Thursday, November 18

The Boy Who Could Enter Paintings

 by Herb Valen 
illustrated by Susan Perl  
Little, Brown and Company  1968 

A boy discovers he can literally jump into paintings and interact with the people there, but his ability all mysteriously vanishes just as he's about to enter school...

Edward has grown big and strong, and can hop around on a single leg all the time without getting tired.  he spends his cold winter days in his artist-father's studio watching him paint lavish jungle scenes and his studies of famous paintings.  Then one day when his father is making tea Edward hops close to one of the paintings and discovers that he can actually jump into them.

Without telling his father of his new ability, he accompanies his father to the modern art museum when Edward continues to jump into a Goya and a Seurat, interacting with the other children in the paintings who find his appearance curious but, as kids do, accept him without question in their play.  

Then a curious thing happens.  Edward's father announces that Edward will soon be entering school and, in an final attempt to hop into his father's painting, takes a giant leap... and crashes through the solid plane of the canvas.  The joy of imagination and carefree childhood gone, his father implores him to stop hopping around, and like a good boy he stops hopping, leaving his innocence behind.  

Wow.  Talk about a harsh lesson in conformity! 

I came to this book because of the illustrator, Susan Perl.  During my childhood she was known to me primarily as the illustrator to a bunch of magazine ads for Health-tex clothing.  The ads centered around the kinds of questions kids ask – "Why is the sky blue?" "Why are some people fat and some people skinny?" – with straightforward answers that kids could understand, a fairly clever campaign for showing how a clothing company "gets" what kids are about.  Too bad one of those questions wasn't "What happens when a book tries to take away my childhood innocence?" 

Perl's style is probably best described as textural, in that she uses the same width of line to outline and contour as well shade.  They are like a cross between woodcuts and felt tipped pen illustrations and have an odd warmth to them.  Sometimes when I see her work I imagine this is what the children of an Edward Gorey drawing and a Mercer Mayer drawing would look like, if illustrations could mate and reproduce.  

As for the story, I have a hard time understanding what people were thinking about children's books in the 60s sometimes.  Was this meant to be read to younger readers as a story of comfort that childhood ends at the dawn of school, and that it's perfectly natural to "grow up" out of thinking you can hop around all day and into works of art?  Or was this intended for an emerging reader with a longing for the "simpler days" of their pre-school days, having now learned to read and wishing they were back in those days when one could simply escape into a painting?  I can't tell if this is a cynical message written by an artist about the dangers of compromising one's dreams or a celebration of childhood whimsy.  

I think this is one of those situations where the illustrations outclass the original story.

Tuesday, November 16


A Year of Haiku for Boys
written by Bob Raczka
drawings by Peter H. Reynolds
Houghton Mifflin  2010

Haiku for and about boys, organized by seasons, full of the sort of things boys do. But not for haiku purists or people who want boys to really understand what haiku are really about.

Full of observations of what it means to be a boy, full of mischief and the occasional moment of tenderness, Guyku is a collection of poems that promises more than it delivers.  And, yes, what ruins it for me is the haiku itself.  

As Raczka notes at the end of the book, haiku "is a wonderful form of poetry for guys like us" because it's an observation of nature, the poems are short, and they don't take long to read.  All well and true, even the note that "a good haiku can pack a punch," but here's the thing: these aren't good haiku, not many of them at least.

Man, that sounds harsh, but the thing that makes a haiku is exactly that punch, the observation that takes everything else in the poem and sharpens the observation.  And punch is the word, because the summary observation in a haiku should come as a sort of a punchline at the end.  Or at the beginning, as a statement followed by a sort of sideways definition.  A good haiku isn't simply just ramming a scene into a 5-7-5 format and calling it profound because it fits, there has to be that break, that breath, that moment where the observation is observed.  Here is a guyku taken from the "Fall" section:
Pounding fat cattails
on a park bench near the pond,
we make a snowstorm.
It's a nice image, and one that is total "boy" in that it takes nature, finds a way to make it an amusement and creates another nature image, turning fall into an artificial winter.  It even has a comma that breaks the action from the observation at the end, but it's missing the true punch of that image, almost as if it were an afterthought and not the poets intentional focus.  As always, I have to resist the temptation to tell the author (and you, the potential reader) how it "should" have been written, but I can think of three or four different ways the emphasis could be shifted to give that snowstorm image more weight, make it stronger.  Flabby writing is what it is to my ear, and it kills my ability to enjoy what the book has set out to accomplish.
If this puddle could
talk, I think it would tell me
to splash my sister.
Again, a great boy moment – that temptation to do something naughty and the interaction with nature – and yet so much more could be done with it in haiku.  The puddle could talk, the boy could hear the puddle and debate the appropriate behavior, and all with the same outcome but with more punch. 

I've also been seeing the same problem recently with people writing in the "limerick style" while at the same time ignoring the conventions of the form, thinking a A-A-B-B-A rhyme scheme is all that's necessary.  As with some haiku, the limerick contains a "twist" ending that serves as a punchline to everything that comes before.  I think it's perfectly fine if you want to write five lines, or three lines, or if you want to follow certain poetic formats, but one should be careful calling a poem a limerick or a haiku when, in fact, they are approximations of form.

So as much as I wanted to really like the concept of Guyku I have a hard time with telling young readers that all it takes is seventeen syllables in three lines of observation about nature.  I think as a basis for teaching the form it is fine to let kids play with the basic format, but in writing for young readers we owe it to them to showcase not only the form but what is possible when done correctly. 

Wednesday, November 10

Rot & Ruin

by Jonathan Maberry
Simon & Schuster  2010

Deja vu?  Perhaps.  I am cross-posting this review from Guys Lit Wire today.

The zombie apocalypse has happened.  Never mind how, it just did, fourteen years ago when Benny was eighteen months old and was spirited away from his parents by his half-brother Tom before they became victims themselves.  Since then, the living have taken to enclosed cities and let the undead roam in what is now called the Rot and Ruin.

Fifteen is the age of maturity, and that means getting a part-time job in order to continue receiving rations. Benny, like many teens, doesn't really want to work, and he certainly doesn't want to take up the family business of becoming a bounty hunter of the undead.  Worse, his brother Tom is legendary, but all Benny knows ans remembers of his much-older brother is that he was a coward who ran away and left their parents to become zombies.

There are plenty of other bounty hunters though, guys like Charlie and The Hammer who told war stories of their times in the Rot and Ruin and talked up their kills in ways Tom never did. Benny could never understand why his brother never talked about work, or why Tom was so revered by town elders, but he finds out quick enough when he finally agrees to become his brother's apprentice after failing at pretty much every other job he attempts.  One trip into the Rot and Ruin changes everything Benny ever knew, or thought he knew, about what it means to be human, both living and undead.

While zombies are currently in vogue and it would seem there is little to add to canon of kill-or-be-killed, Jonathan Maberry's Rot & Ruin takes the idea of a world full of the undead and makes it a dystopia where questions of good and evil become slippery.  Is a zombie out for brains any worse than the people who use them for blood sports?  Can the dead and undead coexist in a delicate test of God's will, and what of the moral ambiguity in believing that murder is wrong but murdering zombies is okay; after all, zombies were and are still human beings, right?  And what sort of "civilized" society has been preserved when, in financial desperation, the living would subject themselves to enter a fighting ring to do combat with zombies for the entertainment of others, where a blind eye is turned away from those citizen who organize such contests?

The zombie apocalypse could stand in for anything – a plague, global thermonuclear war, or even world-wide environmental collapse.  What Maberry poses is that no matter how it comes about, how we behave afterward defines who we are as a society, and what Benny learns quickly is that his whole life he and his friends have been sheltered from the reality that the post-apocalyptic world is not a pretty place.  Whacking zombies sounds like fun until you begin to attach names and families to the undead, until you realize that the "other" you're out to kill could easily be a friend or relative.

I can't be the first person to think this, but I've been wondering about the rise of zombies in popular culture recently and in doing so came to an oddly chilling conclusion.  When monsters have become popular in our cultural entertainment they usually do so as a surrogate for some other fear.  Nuclear war and radioactive fallout gave us the mutant monsters of the 1950s.  The rise of horror films in the 1980s reinforced messages of morality at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic.  The rise of vampires has been slow and steady for some time, but dawning of zombies is more than a replacement for any trend, it seems to tap into a deeply rooted fear of something in Western culture that is dark and difficult to understand or deal with in a rational way.

Like fundamentalist terrorism.

This may have been the farthest thought from Maberry's intention with Rot & Ruin, but in showing the remains of civilization as a gated community under constant threat from brain-dead outsiders who are, by lack of choice, simply trying to survive, I can't help but see the metaphor for what we are seeing today in the world.  While the United States continues to promote and preserve its freedoms as a gated, civilized community, the rest of the world remains a threat to those very ideas simply by wanting an equal chance at the good life.  Of course, to make this analogy I would have to equate the zombies for Islamic fundamentalist terrorists out for blood, but isn't that the image we inside the gates are fed all the time by politicians and the media?  And what if, like Benny, we come to learn that these people are just that, people, and that as long as we continue to demonize them or use them for our own expendable purposes we will forever be at war.

Politics aside, its an engrossing take on the dystopic zombie apocalypse, and a solid adventure that can be enjoyed at the surface level as well.