cutlery. This is Richard Scarry's world, and if you don't get it, kids do.

I was jazzed to receive this as a promotional gift from the publisher, in celebration of what would have been Scarry's 90th birthday. But just as excited as I was to delve into some prime Scarry moments I suddenly realized that there is such a thing as too much Richard Scarry. I can pour over long-form detailed graphic novels without noticing the time or day, but half way into the second story in this collection I felt fatigued with making note of Scarry's details.

This is probably the fault of my being an adult. All my years of reading, all my training, has been toward learning how to look at and notice things, first as an artist and then as a writer. I do not, and probably cannot, take in a picture book with the same fresh eyes as a child seeing the world new for the first time. I can't spend my preliterate days making sense of the story by looking at the pictures because I know the words. I can't go back and get new meaning with subsequent readings because I can take it in all at once now.

Except I can't take it all in at once, not all three stories at least, because it becomes too much information, it becomes Scarry Overload.

Also, I know that Richard Scarry's books often underwent revisions of political correctness over time – some ganders were changed so that men were sometimes in the kitchen and women were sometimes police officers – but I wasn't able to remember anything from the originals that had changed here. Did Dudley once had a Sherlock Holmes pipe? No clue. So as far as that's concerned it doesn't look like the originals were too messed up here.

Something that's also escaped me until now (the voids we discover sometimes!) is the likelihood that Richard Scarry's wife Patricia Murphy wrote most of his books, at least the ones with stories. This is noteworthy to me because if publishers are all for making sure that kids know understand gender equality, shouldn't she be getting some credit in these books? Perhaps on the title page?

Okay, maybe I don't have all my facts, and maybe she didn't mind, but it occurs to me that part of what makes a Richard Scarry book what it is comes down to the work he put into his illustrations to compensate for the fact that he was illustrating someone else's story. I don't go in for postmortem psychobibliographical revisionism, but an insecure illustrator whose earlier work was markedly different than his later work might have been making very busy pictures to compensate (or overcompensate) for inadequacies they may have felt in their storytelling.

Huh. Now I want to find out if there's some dark side to this man named Scarry.

Friday, July 10

Tricky Video

The Complete Guide to Making
Movie Magic

by John Cassidy and Nicholas Berger
Klutz 2009

Sometimes it's fun to be the grumpy old man and talk to kids about what life was like back in the stone age. Before streaming and downloading, before DVDs, before VCRs, heck, even before cassette tapes! It's fun to see them try and imagine how different things were, and then to watch their faces cringe in horror when they try to compare their present day lives with "way back when."

"You must have been so bored! What did you guys do?"

The same things kids do today: make movies. Only it was with film, and it was expensive, and we didn't have YouTube to upload it to. Still, we made goofy films.

Pretty much everything in Klutz's Tricky Videos is stuff we did back in the day. In-camera edits and forced (or false) perspectives and clever editing tricks – yup, old school. But then, everything old is new again, as always.

It sure would have been a lot easier to have had this book though, and some of the technology to go with it.

We would haunt college short film and animation festivals. They would be Friday or Saturday night affairs in some large campus building, a nominal fee at the door, and hours full of filmed lunacy. Things like counter-top fruit singing Papa Oom-Mao-Mao or even something classy like The Wizard of Speed and Time. Afterward we would be hungry to try and do some of the things we saw, or argue how some of the effects were accomplished. We also read magazines of filmmaking and special effects, or articles about how the films we watched had been produced, so among us we usually had enough knowledge to pull off these tricks.

Tricky Video collects some classic short film effects gags and teaches readers how to achieve the effects, complete with suggested storylines. Much of what's here can be viewed in YouTube, either as a result of this book or simply because they are fairly common, and Klutz even has some specially made links that show the effects in action. There's the faked fight scene, the tiny person in the palm of your hand gag, pixilated drag races, and, of course, talking fruit. Sound effects are covered, as are the finer points of camera placement and staging. It's a good place to start for an aspiring middle grade movie director. Even comes with it's own clapper, thought totally unnecessary in this day and age when sound is recorded with the video or added as an effect in the editing. Naturally, active young filmmakers will quickly master these scenes and come to create other, more complex gags and set-ups.

I realize that Klutz isn't the place, but this kind of book – with it's clear color photo instructions and online video links to show you what the final result looks like – could do with a couple solid follow-up guides. Like one on making tricky horror effects videos, and especially on writing good movie stories, whether comedy, horror or drama. It is too easy to just grab a camera and shoot gags and share them for a quick laugh. It's also too easy for budding filmmakers – and some professional ones as well – to stop at the image and learn nothing about crafting good stories.

That's the truly tricky part.

Wednesday, July 8

The Photographer

Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders
by Didier Lefèvre
illustrated by Emannuel Guibert
First Second Books 2009

I don't know how to explain this. There are books you read that pry open a whole world you never knew existed. I mean, you've heard of places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, you've heard of small villages living in remote regions, you know organizations like Doctors Without Borders exist and you know what they do, and you might even know (or remember) some recent history about the Soviet invasion and war with Afghanistan in the 1980s... but somehow it doesn't all add up to a single picture of that time, or place, or experience until a book comes along and drops you into the deep end and your fully immersed.

In 1989, a young French photographer named Didier Lefèvre is asked by the organization Médecins Sans Frontières to help them document their efforts to provide medical care to Afghans living near the war front who are without doctors or resources. It's a grueling journey requiring the group to sneak across the border of Pakistan illegally, to get to the farthest outposts where medical offices can be set up and, for Lefèvre, to make his way home safely on his own. Years later he recounts his stories to his friend, the illustrator Emannuel Guibert, and together the create a trilogy of books that document the experience. Those books, bound as one, are The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders.

As explained in the afterword, the concept was for Guibert to illustrate the story surrounding Lefèvre's photos, turning the enterprise in an unusual, and richly rewarding, hybrid of a photo travelogue and a graphic novel. The mix of graphic elements at times can feel like an artists scrapbook - along the lines of photojournalists Peter Beard and Dan Eldon - or sometimes require several pages of illustration that calls to mind (literally at one point) Tintin comics both in landscape and style. It's like a documentary with the narrative flow of fiction.

And it's about war. And people trying to do good against all odds. People and animals die with regularity. The absurdities of human experience abound. There are moments of terror and moments of humor and moments of great beauty. It is as much about the person behind the camera as much as the people being documented in front of it and shows that, if anything, a photojournalist's life isn't as glamorous as some might believe.

I felt this way when I read Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis some years back. It wasn't that I didn't know something about Iran, it was all that I knew was through Western eyes and media. It had never occurred to me – nor could I imagine – what it would be like to grow up during the Iranian revolution of the late 70s and the overthrow of the Shaw. I had met many who had escaped Iran during that time, people uneasy with the coming reforms, and I knew their stories but not those of the ones who stayed. In The Photographer. Lefèvre and Guibert fill in some gaps about the Soviet conflict with Afghanistan in the same way, showing us what the Western (let's be fair, mainly American) world did not report. The borders were full of peasant villages, with Afghan troops on foot or with pack mule, facing Soviet helicopters and the last days of the big Soviet Cold War arsenal.

I seem to recall the American response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was to boycott the Olympics.

While The Photographer. doesn't necessarily add a great deal of information about the full nature of the conflict it does manage to put human faces on a small moment in the history of a part of the world still very much in our headlines. It's the sort of book that has to potential to open young minds and make them want to learn more about Afghanistan, about photojournalism, about Doctors Without Borders, and maybe why this part of the world continues to capture our attention.

Mentioned in this review

The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders
by Didier Lefèvre
illustrated by Emannuel Guibert
First Second Books 2009

by Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon Books 2002

The Journey Is The Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon
edited by Kathy Eldon
Chronicle Books 1997

Zara's Tales: Perilous Escapades in Equatorial Africa
by Peter H. Beard
Alfred Knopf 2004

The Adventures of Tintin books
by Herge

This review is being cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire today.

Monday, July 6

Horrid Henry

by Francesca Simon
illustrated by Tony Ross
published in Great Britain
by Orion Children's Books 1994
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky 2009

Henry is a horrid little boy, and everyone says so. He's devious, mischievous, he's stubborn and prone to getting into trouble. Naturally he has a perfect brother named Peter. Peter is good, and kind, and everything Henry is not. In fact, even Henry's parents are fond of asking Henry why he can't be like Perfect Peter.

So much of what motivates Henry is ruining Perfect Peter's life any way he can.

There is the palpable undertone of Roald Dahl books here, from the at-wits-end parents who are simply worn down by Henry's antics to the illustrations that bear more than a passing resemblance to work Quintin Blake has done as Dahl's official illustrator. There are four breezy stories to each of the six Horrid Henry books either released or pending and if one doesn't look to deep they are exactly the sort of book emerging boy readers would delight in reading.

But after I put them aside for a bit and picked them back up I began to feel less easy about them. It isn't the books so much as the marketing approach the publishers have taken. Right on the cover they announce that each book contains "4 laugh-out-loud stories!" in each, the way a detergent would advertise "20% more for free!" as enticement to pick them up. No one actually measures to make sure they got that extra 20% any more than any parent or reader is going to hold the publisher to that "laugh-out-loud" claim... so then why is it there?

Then on the inside we are treated to a splash page announcing Horrid Henry as worldwide sensation, followed by three pages of testimonials from children and adults alike verifying that, indeed, Horrid Henry is not only funny but it will cure carbuncles and teach your parrot French in ten days. Well, no, it doesn't say that, but it may just as well for how hard it is trying to convince the reader that these books are, indeed, the funniest thing every to reach these far shores.

It's then that I realized that the reason they were working so hard to underscore the humor is the simple fact screaming from the title of the book: Henry truly is horrid. He's unrepentant, often unpunished, and by most accounts horrid for horrid's sake.

I've battled this demon before, the one that screams in the back of my head "What's the big deal about books where kids can revel in a character behaving badly?" It first showed up with Captain Underpants where I found the underwear jokes and absurd villains pure boy amusement. They were clever, enjoyable, and they hit young boy readers right where they stood. The problem was that these same boys couldn't and wouldn't venture beyond these titles. They had been pandered to in a way that permitted them to demand more of the same or nothing else. They became the book equivalent of watching boys set a garage on fire with a "boys will be boys" sigh attached.

I'm not saying I didn't enjoy these books (or Captain Underpants for that matter) or that I wouldn't recommend them for parents and teachers looking to engage boys in reading at a very crucial moment in their development. But I am alarmed to see publishers and adults giving up on these boys so completely that the only way to appeal to them is to engage their darker instincts and play it up as humor.

No boy is going to want to identify with Horrid Henry any more than they would Perfect Peter – and perhaps the less said about Peter's latent fey tendencies that better – but I do wonder if, in a generation or so, the only way to reach this same age group will be through some other extreme form of humor. I'm not blaming Simon for this, but I do feel the genie is out of the bottle and that nothing less will do when it comes to engaging a certain subset of reader.

Or I could be overreacting and these are perfectly benign, amusing books for the beginning reader. Maybe the prickles I feel at the back of my neck aren't connected at all.

Thursday, July 2

Dull Boy

by Sarah Cross
Dutton 2009

Alright, once again: what's the rule regarding words in the title of your book that can be used against you in a review?

Let me back down a bit here, lest the Blog Review Police accuse me of being snarky.

What we have here, in a nutshell, is... could it be a version of the X-Men movie? Avery has these superpowers that manifest themselves as he hits puberty. He's got super strength, he can fly, and he keeps it secret for fear of becoming an even greater outsider than adolescence would already push him toward. He's accidentally broken a friend's arm, and he's out cruising the streets looking for good deeds to do as a way of justifying his existence.

Then he spots some other outsiderish kids... could they be like him? There is talk about some Ice Queen, and just as quick as that he's off to save a granny in distress who turns out to be a lure that introduces him to Cherchette, a mysterious figure who can offer Avery the home, family. and understanding his superpowers require. Sort of like, you know, a school for New Mutants. Only not. But sort of.

But what Cherchette has planned is merely Phase Two of an operation to help the kids realize their full potential. Phase One, it appears, was her meddling with selected polio vaccinations that created these superhero kids in the first place. Some didn't survive, and some didn't develop their full potential, but the strong and favored Cherchette promises to increase their power manifold and bring them under her wing.

For good or for evil? And would the kids rather choose their own destinies rather than be sheltered from the rest of the world? And, in the end, don't they just want to you average dysfunctional teenage Justice League?

There is something appealing about the idea of having superpowers and wondering what you would do with them, but that very human idea is quickly lost in the Evil Mastermind plot that's been so flogged to death in comic book culture. Cross has a nice set of misfits here, each with their own unusual set of powers, but rather than having the kids sort out the world on their own – you know, like real kids, but with superpowers – the only way she can get them together is to find an external force to unify them. It might have been nice to see some otherwise normal kids try and navigate the usual teen anxieties without all the extraneous noise of a villain to do battle with.

It's also long, too long. I kept wanting to physically push the story along, literally try to find a way to shove the words forward. This book could have been half its 310 pages and not feel like it was missing anything. Perhaps that breakneck pacing would have prevented me from constantly feeling like I'd seen and heard it all before.

So, not exactly dull. But I really think securing the lid on superhero kid stories is overdue.