Friday, March 26

The Boys

by Jeff Newman 
Simon and Schuster  2010

A Mid-Century Modern picture book valentine to the nature of boys at play, both young and old. 

On Monday the new kid moves to town.  On Tuesday he sets out to the park with his bat and ball to mingle with the kids of his new neighborhood but can't bring himself to join in.  He shuffles over to a park bench full of a quartet of old men who don't quite understand what's up with the kid.  On Wednesday the kid goes back to the park to feed the pigeons on the bench with the old boys who feel a little awkward that the kid has adopted them as his social group.  Then on Thursday the kid arrives wearing obnoxious plaid retiree pants and his hair slicked back and the old boys realize it's time to get this kid back on track.  Suddenly the kid is the grumpy old man on the bench yelling at the obnoxious old guys who are chasing the pigeons away on their bikes and making a ruckus at the playground.  In the end it is a game of baseball that integrates the kid with his peers and gives the old men someplace else to sit than the park bench.

That all of this is done without words is a good part of its charm. The mood on these pages is easily readable at a glance, very much character driven and clearly understandable.  This ability to portray emotions and tell stories with simple illustrations is key for younger readers to understand how to "read" pictures.  This is a key value in wordless picture books because being able to decode the language of illustrations and illustrated stories is as necessary as sight reading.  It also happens to be the element I find lacking in a lot of graphic novels put out by publishers of children's books, but that's a rant for another day.  

Newman's style of watercolor - the broad brush strokes that suggest more than they define, the bold swaths of muted color - would almost fit in with the style of the independent cartoons produced by the UPA in the 40s and 50s; cartoons like Gerald McBoing Boing.  Almost, not quite.  I think there are times Newman's brush is a little too large in the scene and distracting from the more controlled character work, but it isn't a deal killer.

Monday, March 15

All Star!

Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever
by Jane Yolen
illustrated by Jim Burke
Philomel  2010

This picture book biography of the early baseball legend reads a little too much like a book report.

I've read this every day for a week now and can't quite figure out what isn't working for me.  Is it because the language and telling of the story feels flat?  Because I don't actually get a sense of what made Honus Wagner a great player, despite all the examples?  Is it because I expected more of a story behind the The Most Famous Baseball Card Ever?

The story of the Honus Wagner baseball card is that when Wagner realized the card was to be included with cigarette packages he demanded they be removed – think of the children! –  making the existing cards rare but not the rarest of collectables.  That much can be gleaned here in Yolen's telling (which, it must be noted, is only explained on one spread in the book, despite the card's promenance in the subtitle).  What isn't discussed is how a person could agree to appear on a card produced by the American Tobacco Company and not think it would be tied to the product.  Some believe the real issue was compensation, which would actually make Wagner not unlike his contemporaries.

Many have said in the past that Wagner, an all-around great player, was the greatest shortstop of all time.  But it's a funny thing about sports legends and their mythology: "greats" are not the same thing as "firsts," because they aren't as easily measurable.  Would the greatest shortstop of 1909 be as good at his position if he were on the field today?  This is the danger in idolization, where the myth can never be stripped because time has made it untouchable.  In the last 100 years there have been no less than 14 different athletes who have been dubbed "The World's Fastest Man," each new record stripping the title from all others based on measurable speed.  A runner's hall of fame might include all these men but there would be no disputing that, at the time of their achievement, they were the fastest runner documented.  Has the game of baseball, and the men who play it, changed so little in 100 years that one of its earliest participants can still hold the title of "greatest" in an area as subjective as a position on a team?

So I wonder if there is a risk in continuing to perpetrate the greatness of sports legends outside of what is factual.  In All Star! we're told Wagner played on five different teams in three states in order to make a living at baseball.  It's a throw-away bit of detail, but far more interesting that a lot of the information surrounding it.  Was this typical of a lot of players during that era, or was Wagner unique?  We don't learn that here, and this brief tidbit is left to stand in a way that suggests to a reader that this made him exceptional. Once again, the casual treatment of factual information in a picture book biography leaves open the possibility of misinformation. But he's an American legend, and we're not supposed to question (much less think about) the facts, right?

I guess my lasting impression of All Star! is that it feels very much like a journeyman effort from a well-respected author in the field of children's writing.  The story is flat, there's no real sense of what made Wagner tick beyond his love of the game, and opportunities to expand and explore what would make this biography unique are abandoned in favor of a tepid birth-to-just-before-death biography style of another century.

If I were being cynical I would say that, as the "prologue" to All Star! states, a Honus Wagner card was sold at auction in 2007 and a picture book author read about it in the paper and thought it might make for a good story.  That being the entire pitch, and the author being who she is within the industry, a publisher said "yes!" without further question and the final manuscript was tossed off after a week's worth of research.  If that isn't what happened here that's at least what it feels like.

Wednesday, March 10

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

by Seth Grahame-Smith
Grand Central Publishing 2010

The title is the review.

Normally when I post a review at Guys Lit Wire I also cross-post it here, but this book was not really intended for a kidlit audience. Sure, this book is going to be devoured by teens, and teen boys especially, but I thought it over and decided it didn't fit here.

That said, I invite you to jump over to Guys Lit Wire and check it out nonetheless. As an added bonus, go to the end of the post and watch the book trailer. Abe Lincoln – Action Hero! But be warned: there will be blood.

Monday, March 8

Boom Boom Go Away

by Laura Geringer
illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Atheneum 2010

"A most unusual bedtime story" the cover touts, and I have to agree: the book does everything in its power to keep kids awake and shouting at their parents to go away and leave them alone.

A little gnome sits banging away at his drum. His mother tells him it's time for bed. His response?
"Hush! / Don't spoil the rhythm / of my drum." / boom boom / "Go away" / boom boom / "Go away!"
This is followed by a succession of toys; an elf on a gong, a prince with a bassoon, a knight with bells, a robot with spoons, mermaids with harps, a bear with a horn, all adding their own particular piece to the cacophany, all telling their parents to hush and go away. At the end we see a small boy fading into his bed with the refrain, his toys scattered about on his bed, all quiet.

Inspired by a song the author's child learned at a Dalcroze music class, the song has been imagined here to be a bedtime story, but the original point of the song was teach rhythm and cadence and hardly includes actions and sounds conducive to quieting a child's mind for sleep. Indeed, I sincerely doubt the song was taught as a pre-nap exercise, and in the author's note Geringer confesses her own child repeated the opening verse over and over – mostly likely the outcome for any impressionable child. The fact that the refrain includes a bit of defiance, a hush and go away, would seem to be exactly the sort of thing adults would want to discourage not reinforce through the repetition of this text.

Ibatoulline's illustrations disappoint as well here. Where in Jane Yolan's The Scarecrow's Dance there was life and nuance here this are static, dead toys against neutral backgrounds that echo the emptiness.

Wednesday, March 3


by Hannah Shaw
Knopf 2010

You expect me to believe that if a kid found a live rodent in his snack food that he'd befriend it until his mother told him to get rid of it? Seriously?

Sometimes I think I take picture books a little too seriously, a little too literally. Sometimes I forget that I have put on my picture book kid hat, a hat that sometimes sits casually on my head at a goofy angle and sometime sits tight and low and uncomfortable. It's a hat I sometimes forget I'm wearing, and at other times I toss with anger and disgust. And sometimes, when what I'm reading really puzzles me, I scratch my head and the picture book hat falls off.

The book opens with a boy named Bob finding a squirrel in his package of nuts. When the squirrel speaks in surprise, and introduces himself as Erroll, Bob figures he must be special and immediately does what he can to make Erroll comfortable in his new home. Bob does spend half a second trying to imagine how Erroll might have ended up in the package, but beyond that he's willing to accept this animal visit like a toy surprise inside his breakfast cereal.

Now, to be honest, I can partly relate. When I was in kindergarten I asked if I could create a squirrel home in the closet under the stairs that was underused. I promised to find a tree and build a nice home for it but was stumped by the questions I was asked when I was being humored: How would the squirrel get sunlight? What would it do during the day while I was at school? Where, living in a city and having never ever seen a squirrel in my life, did I plan to get a live squirrel from? Details, details. Clearly my mom wasn't buying the right kind of nuts from the store.

Eventually the squirrel causes enough havoc that mom forces Bob to release Erroll to the wild (and presumably she then goes in search of a lawyer to sue the manufacturer for nearly giving her kid rabies) leaving us with the twist at the end: What's inside the Chewy Crunchy Monkey Munchy breakfast cereal box? Whoa! You mean to tell me live animals inside packaged food are so common in this picture book world that it happens all the time! Quick! More legislation and food regulators! Think of the children, and create more jobs for the sagging economy at the same time!

Sorry, the picture book hat fell off again. I wish I could see past the casual animal-in-food-for-children element and find some sort of goofy fun in this picture book, but I can't. I can't even get into the illustrations as they are fussy and crowded with unnecessary details, occasionally with colors close to those of the main characters, making it difficult to know where to focus your eye on the page. It isn't an I Spy so much as a Where's Waldo situation, only in this case it's Where's Erroll and that's a problem.

Final nail: A little kid saying the name Erroll sounds a bit like "error," which maybe isn't far from the mark.

Monday, March 1

A Climb Up Mt. Barnabas

Salt Water Taffy: The Seaside Adventures of Jack and Benny
by Matthew Loux
Oni Press 2008

In this absurd-at-times-yet-enjoyable graphic novel, Putnam boys, believing their dad's tall tale about a hat-stealing eagle atop the mountain, make a dangerous trip to the top and discover that the tale is more than true.

Out for a hike, dad Putnam likes to hear the sound of his own voice. Even mom Putnam knows that dad is this way. Dads are like that. It's the oral tradition hardwired into their DNA. When dad discovers that his boys prefer the tall tales told by a local old salt, dad fabricates a tale of his own concerning a ginormous hat-wearing eagle that sits on top of Mt. Barnabas. The mountain has been closed off to hikers long since, and dad claims that his treasured bucket hat was stolen from the eagle when he climbed the mountain as a kid.

And so, of course, the boys have to climb the mountain as well. Because if dad's have their storytelling exploits hardwired, so do young boys to go off on dangerous excursions.

For those who haven't read the first Salt Water Taffy adventure, the fact that the boys routinely talk to animals (some of whom they now have a history with) might seem a little strange. Odder still are the lobsters who have been kicked out of the sea and dispel the "myth" that they need to live in water, or the mammoth turtle that gives rides along the sheer face of cliff in exchange for tips like a local guide. And, naturally, there really is a giant hat-stealing eagle that the boys must negotiate with.

As absurd as some of turns are, this is the second time I've been pleasantly surprised by how true to boys these stories are. Jack and Benny's feelings toward each other are quicksilver slippery, each behaving true to themselves and occasionally rubbing each other the wrong way. One frame they could be saying the dumbest things to each other, the next, they're in sync. They have fears, and are fearless; they are impulsive and don't think before they act, but when in danger are quick-thinking.

I thought I'd reviewed the first book in this series, but my archives don't seem to contain The Legend of Old Salty. So I'd say start there and stick with it – it is a little odd at first – then read A Climb Up Mt. Barnabas. Guess I need to hunt down the third Jack and Benny adventure now.