Monday, January 31

Children Make Terrible Pets

by Peter Brown 
Little, Brown & Co.  2010 

A bear finds a boy and brings him home, only to discover the truth in the book's title. 

In the storytelling industry (publishing, theatre, film) there is an undue amount of emphasis placed in promoting the idea of the "high concept" story.  The high concept is easily grasped in under 25 words (under 10 if you're really good) that is open to quite a bit of action with variations on a theme. It speaks to the universal but contains a fresh twist, gives us a hero with a big problem that, in the end, is solved to the satisfaction of our expectations (i.e. generally a happy ending). High concept stories give us a hero to root for, though not necessarily one we can identify with completely. High concept permeates storytelling media because, simply, it makes money. 

In children's books, though, high concept can be an iffy proposition. In order to be universal the story needs to be simplified, and the younger the audience the simpler the concept.  The twist has to be easily comprehended, the main character's problem not too big, the ending easily guessed or at least instantly obvious once revealed.  The best example I can think of at the moment is I'm the Biggest Thing In the Ocean by Kevin Sherry.  A simple boast as concept, repeated with humorous variation, a twist, and an ending that serves as a punchline. It taps into what is universal (kids boasting) and twists at a point where the main character (a squid) makes a sudden realization that flips his world upside down, but leaves us with his undaunted spirit in an unexpected-but-true-to-character ending. 

This sounds like a lot of hoo-ha for a picture book, but when I finally sat down to read Children Make Terrible Pets I found myself turning the last page and feeling... empty.  I spent the next couple of days thinking "And...?" without being able to put my finger on it.  That was when I realized the problem was in the concept, and that not all high concept ideas, no matter how charmingly executed, work. 

Lucy the bear is in the woods when she detects a boy hiding in the bushes nearby.  The boys squeaks, she finds him adorable, and instantly drags him home with the old twist on the "Look what I found, can I keep him, huh, huh, can I keep him?!" Mama bear of course recognizes in an instant what is the title of the book but proceeds with the "Okay, but you're responsible for him" line.  The concept is the twist on the found pet, leaving us to see how it plays out with roles reversed.  Naturally, they go as bad as expected, and Lucy must return the boy to the "wild," to his family at their house at the edge of the woods.  

There is a coda, a little twist ending, right after Lucy finally agrees with her mother that children make terrible pets.  Turn the page and Lucy is ecstatic to find an elephant standing before her, the implication being that perhaps elephants make better pets. 


It's a punchline, and its dissonance plays with a reader's expectations, but it doesn't fit.  A child recognizing that one animal doesn't work as a pet might naturally want to find another animal that does, one that doesn't have the same problems as the previous pet. But the humor in the concept hinged on a reversal, so in order for the twist end to work we'd need to see a double-reversal.  In theory a bear wanting an elephant as a pet could be that reversal but instead it reads as absurdity.  It would be as if reading a story about a boy who wanted a porcupine as a pet, realizing it isn't a good one, and then bringing home a space alien instead.  The lesson of what made for a terrible pet, and the reversal of he human-animal expectation, is reduced to surrealism for the sake of humor. Lucy hasn't learned a lesson, she's only learned how to set up a punchline, or rather how to set up an infinite punchline because clearly she will be able to repeat this story with every creature imaginable. 

It's easy to see why this book was published.  It is well illustrated, contains a high concept that is easy to grasp by the title (thus no need to worry about how to sell it), and playfully twists a young picture book reader's expectations.  But it's got no third act, as they say, nothing really shows character growth or fundamentally changes our understanding of what's come before.  It will certainly occupy a reader's time in a benign sort of way but it is difficult to imagine it sustaining interest over multiple readings.  This is the one down side to high concept. It doesn't reward return visits, it doesn't sustain a reader indefinitely.  For that a story needs to offer something more.

Thursday, January 20

2 by Suzy Lee

Seven Footer Press  2003  
Chronicle Books   2010  

A pair of wordless picture books with similar themes from an artist I like to think of as the Master of the Gutter.  That's a good thing, I'll explain.  

In Mirror, a sullen girl notices the mirror she is slumped near and makes a series of poses, modifying and monitoring her image.  Slowly she begins to dance with her reflection, a pas de deux of opposing joy.  Then the drifts into the mirror, literally split into two not-quite-matching halves in the book's gutter (the technical name for central fold where the pages meet the binding). Once she's crossed over her reflection is no longer interested in following.  Once she's noticed the girl becomes angry with her reflection, smashing the mirror, leaving her to return to the floor and her previously sullen state, this time without reflection.

Shadow finds our heroine in a basement where the light and her imagination see a collection of junk transform into a veritable jungle full of creatures and things with minds of their own. Slowly the transformed items -- a ladder, a vacuum, a bike -- become an elephant beneath a moon and tropical trees.  As the imagination takes hold, the original items disappear leaving only their fantasy shadows behind.  All of this takes place safely on the other side of the gutter until a wolf appears and leaps out from the imaginary and into the "real" half of the book.  The girls flees across the gutter and together with her creations they manage to scare away the wolf.  The call to dinner -- the only words I've ever seen in a Lee book -- breaks the enchantment of the imaginary and returns the basement to its collection of junk until the light goes out and from the darkness the imaginary becomes real again, this time without their creator.

I think that from the words needed to describe these books you can see what Lee's messages are : image, reflection, mirror, crossed over, light, shadow, imagination, transformation, imaginary, real, enchantment.  There's no small collection of studies to be made on the psychology of these books, but those are no longer for me to write. I've already done my time in those salt mines.  

Back when I was working on my MFA I wrote a critical essay that compared Suzy Lee's Wave (Chronicle 2008) with Mercer Mayer's A Boy, A Dog and a Frog.  In particular, I was noting how these books used the gutter as an imaginary wall between the scenes on either side that was "broken" midway to silently mark the emotional changes that took place within the narrative.  This has become Lee's territory with her books, this dance that takes place on opposite sides of the gutter that must be traversed and broken for growth to take place. (For those who insist that Wave contains a "flaw" spread where the images run into the gutter in a way that makes it seem like it was badly designed I'm going to counter-insist that you look at all her books and see how Lee has done this repeatedly and suggest that it was deliberate.)

In all the books mentioned, the gutter is a little like the border between panels in a cartoon or graphic novel.  There is a psychology of "between," the message that is conveyed in the mind of the reader when reconciling the two images.  Each side isn't simply a reflection of the other (though they are that) they are a pair of images that inform one another in progression.  Reading left to right we see each side as an A + B that yields a C of personal meaning that in turn can send us back to A to reevaluate the information and assumptions we've made previously.  It's almost like reinforcing or "proving" the theory in our minds.  We look for clues in the visuals and these contextual clues reinforce what we think, see, feel.   

Okay, that got a little heavy there, but the point is that what these books do, and do well, is train young readers the language of visual sequential storytelling.  Whether on their own or guided by parents, Lee's stories have a surface level of narrative (a girl dancing, a girl imagining shadows) and a psychological level of narrative (the emotions generated between the facing imagery) that are told through a sophisticated use of the same between-the-panels emotional editing that, if we really want to get technical here, comes straight out of the montage theory of film editing.  No, I'm not kidding.  

Climbing back up (or down) to the book level, I think it's interesting that Lee has taken the same essential idea and made two different studies from it.  Her earlier book Mirror is a darker, moodier study that seems to explore the imagination as a place of refuge from a forced punishment, a place where reflection reveals a certain truth about the girl's behavior that causes her discomfort.  Perhaps she sees she was wrong (bossy?) and this is what brings her and her fantasy crashing back down.  It's a story simply told but perhaps a bit too subtle for younger readers; older readers might simply read the images too fast and not make the connection.  

But Shadow is more playful.  It takes the same point of imagination and allows the reader in, to take flight with the main character instead of simply observing.  This could partially be the function of the book's design as well; the shadows are, naturally, upside down in orientation, begging the reader to keep flipping the book back and forth to monitor and note changes.  The interactivity makes the reader an accomplice which in turn allows for a greater emotional investment.  So while I initially thought it odd that Lee was revisiting old territory I now think that Shadow is a refinement of the earlier book.  I like them both, but Shadow is the better of the two.  

Another visual component these books share is the Rorschach ink blot element.  Not necessarily in the literal sense where you can step back and view the reflected images for some personality rendering, but in that different eyes might add different details.  It could make for an interesting exercise to have older (middle grade, or even high school) students write out what they imagine the narrative of these stories might be.  Did the girl use her basement fantasy to get over a fear of the shadows in the dark? Did the "wrong"girl come out the other side of the mirror?  As with many wordless picture books and silent sequential storytelling (Sara Varon's Robot Dreams, Shaun Tan's The Arrival), there are probably as many interpretations as their are readers

Wednesday, January 12


by Michael Northrop  
Scholastic 2010

Seven kids, a week-long blizzard, does anyone even know they're still alive?  

What with recent snows in the South and along the Atlantic seacoast there's been a lot of chatter about various snowpocalypses (snowpocalypsii?) recently, but seriously, what would happen if a blizzard went on for a week and dumped over 18 feet of snow?  Would you be prepared? Do you think you could survive?  

Now, imagine you're in a high school, you're one of seven kids and one teacher who didn't get out while the roads were clear. The blizzard has made it so you have no connection with the outside world, and despite the fact that you are missing, no one has any reason to believe you're still at the school and need to be rescued. What happens then?  

This it the premise of Michael Northrop's Trapped, a taut, first-hand tale of survival among Scotty Weems and his six schoolmates who, for a variety of reasons, are trapped inside their high school at the beginning of the Blizzard to End All Blizzards.  As Scotty narrates the story from the vantage point of surviving it, he keeps the reader at arms-length from knowing exactly how it will all turn out but he isn't coy about admitting up front that not everyone makes it out alive.  

This sort of close third person narrative can be difficult to pull off, but Northrop does a good job keeping the reader in the moment as Scotty recounts the incidents which are still clearly fresh in his mind.  In fact, it would be hard not to have such memories forever burned in ones memory.  As each day brings new considerations – falling temperatures, the need for food, power outages, freezing water pipes – the teens do their best to mitigate the disaster and push ahead not knowing that unlike other storms this one just isn't going to end soon.  They live in the moment because thinking about trying to survive long-term would be both depressing and frightening.  Readers know going in how long the blizzard lasts, so like a timer on a movie bomb we have a heightened sense of when everything is going to blow, one way or another, but these kids haven't got a clue and knowing that creates a marvelous, twisted tension throughout.  

I am writing this review twenty-four hours in advance of our pending "winter weather advisory" with the projected snow amounts increasing every four hours. In New England it isn't unusual for projections to be wildly inaccurate because (and weather people will be the first to admit it) these things take on a life of their own.  A storm can stall out and roll in place under the right conditions, like a slow-motion freezing hurricane, and dump tons of snow or they can drift over the water and fall harmlessly on the ocean.  It can go both ways, you can either over-imagine the worst and stock up the larder only to have a dusting of snow, or you can assume its overblown and find yourself digging a tunnel to your sidewalk.  One thing is certain, if your projected to get a 100% chance of precipitation, it's going to happen no matter what.  

Northrop clearly understands the mindset that allows for a situation like this to occur and (with one quibbling detail not worth mentioning) buries Scotty and his friends under an avalanche of bad timing, bad luck, and bad decisions all around.  It's the sort of story that can launch a thousand "what if" conversations among readers about what they would do in similar situations, and begs the question: Can you ever be too prepared for the worst case scenario?   

(this review is cross-posted over at Guys Lit Wire today, your source for all things good in reading for guys.  No, seriously.)