Monday, February 28

Mirror Mirror

A Book of Reversible Poems
by Marylin Singer
illustrated by Josee Masse
Dutton / Penguin  2010

I do Singer an injustice
with this review
(depending on your point of view).

There are two sides
to every story~

Whether given or received,
an apple can mean life or death
as far as Snow White is concerned.
To a hungry Wolf, and Little Red
in the woods,
a treat means different things.

There are always opposing forces.
In these twelve classic tales–
side by side,
two poems apiece,
using identical wording–
lines are reflected
top to bottom,
bottom to top:
This form, called the reverso,
is a clever trick.

Like all heroic tales,
you end
you begin.

Singer navigates
the impossible
the simplest details
wisps of plot-

wisps of plot
the simplest of details
the impossible.

Singer navigates.

You begin
you end,
like all heroic tales.

A clever trick
this form, called the reverso.

Bottom to top,
top to bottom,
lines are reflected
using identical wording.

Two poems:
Side by side,
in these twelve classic tales
there are always opposing forces.

A treat means different things
in the woods
to a hungry Wolf and Little Red.
As far as Snow White is concerned
an apple can mean life or death,
whether given or received.

To every story
there are two sides,
depending on your point of view.

(With this review
I do Singer an injustice.


Friday, February 25

Lulu and the Brontosaurus

by Judith Viorst  
illustrations by Lane Smith  
Atheneum 2010  

Lulu is the sort of girl who won't take no for an answer when she demands a dinosaur for her birthday so she goes out to find one on her her own. Hilarity Mild amusement ensues, with a whiff of forced nostalgia.  

Lulu, an only child, is spoiled to the point that she has never heard the word 'no' before. So when she announces for her birthday that she wants a brontosaurus and her parents put their foot down, Lulu screams and throws a fit.  That the parents refuse to give in is supposed to play like a matter of practicality – she can't have one because they're extinct, or never existed depending on your viewpoint – but it is never said outright.  So Lulu runs away from home to find herself a brontosaur.  

Into the forest she goes, where Lulu encounters a python, a tiger, and a bear, and dispatches them with physical cruelty. At last she finds a brontosaurus but there is a problem: the bronto does not want to be Lulu's pet.  Turns out that the bronto wants Lulu as a pet, and as we have already learned, children make terrible pets.  Unhappy with the situation, Lulu makes an escape and returns home (by way of the bear, tiger, and python, with whom she is now more polite and apologetic) but is surprised to find that the bronto knows a shortcut through the forest.  Once it is agreed that neither Lulu or the brontosaurus will be either pet they strike up a friendship and live happily ever after.  

looking strangely familiar
And so Lulu got a brontosaur as she wanted, just as a friend and not a pet.  

Within the last year Jon Sczieska was instructing children's book authors to cut their books in half.  That was the first and most lasting thought I had while reading Lulu and the Brontosaurus.  Not that there's anything wrong with the story, despite feeling incredibly familiar, other than the fact that it feels like a picture book that no one has ever said 'no' to as it bulked up on junk food.  I suspect that Judith Voirst is among that pantheon of children's authors whose name secures a book deal sight unseen. Again, it's not a bad story, it's simply twice as long as it needs to be for what it is. 

ah, yes, now i remember...
What it is... is one of those books destine for the young reader shelf alongside Judy Moody and Captain Underpants that won't satisfy because the story is too simplistic.  It is one of those books that might be mistaken for an old fashioned picture storybook except for the fact that it's the wrong size and format for the picture book shelves. It's a safe book, a grandmotherly book, a benign entertainment.

Lane Smith's black and white illustrations are nice, in a familiar sort of way. It took me a week before I pegged what they reminded me of: the illustrations for Ruth Stiles Gannet's Tales of My Father's Dragon.  If this was a deliberate homage to a quainter, older style of book (I'll research it later maybe, if I'm still interested) then I feel this is dangerous territory.  Not because of Smith's work, because I think he's pegged the style to a T, but because Viorst misses this mark by quite a bit.  In Lulu's character  there is no whimsy or innocence, just a spoiled brat in need of comeuppance. In Lulu's story there's a forced sort of understanding and very little magic between her and her "dragon." And inviting us, whether directly or inadvertently, to compare the old with the new the new will almost always loose because it comes with the force of deliberate nostalgia.  Presuming, of course, this was deliberate.

I know I caught somewhere that this was someone's favorite book, but fell flat for me.

Wednesday, February 23

A Tale Dark & Grimm

by Adam Gidwitz  
Dutton / Penguin 2010 

An award-worthy collection of Grimm tales retold as a continuous narrative about the adventures of Hansel and Gretel.  Bloody. Violent. Just the way Grimm's tales ought to be.   

In the Kingdom of Grimm there lived two children named Hansel and Gretel.  What we are told of their story in "classic" editions of the stories is that they found a house made of gingerbread in the woods and were captured by a witch to be eaten, but managed to escape and return home.  Ah, but that's not the "true" or complete version of the story, now, is it?  It's what happened before that makes them run away, and before that it's how their parents are fated to meet.  And after escaping the witch, as they go in search of "better" parents, they continue to drift through familiar Grimm tales, losing fingers and beheading kings and battling dragons...  

Not the Grimm you know?  Perhaps not Hansel and Gretel, but each of the adventures is based on tales collected by the Brothers Grimm with their gore and horror in tact.  The device of using Hansel and Gretel as stand-ins for other generic characters in the tales is actually quite a brilliant move and it gives the reader some grounding through some pretty bizarre territory.  Readers of the original tales will smile in recognition as stories yield their origins and their outcomes hurl the children further along on their quest.   

In using Grimm's tales it is impossible to ignore the tales source material.  Hansel and Gretel's parents, the way they meet and the destiny foretold by three crows, betrays its Greek roots. Later, as Hansel is forced to trick the devil, echos of the medeavel morality plays can be heard.  Many of the Grimm's tales were drawn from other sources, modified and updated to meet its audience, so they can't help but carry their generational DNA from the past.  What's remarkable is how well all these influences play together with each other.  The hero's journey and the heroes themselves become our constant, our narrative point of reference, through the madness that often lives in the fairy tale realm. Hansel and Gretel leave home innocent children and return home triumphant, having earned right to reign through trial and tribulation and collected wisdom.  

What I love, and what might keep this book from being considered for any children's book awards (and, yes, I do believe it deserves that sort of recognition), is that Gidwitz has retained the gore and violence of the original tales. He plays off of it with interjecting passages that speak directly to the reader, warning them that things are going to get hairy, and perhaps younger children should leave the room. Clearly Gidwitz believes, rightly so, that kids can handle the blood and guts and on some level want it. He trusts young readers – which is more than can be said for a lot of writers these days – and knows that by promising them it will be okay in the end that they can handle anything.  Things go from bad to worse, and Gidwitz clearly alerts readers along the way, but he gains more trust and respect as a storyteller by not pulling his punches and playing with the tension by humorously teasing readers with a promise delivered. 

Having just missed the cutoff date for the recent 2010 Cybils I only hope it doesn't get forgotten come October when the nominations open up again.  I also wouldn't mind seeing some Horn Book love, and maybe an ALA sticker.  Yeah, I know it's early and there are still plenty of books to come.  That doesn't change anything.

Wednesday, February 16

The Unsinkable Walker Bean

by Aaron Renier 
First Second 2010 

Pirates! Glowing skulls! Crustacean-y looking giant sea-witches! A man with eight legs (he keeps running away!)! Homing messages-in-a-bottle! Wait! What's this all about anyway! 

I think the only real contentious moment I had while in grad school came from a faculty member who hated, more than anything in the world, when a story seemed to be as he put it "just one damn thing after another."  He believed very strongly in the structure and craft of storytelling in ways so deep and rich, its like an ocean of pudding I can't quite tread.  Not yet at least.  But of all the things he taught about story I disagreed with him because I felt there was an alternative to the three-act Aristotlean model of storytelling, I felt it in my bones, and I thought it was a more organic story structure that grew from an accumulation of events.  Eventually I calmed down. Until either I could define an alternative narrative structure or find a "one damn thing after another" story this was simply one of those areas of my education waiting to be discovered.


Reading The Unsinkable Walker Bean I initially had one of those dissociative moments where I wasn't quite sure what was happening in my head.  Did I not get what was going on in the story?  Had I missed a crucial piece of information?  Or did this simply not make any sense to my internal story logic brainthink? When I am this confused I usually stop and pick the book up again a few days later, because that happens, sometimes you need a fresh approach. 

The time off helped.  I started in and this time I realized it wasn't me, it's the story. What kept me unable to gain any purchase on the story was the fact that there were characters, and action, and a story, and nothing for me, the reader, to hold onto.  The Greeks understood that you could send Jason and the Argonauts on a journey of one damn thing happening after another but you have to root that story in something human, something emotional.  Love.  A longing for home.  Truth.  Beauty.  Something.  You can have giant statues come to life and fantastical creatures screeching and flying and rising from the deep, but you have to be vested in the human elements within the story.  There has to be a character you would be willing to follow into battle, into the rocky straits, into the underworld and back.  If you're willing, you'll take on any unstructured strand of an adventure because you believe the character will deliver you safely home. 

So I guess by extraction you can guess my problems with The Incredible Walker Bean.  

We open with a fable, a folk tale, a legend about how Atlantis was destroyed by a pair of mare-witch sisters, how they masticated their human enemies skulls into a wall that could help them see past, present, and future. With one bone from this wall a human would have the collective knowledge of the world and be able to find buried treasure and even Atlantis itself!  

We pull back to find this tale being told to Walker Bean by his mutton-chopped grandfather who appears to be a Colonial Admiral.  Jump ahead to the Admiral sick in bed, a ghastly green, with his son (Walker's father) berating the old man to sell off the possession that's created his condition: a bag containing a glowing green skull belonging to the mare-witch sister's wall! Walker waits until he can steal a moment alone where his grandfather implores Walker to return the skull to its home, where it belongs, and only then will he be healed. And so an adventure ensues.

There are pirates, and magical devices made from animated metals, and maps and secrets... and none of it means anything because we're not behind Walker.  It may be his journey but he's doing it for his grandfather.  Returning the skull may be the right thing to do, but it shouldn't have been taken in the first place, and the person who should set things to rights isn't our main character.  What Walker is searching for he only pieces together as he goes, and while it seems certain he will learn much along the way there is a pervading sense that the story itself is formless and drifting.  Changes in events and scenery pile up, one after another, without delivering a satisfactory conclusion to the episode.  As the story drifts from one improbable fight, to rescue, to chase, to adventure, there's never a sense of resolution, never a moment where the reader wishes they were with Walker, or behind Walker, or cringing that Walker is about to make a huge mistake because we have nothing emotionally invested in him or his journey. 

Which is too bad, because I think Renier has an interesting collection of story elements and twists at work here – even the improbable ones, like creating a canvas canopy with fake constellations to drape over the boat and misguide the sailors at night, or the elaborate alternate steering mechanisms built in the ship's hold – but they are in the service of themselves and not the story.  Nothing deepens the emotional development of either Walker or the reader.  And just as the book ought to start tying things together and building toward some sort of resolution it piles on more and more stuff

Because this is only Book One? 

No.  No, no, no. I was so unsatisfied with the shear number of story threads unresolved and heaps of all-too-convenient coincidences of people, time, and place that I'm not going to care enough to reread this book in the future just to figure out what is happening in the next book.  This is rule one of serial storytelling: each piece must stand on its own as a narrative and also fit within the whole.

And this is a HUGE problem I see among graphic novels these days.  I think far too often there are stories that are serialized that don't justify their length and would do well to be contained within a single book.  This has been true almost without exception of every serialized graphic novel I've encountered. There are, of course, exceptions.  The eight-volume life of the Buddha as done my Osamu Tezuka works because each book can stand on its own while the whole provides a larger picture.  Jeff Smith's Bone series treats each volume as an episode that picks up where the last book left off but delivers a cohesive narrative arc that builds and escalates the story on step toward its resolution. But Walker Bean charges off like a bee-stung dog in a crowded open market, careening from one thing to the next, disrupting business and up-turning fruit carts, before disappearing down the road with no one chasing after it.

And now I know what one-damn-thing-after-another storytelling looks – and feels – like. 

The Unsinkable Walker Bean was a Cybils finalist this year, and I would have rather seen Calamity Jack or even The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future in its place.

Tuesday, February 15


Pick Any Path. 3,856 Possibilities 
by Jason Shiga 
Amulet / Abrams 2010  

2010 Cybils Winner for Middle Grade Graphic Novels 

It seems like such a small decision – chocolate or vanilla ice cream? – but whichever one the reader chooses for Jimmy will send them both down one of 3,856 paths.  Some paths lead to death and the end of the world as we know it, some lead to a parallel dimension, some sort of loop back around to the beginning. Time travel is involved, and a squid (sort of). Jimmy's initial choice of flavors is what sets the story hurling toward a trio of inventions, the luck of a coin toss, and the reader's memory of an access code that alters and reshapes the story along the way. 

What would happen if you mashed up a choose-your-own-adventure (COYA) story with a graphic novel?  Meanwhile is the answer.  Everyone starts at the same place, but the choices they make along the way determine the outcome of the story.  Like the CYOA stories, many of the choices lead to death and so presents the reader with challenge of making the right choices in order to survive.  The difference is that the CYOA stories left readers with an emotional or moral dilemma on which to peg their decisions, but in Meanwhile decisions are sometimes simply a question of blind luck.  Sort of like life where the smallest of hesitations can have profound effects.  

double click to view larger
Those 3,856 paths are a bit of a technical inflation: the book does not contain that many actual stories or endings.  Where some paths diverge and follow one set of story ideas they will eventually come back to a one of a few shared end strand.  I haven't mapped the book out – I'm sure that sounds like a fun activity for some people – but if you've ever wondered what a CYOA-type book looked like mapped out, check out this link. Despite The Mystery of Chimney Rock having only 44 choices and 36 endings it does add up to a crazy-big number of "possibilities."  It's no surprise that Shiga's book plays up the numbers as he is not only a cartoonist but a mathematician.

The technique for making choices is unique and worth note. Each panel of the graphic novel has a little "tube" that connects it with the next panel in sequence.  These tubes, either by choice or by necessity of space, run off the edge of the pages and onto tabs that lead the reader to the next page. Following the tabs sends the reader backward and forward (like a time traveler, if you will) through the story, but the tubes do more than that.  By directing the reader across the page in this fashion, Shiga can place three or four separate sequences on a page that may have no connection to one another.  They are impossible for the reader to ignore (like telling a jury to forget what they have just heard) and so these extraneous panels become a tease to the reader.  Will they end up back at this page in the future?  If so, how do these panels connect?  And if the reader doesn't make it back to that page, they at least have knowledge of it, which means that once they've finished one run through the story they have seen glimpses of Jimmy's parallel lives and can be enticed back into the story to see if they can find a particular strand.  This layout, while showing all the paths along the way, makes it nearly impossible to casually flip through the book.  No single page makes any sense without knowing what comes before or after which forces the reader start from the beginning and rethink their path.

But what about the story itself?  Shiga takes the element of time travel and the reader's physical interaction with the book to explain and demonstrate the concept of infinite universes existing in parallel time. Just as the reader can flip between stories and change paths if they want to see where their decisions might have lead them, the various story lines exist in a parallel world (the book) where only the separation of pages prevents the characters from seeing "what might have been." It's the kind of a thing that will either wash right over a reader, expand their thinking about time and space, or just blow their minds. 

As a reading experience though the book can become quickly tiring.  Once you get the gist of several possibilities, once you've encountered a few endings or doubled over the same path a couple of times, you become tired of reading what is, essentially, a very short story with little character development or emotional investment. There is a certain adherence to fate in that there are a limited number of characters and locations that the story takes place in, suggesting that no matter which path the main character takes, they will eventually come to the same places and meet the same people.  Only the decisions change. In our daily lives we often fantasize about what small decision would change our lives and our experiences, and if I had a main criticism for Meanwhile it would be that for all its paths the scenery remains fairly limited.

This book is a natural for an entire generation wired into video games, who have learned through "multiple lives" that trial and error will eventually lead them to the most satisfying ending they can find.  It's a great approach for creatives and those who like a good puzzle with their reading.  Too bad our daily lives don't allow us to backtrack and explore alternate paths the same way.  At least not in this particular universe we're in.

Monday, February 14

Who Need Donuts?

Story and Pictures by Mark Alan Stamaty  
Knopf 1973     

Sam wants donuts for his birthday, more donuts than his parents could ever afford.  He wanders from his suburban home to the big city and discovers there are some things more important that donuts.  

Once Sam hits the city he finds a man named Mr. Bikferd who is a donut collector, wandering the city hunting for donuts and hauling them all over in his giant wagon.  Sam tags along helping collect donuts until one day the wagon breaks down.  Seeking help, Sam locates a woman who collects pretzels in a wagon of her own, and when Pretzel Annie and Mr. Bikferd lock eyes it's all over for the donut collector.  Sam now has a wagon full of all the donuts he could ever want... and he doesn't want them.  

Popping up throughout is a sad old woman whose prophetic announcement at the beginning of Sam's adventure – "Who needs donuts when you have love?" – finds her life in danger when the coffee company above her sad little basement apartment encounters a runaway bull and coffee spills everywhere.  But it's Sam and his donuts to the rescue, and the realization that, indeed, there are some things more important than donuts.  

Stamaty, an illustrator who for many years wrote the alternative political cartoon in the Village Voice called Washingtoon, crams so much information into his line drawings a reader could easily spend hours on each page studying what is there to find.  Absurd conversations, surreal animals, people whose fashion defies logic, there are more visual treasures to find per square inch than any other books except maybe Where's Waldo and Waldo is tame by comparison. Picture book readers of varying ages will discover different gags in the illustrations depending on experience.  Newspapers bare headlines like "Convicted Felon Receives Paragraph From Verbose Judge" probably play more to adults who would get the puns, but visual gags like a Conestoga wagon being driven by a horse in a suit who is a passenger in a convertible are accessible for all.  

(I do believe you can get an approximate sense of the experience by double clicking on the image above for a larger size.)

What does any of this have to do with the story?  Nothing.  At least on the surface.  These jam-packed illustrations serve as a parallel charm to the book's otherwise simple message that sometimes wanting something can sometimes blind you to what you already have or what you might really want.  It's no mistake that all of this takes place in a hectic city full of people who are blindly going about their business, oblivious to the wonders of the crazy world around them, including an obliviousness to love.  

Out of print for a long time, Who Needs Donuts? was reprinted in 2003 and can still be found. 

Monday, February 7

A Pet for Petunia

by Paul Schmid 
Harper  2011 

A little girl wants a pet, and she promises to take care of it and everything, but some pets just aren't meant to be...

Petunia loves skunks.  That's all you need to know.  Because when a child loves an animal at some point the question will be "Can I have one as a pet, please, pretty please?" and we all know how that goes.  Of course Petunia, and most children, learn that their ideal pet sometimes isn't s perfect as they thought.  Once confronted with the reality that her parents are right – skunks do in fact stink – Petunia accepts that her stuffed animal version is good enough until one day she encounters...

And there's the final page-turn twist.  Of course the reader is going to understand the new problem at a glance and can work out what happens next.

Schmid's illustration style is pure charm, simple conte crayon and spot watercolor in two colors, mostly purple with dabs of yellow.  The simplicity suits the story, and Petunia's expressions are easily read.  I've been a fan of Schmid's since I saw his work in The Wonder Book a while back, and I still think he has a great eye for the details in character and setting that are totally child-centric. 

I think we've all been here at one time or another.  Just a few months ago with our teen daughters we had this pleading and promising going on for some new kittens.  And as a pre-school boy myself I wanted to have a pet squirrel.  I even created a squirrel sanctuary in an empty closet under the stairs. It's interesting to consider this desire kids (and people in general) have to be caretakers of animals.  There's cuteness, and companionship, but beyond that... I don't know, I find it interesting.

As opposed to high concept picture books about pets (the previously reviewed Children Make Terrible Pets) here we have the variation on the universal concept of the unreasonable pet.  The universal concept takes common childhood experiences and explores the process of discovery for the child/main character that leads them to recognize that some pets just aren't meant to be.  Of course, most readers are familiar with the potential problem – and may have had identical experiences – and so in addition to the reassurance of the lesson learned, the universal also promises a humorous twist at the end that brings the reader back to the beginning. 

What makes this work is the comfort that is found in the universal themes.  There are no conceptual twist to wrestle with at every turn, just a simple narrative that allows the reader to place themselves easily in the mindset of Petunia. Done right, there's nothing wrong with simplicity.

Disclosure: book provided courtesy of the author.

Friday, February 4


by Kyo Maclear  
illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault  
Kids Can Press  2010   

Neither Fork nor Spoon, can the lonely Spork find acceptance in the world?  

Poor Spork.  A misfit in the cutlery tray, a one-of-a-kind in a world of deeply polar divisions. In a place were different kitchen utensils can live in harmony in the drawer this misfit simply doesn't fit in.  In an effort to fit in, to choose, Spork tries on a hat but is too round to be a spoon.  Spork tries on a crown but is too sharp to be a fork.  When it comes to the table there is no call for a Spork, it's either one thing or another that is needed, but not both.

But what's this?  Something that needs a utensil that's not too round, not to sharp? Like Goldilocks, someone needs a utensil like Spork that's just right.  It's a baby.  And having found its place Spork is now happy to be Spork.  

I have to admit, at first my reaction to the explanation that Spork was a little bit Fork and a little bit Spoon -- I saw Spork as a hermaphrodite! I know that's wrong, but I didn't immediately saw Spork as being mixed race which is clearly the message.  Kids will get it (I think) and this was another of those reminders that sometimes we have to keep our adult brains at bay.  

That said, there is a curious message here.  Spork doesn't fit in among the tableware, tries to fit in by choosing sides, and then gains acceptance only when someone outside the kitchen finds Spork useful.  I'm not sure how I feel about this.  On the one hand it could be akin to telling kids that one day they'll realize that there's a whole world out there and they'll find their place among those who will understand and accept them.  But it also feels a bit like the cavalry coming to the rescue, like there is nothing Spork does to feel comfortable with who they are until they are appreciated by something external. 

For the young, I think the "Can't we all just get along?" message is strong, and by using cutlery to tell the story it opens up the issue of multiracial image and acceptance for discussion.