Wednesday, March 30

Jazz Country

by Nat Hentoff  
Harper and Row  1965  

A teen boy wants nothing more than to be a jazz musician and that being white puts him on the outside, but time an exposure to one of his jazz idols teaches him that character, not color, defines who you are. Well, sort of.  

I love how every once in a while a library sale will unearth relics from another layer of the children's literature archaeological strata.  Books that have finally reached their expiration date due to lack of circulation are given one last chance on a library cart where, for a mere quarter of a dollar, you can get a glimpse into what was published for a teen audience over 10, 20, 30, sometimes (as in this case) over 45 years ago.  

Tom Curtis is a high school senior who, for the last five years or so, has wanted nothing more than to become a jazz musician. On weekends, and some weeknights, he heads down to the Savoy club and stands outside (because he's under age) listening to his idol, Moses Godfrey, take the stage and direct the most idiosyncratic jazz Tom has ever heard.  Godfrey is an innovator, a band leader along the lines of a Charles Mingus (to whom the book is partially dedicated), an important figure in jazz who may nonetheless be part of a dying breed.  Listening to him, Tom is full of doubts about whether he's good enough, or ever will be good enough, and whether or not he should go to college or instead try to make a go of it as a jazz musician.  

Oh, and Tom is white.  Moses and most of the other jazz cats are black.  And it's no small thing that one of Tom's biggest hang-ups is how he's ever going to "cross over" and make it as a jazz musician because he's certain that, being born white, he just doesn't have what it takes to ever really make it.  Seems kind of quaint, doesn't it?  

Early on Hentoff presents Moses as a sort of zen master, questioning all assumptions and doling out his own version of zen koans to all around.  In his first meeting Moses asks if Tom is a musician and his fumbled response reads almost like Luke Skywalker's first encounter with Yoda. Having been so quickly shut out Tom becomes determined to prove that he is a musician, and worthy, grafting a sort of zen apprenticeship onto the monomyth of the hero's journey.

This being the mid 1960s Hentoff is eager to make sure the story resonates with its intended audience who would be hip to current events.  There are the beginnings of black militantism, and the Southern freedom marchers.  There's passing reference to hippies and an acknowledgment of failed attempts at integration. The divide between poor and rich is presented mostly as a black vs white issue, and the police are never where you need them and always where you don't want them.  From the perspective of the 21st century it's difficult to know if this is an accurate perception of the times, or simply the beginnings of what we know recognize as a collection of stereotypes.  My sense is that Hentoff was trying to include as many views as he could and in doing so created an amalgam of types to give the 1960s reader a general, but all too convenient, sense of the political landscape.  

As interesting as the question of whether or not race matters in a musical form created and popularized predominantly by African Americans, Hentoff stumbles on the main story question regarding what Tom should do with his life. He has plenty of examples about what a rough life it is to make a living as a musician – not just a jazz musician, or a black musician, but just as a musician – and he can see that the jazz world still has a lot of external hostility in the form of business and press criticism, so when Tom finally lands an paid offer to join a band we really feel he should know what to do. 

But he doesn't.  Hentoff has dragged his main character across town, through fights and police brutality, in decrepit tenement buildings, to social gatherings, in and around hipster areas... but we have no sense of Tom's other life, the one he's trying to choose between.  He has a few school friends who get mentioned, and a set of parents who are mentioned only briefly and are "cool" with their son exploring his options, but for the most part his white world is a mystery. He's teen without a girlfriend or a desire for one, a teen with no interests outside his jazz life?  He's got good enough grades to get into colleges, Amherst eventually becomes his school of choice due to its proximity to NYC, but it's all treated as a casual aside, a white default. Its the beginning of the escalation of the Vietnam War and boys are starting to realize that a college deferment is the way to avoid the draft, but that never occurs to Tom when deciding whether he should defer the college or the jazz life.  His fears about falling out of the scene and not making it in jazz if he goes to college ignores the reality that by refusing college he risks his life, not just his jazz, by getting drafted.  This feels like a huge blind spot in the story.  

But in the end what is most frustrating is that, once given the option to join a band Tom goes around to every major character in the story and asks them for their opinion about what he should do.  At this point the reader will have made up their own mind, but Tom should know, he should have an opinion of his own, and it should reflect some sort of growth in his character. The mere fact that he still has to ask, is still looking for acceptance and permission, suggests that he has a long way to go and probably should pack it up and go to college. 

"I can't tell you when I decided to try college for a while," Tom explains, then justifies his turning down the offer to join a band because he didn't like the band leader.  That might have been clearer before and when he got the offer but it wasn't for the simple fact that for the entire story we have never seen a shred of emotion from Tom. Given how so much of the story is filled with jazz musicians talking about getting the feeling into the music it might have been nice to see Tom get a little feeling into his own life. And given that Hentoff was and is a premier jazz historian and critic, you'd think he'd have been able to show us what Tom's "song" looked like before and after he found the music within him.

Writing about a white teen looking to enter the predominantly African American world of jazz in the mid 1960s, we're going to have to forgive a lot of Hentoff's pedantic narrative as a record of its time, an historical document of another era. His use of the word Negro gives the book a slightly off taste to the modern palate. And Hentoff quickly dismisses a large number of influential white jazz musicians of the day as possible role models for Tom simply so he can make his case about race, jazz ideology, and class differences in 1960s New York City.  I had hoped that Hentoff would be able to deliver a sound story of a teen musician trying to navigate the waters of the race and class in the 1960s, something we could hold on to as an historical novel of the time.  Sadly, I understand now why it might have gone neglected on the library shelves.

Monday, March 28

Dave the Potter

Artist, Poet, Slave 
by Laban Carrick Hill 
illustrated by Bryan Collier 
Little Brown  2010

A picture book biography of a 19th century African American pot maker who was also a poet, and apparently a slave. 

I don't think anyone's going to let that summary slide without my saying something about it first.  When I look at a picture book biography I have to step back and read it through the eyes of the intended audience, or try to at least.  When the subtitle promises to tell me three things about the subject, and text only conveys two of those three effectively, it leaves me feeling something is missing. That Dave is depicted as an artist making pots comes across in both the detailed verse describing the process and the well-researched images. But all we see of Dave is him at work in his shop and maybe a few details the convey the general era of the story and nothing, text or image, that necessarily informs us of Dave's slavery. 

Does it have to?  Can we simply put the word 'slave' on the cover and assume the reader will understand what is necessary for the context of the story?  Here's my problem then with the text – we learn in the back matter that Dave's profession was unusual for a slave, which I think is safe to assume because what we tend to hear about slaves in the American South leans toward house and field. The fact that he's an artisan is an important distinction, but I instantly want to know: who does a slave potter make his pots for?  Were they commissioned by his owners to be sold locally?  Did his make them for his master's house?  In the back matter we are told one of the earliest records is of 17 year old Dave looking to get a loan for a house – was this for his business?  Was he freed?  So many questions around his identity as a slave which are important only in so far as they help us understand who he was creating his pots for. He doesn't begin to write poems on his pots until he's in his 30s as far as we know – another clue, he's been educated and has a facility with rhyme – which might suggest that his stature had been secured as a local artist that he didn't fear his pots would be rejected for having been inscribed by a slave.  So many things I wish I understood about this aspect of Dave's life.  

Is it right to want so much from a picture book?  Perhaps not, but again, if it's important enough to put on the cover of the book I think it isn't unreasonable to have it addressed within the main text.  This becomes part of my problem with back matter in nonfiction picture books. So much information is jumped to the back after the main text that it begins to feel like everything that proceeds it is like the carrot before the stick, and the reader is going to get both. Yes, sometimes the details aren't going to fit the narrative flow of a story, which is perhaps why we should question this method of delivering nonfiction to younger readers because if we are presenting fact in the guise of fiction we risk readers walking away with only half the story. Out of context of the narrative – literally, separated from the text – the back matter is easily ignored by a reader who wants the gist of the story and only reads the main portion.  And in Dave the Potter there is little in that main text to explain enough of Dave's story to justify the word 'slave' on the cover or in the subtitle.

Having said all that, Hill does a nice job of giving us the process involved in 19th century pottery.  It's a very close narrative, told in verse, an extremely tactile and physical study of what it meant to be literally a man of the earth. Hill captures that sense of what it means to be an artist, working along, knowing only what the artist can about how such things look like during their creation.  The dedication, the shaping, the pride of craftsmanship, much of what is written can be applied to any art or craft. On the poetic front I might have liked to see more of Dave's little couplets incorporated into the story as opposed to the back matter, but it can equally be argued that there is poetry in his craft.  I can't think of a more appropriate approach to a poet's life than to write in verse, as Hill does here, so bonus points for that.

Ignore my misgivings; I think the book deserves its Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King awards.  Dave the Potter is a well-told examination of a craftsman's life in the early 19th century, beautifully illustrated and carefully researched, and a fine portrait of an African American plying a trade few did during that particular time in history. I simply wish I had a better sense of the subject in that time. 

Friday, March 25

Surfer of the Century

The Life of Duke Kahanamoku   
by Ellie Crowe
illustrations by Richard Waldrep
Lee and Low  2007
A bit of bait-and-switch on this picture book biography of the father of modern surfing as it focuses more on his accomplishments as a swimmer.  

As a kid, "Duke" wasn't much for school, but he loved the water.  He loved swimming and surfing, riding the waves at Waikiki Beach on 100-plus pound long board made of koa wood that was twice as long as he was tall.  He was a strong and powerful swimmer and he even developed his own way of kicking through the water in a way that has been adapted by swimmers since.  He caught the eye of a local lawyer who offered to train Duke for competition and he eventually made his way to the Olympics where he took gold and silver medals in 1912, 1920, and 1924.  He did some time as a bit player in Hollywood, was sheriff of Honolulu for 13 consecutive terms.  Oh, and did all he could to promote surfing as a sport.

No doubt Kahanamoku lived a rich and full life, diverse and interesting and a good topic for a biography, but I felt a little cheated when I turned the last page.  Duke's title as Surfer of the Century was thirty years posthumous, and while he was active in the sport its inclusion in this biography felt almost more obligatory than key to the subject.  For a generation of post-war surfers, particularly those who competed in the 1960s, Duke was revered as the father of surfing and he saw himself as more of a world-wide ambassador.  A search of videos on YouTube will turn up a brief interview where he's asked which was better, winning five Olympic medals over a twenty year period or swimming the great waves off Castle Surf, and while he initially plays diplomatic and says they were equally great he does finally admit that surfing was a greater thrill.

I realize I've once again compared a book as written against the book I wanted to read, but can I make a case for being led on?  With a title like Surfer of the Century is it wrong to expect a story to be more about surfing that swimming?  By highlighting his swimming achievements – which are nothing to scoff, he did break Olympic records that stood nearly two decades until broken by Johnny Weissmuller – I almost feel like they are treated as more legitimate as a result of their international stature.  I wanted to know more about the status of surfing, its history, and how it began and changed over time.  None of that is here.  I wanted to know why Duke was held in such high esteem by the surfing crowd -- there is mention of his legendary two-mile ride of one long wave, but no context for understanding how remarkable that accomplishment was and remains.  I don't think it's wrong to imagine that few younger readers wouldn't be interested to know more about surfing, and about a legend among surfers, who would be equally disappointed to find a biography full of so much non-surfing detail.

Or maybe what's missing are the sort of stories that really make a character stand out.  We get the story of Duke's rescuing fisherman whose boat had capsized and how it would lead to beach lifeguards keeping rescue boards on the beaches.  That's good.  What is perhaps not fitting a "gentle" biography is the fact that on another occasion, while training for the Olympics in the Pacific Ocean off Long Beach, Duke battled a ten-foot eel, losing his finger in the battle and calling into question his ability to swim again (he did). We read that Duke was sheriff for over 25 years and no mention of whether or not he surfed during that time, no mention that this was before, during, and after WWII, he just sort of drops away from the story then.  I'll grant that when creating a limited biography, as the picture book biography is by necessity, one must pick and choose details, but again I keep wondering where the father of surfing is during these gaps.  If it turns out that his surfing legends were from his boyhood days, and his title and admiration are mostly honorary and ceremonial, then perhaps a different title is in order.  Or at the very least a better explanation as to why the focus of his life tends to veer toward the non-surfing side of things.  

On the one hand, I feel horrible; there aren't enough picture book biographies on minorities and I cannot think of another about a Hawaiian, much less any other Pacific Islander that isn't fiction.  But when there is an opportunity to cross a child's interest in a sport like surfing in addition to a biography about a previously unknown biographical subject who also happens to be a lesser-seen minority, it seems a shame to not deliver on that promise. 

Wednesday, March 23

The Fourth Stall

by Chris Rylander 
Walden Pond Press / Harper Collins  2011 

Mac's the guy you go to when you need a problem solved, but when a gambling ring muscles in on his territory has Mac finally come to a problem too big to solve?  

Mac is the go-to guy when you got a problem that needs fixing.  Need tickets to an R rated film when you're only in sixth grade?  Mac's your guy. And through a combination of traded favors and cold hard cash there is very little Mac can't fix.  He's a sixth grade wiseguy with integrity, and honest, and he and his friend Vince have built quite a nice little business for themselves in the fourth stall of the East Wing boy's room.  But that all goes south when a third grader comes in for protection from a gambling racket run by a legendary kid named Staples who is looking to muscle in on Mac's territory.  Piece by piece, Mac's quiet little empire falls apart as Staples puts the financial squeeze on kids and sends in his high school thugs to do the dirty work.  

On top of all this is Mac's best friend and business manager, Vince. Together they've built the business and have been saving up so that when (not if) the Cubs go to the World Series they'll have enough to buy the tickets.  But there are some problems with the books and all fingers point to Vince.  It's beginning to look like Mac has a mole in his operation, confirmed when he spots Vince taking money from... Staples?  Worse, someone has broken into Mac's room and taken all his business's assets, thousands of dollars worth.  Just when it looks like he's going to have to fold up shop and join Staples, Mac makes a discovery that gives him just enough leverage that might allow him to regain his business and send Staples packing for good.  

I think somewhere along the way every middle grade boy has had a fantasy of running some great moneymaking business, and probably out of school if not a vacant stall in a bathroom. They are grandiose schemes built on the fine American notion that if you build it, they will come, never realizing they needed it before. Mac's services provide easy answers to generally easy questions but with some complicated twists. Mac has hired muscle – a loose conglomeration of the school's bullies who can be bought for a price – and the school has a genuine problem with gambling on school sports, athletes who are willing to throw games, and bookies putting the screws on kids who are too young to understand what they're really getting themselves into.  It is the playground made hyper-real, the natural extension of the acceleration of childhood. Like a New Yorker cartoon with kids speaking and behaving as adults, only with a lot more malice involved.  

Rylander gets that childhood is a violent mirror of the adult world, and that kids choosing to emulate that world will make the same, and worse, decisions when confronted with trouble. Suspicions will be built on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence, trusts will be misplaced, character motives will not always seem as clear-cut as they are presented. Mac and Vince grew up together in a poor trailer park, but while Mac's family made it out to relative security things aren't so easy for Vince, and the unspoken tension grows throughout. Vince, it turns out, may have more in common with the super bully Staples which causes Mac to do some serious soul searching (and old fashioned gumshoe work) to better understand their common motivations. The emotional landscape of boys is rich in The Fourth Stall, with plenty of moral ambiguity to cause a careful reader to double-back on their assumptions the same way Mac is forced to throughout the investigations. There is a final confrontation that is inevitable but interesting an open resolution regarding Staples that suggests not all crimes stories are so neatly tied up as they are on TV or in movies.

I keep thinking there has to be a name for this appropriation of adult genres into children's books; taking hard boiled detective, or in this case the gangster-crime boss drama, and layering the stories over a school setting. Odder still, they seem to be winking to an adult audience in doing so, giving a knowing nod to those who would get the book's cultural references. The Forth Stall has a cover that clearly references the book jackets and movie posters for The Godfather. Is a middle school kid going to get the reference?

I only mention it because of the trend within family-centered movies to include references to keep adult chaperones engaged. You have a greater chance of parents spreading the word to other parents, or their willingness to take kids to the movie (and later buying DVDs) if they felt the movie truly had deeper layers for all audiences. This is a smart marketing strategy, and with animation there is a long tradition of making stories accessible, but I wonder if this is really the best approach for books aimed primarily at middle school readers.  Is the idea that the stories will feel more sophisticated and thus "trick" kids into thinking they're reading a more mature book? I think kids are smarter than that, and maybe this is over-thinking. Maybe it's just as savvy a marketing choice to design a book cover with an adult buyer in mind, it makes it easier to sell to a parent of a boy to send a visual cue that says "this book is like a middle grade gangster story, your boy will love it." It may also be savvy of an author to write a book that will entertain an adult agent and editor as a step toward getting published. I've often wondered what would get published if kids were the gatekeepers.  

Despite my general misgivings about longer middle grade books, The Fourth Stall justifies its length with action and a quick-paced story.  I don't know if the book is series-worthy, but I'd be very interested to see what Rylander does next.

Monday, March 21

Rosie's Walk

written and illustrated by  
Pat Hutchins  
Simon and Schuster 1968

A Chicken, a fox, a handful of prepositions... and a lot more story than what's in the text!  

It might be fun to try and review a picture book using as many words as are in the text. To do that, I would have to stop the review right here.   

Some other time perhaps.  

Rosie the end leaves her protected hutch and goes for a walk, unaware of a fox who has his eyes set on an easy lunch. In a single opening spread we are introduced to a protagonist, an antagonist, a plot and a subplot, a location, and already a rising tension. Will Rosie make it home safely? How will the fox be foiled?  So much tension!  

As the fox follows Rosie narrowly escape through a series of actions worthy of great Warner Brothers cartoons.  The fox steps on a rake and is smashed in the face. He leaps and lands in a pond.  As he lurks near the mill Rosie unknowingly sends a sack of flour onto the fox.  Finally, due to a culmination of events, the fox has angered several hives worth of bees who run him off while Rosie happily, obliviously, returns home in time for dinner.  

Or was she really that oblivious?   

First, a little bit about the mechanics.  Technically the book is one long sentence:

Rosie the hen went for a walk, across the yard, around the pond, over the haystack, past the mill, through the fence, under the beehives, and got back in time for dinner.

I've added the commas for reading clarity and to indicate page breaks, but the text does include only one capital letter and one period.  And going by text alone you wouldn't think there was much of a story there, but this is what picture books are all about.  The intermarriage of word and picture is what brings about the subplot, the unnamed and unmentioned fox who is stalking Rosie.  The tension between the word and picture is echoed in the tension between what Rosie knows and what the reader knows. Really, this is more sophisticated than it appears on the surface.  

Now, as for Rosie, she spends the entire book strutting across the page with her head up and a carefree look on her face.... or is it?  Could it be that Rosie is aware of the fox and is deliberately taking him for the walk?  This is where a clever book rewards rereaders with a different experience.  On the first pass readers worry about Rosie by completing or recombining the narrative to gain meaning; on the second pass the reader already knows what to expect from the story and they use the visual cues to recombine the narrative into a totally new meaning.  Even if after ever page turn the young reader turns back to look for the clues they missed that lead to the action they've just experienced they are composing new meaning.  The first time it's "Look out, Rosie!" and the next time it's "Look out, fox!"   

It would seem difficult to find fault with a picture book that does so much with so little, and yet, is it possible that the text is too long?  Okay, so maybe we're entering crazyville here, but given that we don't need to be told she is being followed by a fox, do we need to know that Rosie is a hen?  Look at the text above.  If we remove "the hen" from the text nothing changes, and from the interplay between word and image it would still be clear which character the story was about. I'll grant, it's picking nits, but those two words constitute 1/16 of the text, so I want to be sure I understand their point and purpose.  

The answer is as easy as reading the book both ways out loud. The answer is flow.  Grammatically the sentence-text if fine without "the hen" but reading it aloud gives the opening a clipped hiccup that utterly destroys the narrative flow.  So while far too often it can seem like a simple text could be shortened (and sometimes by as much as 50%) here the two "extraneous" words satisfy our ear and allow us to feel the rhythm of the story just as quickly as the images and their interplay with the text gives us all the information we need to know about the story.  

So it is, that Rosie the hen leaves home and takes a heroes journey, facing (away from) trials and tribulations, to return home triumphantly in time for dinner. And as Sendak's Max has taught us, no doubt Rosie's dinner is still hot.

Friday, March 18

Shark vs. Train

by Chris Barton   
illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
Little, Brown  2010 

It's the Superman vs. Batman argument of the toy box, people!  Who will win?  

Two boys run for their toy box, each extracting their power toy of choice, one a shark the other a train.  Grrr!  Chgrrrr-chug!  Who will win?  Depends on whether they on land or sea, in hot air balloons or roasting marshmallows.  And while initially one gains clear advantage over the other as the story goes on Shark and Train find themselves increasingly in situations where neither would win; playing hide-and-seek, for example, or playing video games without imposable thumbs. In the end a call to lunch ends the play and an escalation of the rivalry that might have spelled doom for both if not for divine intervention.

For those looking to study picture books, who want a good example of word and picture interaction, Shark vs. Train makes a solid study.  The concept is established in a single spread where the two boys run to the toy box and choose their "competitors," while the rest of the book explores the contest, complete with reversals and a a seemingly unwinnable climax that is as natural as it is obvious.  It's true to play, to boys, to the notion of competition, the absurdity of childhood thinking, and does so in under 125 words.  And it does all this in visuals which fully flesh out the story. This is how picture books work best, when their story language is as simple as the reader's reading vocabulary but the visuals match their far-more-advanced verbal vocabulary.  

On a technical level I would love to know how much information beyond the text Barton indicated, but in the end it has nothing to do with the final product. Boys (and some fathers, if they're honest) who enjoyed the braggadocio of I'm The Biggest Thing in the Ocean will certainly enjoy and recognize the same "truth" of this sort of competition. The winner is the reader who gets to use their imagination to invent more scenarios once the book is over.   

Wednesday, March 16

abandoned: Kid vs. Squid

by Greg van Eekhout 
Bloomsbury  2010 

A kid farmed out to a relative for the summer, a witches head in a box, the lost city of Atlantis, weird characters, weird creatures, the promise of weird adventures...   

This book has all the elements that could and should work for me in a middle grade book and yet I wasn't 20 pages in and already I wanted to jump to the end.  Not jump-to-the-end-because-I'm-excited-to-find-out-how-it-ends but jump-to-the-end-so-I-can-say-I-finished-it-and-move-on-to-something-else. I really did struggle with the fact that I could simply put the book down and move on but felt I was somehow cheating the book out of a promise to read it.

I've talked a little about promise before, the promise of the book (and the author) to the reader, and the reciprocal promise of reader to book.  When starting a book both reader and book enter into a contract that is an agreement that involves emotion, investment, and a willingness to suspend disbelief for a period of time in exchange for a return on that investment.  Most of the time that agreement is silent and in the background – the only time it becomes an issue is when one side fails to keep up their end.

So when a book doesn't work for me to the extent that I simply cannot continue I cannot ignore the fact that the problem is half mine, but only half.  I have read books that I didn't necessarily like or enjoy but nonetheless finished because there was something inherent in the story that at least compelled me to continue. To that end, the book has held up its end by giving me something in return for my time.  But when the book causes me to wonder if there's something wrong with me for not wanting to continue, when the actual phrase "return on investment" pops into my head when considering pushing onward, then I know the fault isn't entirely my own.  Partially, but not entirely. 

I've seen stories with kids getting farmed out by distracted and disinterested parents, but that wasn't it.  I've seen stories of outsider kids suddenly in a otherwise unseen alterna-verse where the adventure requires them to save that day, so that wasn't the problem.  I've seen eccentric relatives, otherworld tricksters, smart detective girl sidekicks... but for whatever reason Kid vs. Squid was like a jello that never set for me.  The ingredients were there but... nothing. 

So I did it, I jumped to the end, confirmed what I suspected would be the ending, imagined everything in between, and let it go.

Then I felt bad.  I felt like I hadn't given the book a fair shake.  Perhaps it was a question of not being in the mood to read (it happens, right?), you know, maybe everything I tried to read would taste like ash at the moment?  So I picked up another middle grade book to see if I wasn't too hasty in my distractability.

And 180 pages into that other book I had to face that it wasn't because I wasn't in a reading mood.

As always, my rule is Read everything and judge for yourself. It isn't a question of right and wrong when it comes to reviews but what's right and wrong for you. Kid vs. Squid just wasn't right for me.

Monday, March 14

Interrupting Chicken

by David Ezra Stein  
Candlewick Press  2010  

Bedtime, and little Chicken just can't seem to fall asleep...

Indeed, just as Papa begins a bedtime fairy tale Chicken jumps up and interrupts.  She warns Hansel and Gretel away from the witch, Red away from the Wolf, and tell Chicken Little that the sky is really just an acorn. Finally Papa gets the idea to have Chicken read him a bedtime story and before she can even get into her own made-up tale Papa is asleep.  

Chicken's desire to not only tell the story but prevent the dangers inherit in the stories rings true as children learn not only to recognize stories but that the power of storytelling rests with the teller.  Chicken isn't attempting to co-opt storytime, she simply cannot help herself.  The only problem is that it doesn't calm her down for bedtime but instead makes her more agitated.  I suspect this story will ring true with a large number of adults and their bed time wards.  

Although it has all the basic elements -- familiar setting, twist on expectations, rule of threes -- I felt like it missed a step somewhere, some hitch in the rhythm.  Like ho when you read a book and you go from mid sentence on the bottom of one page and pick up mid sentence on the next and it takes a few more sentences before you realize you've skipped a page.  That I can't isolate what is missing doesn't make the book flawed more than it gnaws at me.  In fiction when this happens it's usually a question of character, or a lack of well-developed main characters, but with picture books this is replaced with emotion.  I get that Chicken is impatient and has her reasons for wanting to interrupt, but maybe its because I don't know why she does this?  Like I said, there's nothing in Chicken's (or any child's) behavior in interrupting familiar stories that is out of step, so I can't put my finger on it any better than a question some vague emptiness.  

Does the story feel to short?  Too quickly resolved?  

I guess after Leaves and Pouch, with their fully-rounded sense of story, I've come to expect walking away from Stein's books feeling more satisfied. Maybe sated is a better word, because there isn't anything necessarily unsatisfying about Interrupting Chicken.  Well, except for that thing I can't quite put my finger on. 

Monday, March 7

The Secret of the Yellow Death

A True Story of Medical Sleuthing
by Suzanne Jurmain
Houghton Mifflin 2010

A compelling account of how early medical researchers discovered and isolated the causes of yellow fever in the early part of the 20th century.

Don't start this book if you have just eaten, and I might make the same recommendation for the following description of the symptoms that open The Secret of the Yellow Death: at onset, an icy chill, followed by a crushing headache, yellowing skin and the whites of eyes the color of lemons, delirium and blood-clotted vomit come next and violent spasms.  Within three days a victim could be dead.

You would think that something this virulent would have had its heyday during the plague years, hundreds of years ago, but the outbreak that consumed Cuba and eventually lead to the discovery of the yellow fever virus happened barely 100 years ago. That a combined team of scientists from the United States and Cuba solved the mystery through dogged determination despite a general disbelief among other scientists that mosquitoes were the carrier gives the story its tension. After all, if it wasn't mosquitoes, then what was the cause?  

Heading up the team was Walter Reed, a doctor who was sure that the source of the outbreak that was sweeping across Cuba could be discovered.  Even from a distance, when he was called back to the States, Reed kept contact with the team of four other doctors who attempted to actively manufacture ill patients in order to prove their theories.  Even as they had successes, managing to grow carrier mosquitoes and getting them to bite willing recruits, some managed to avoid illness.  At each turn it is as if the solution is within reach and then comes another setback. But with each trial and set of circumstances they learn a little more until, finally, they isolate the virus and understand the gestation period and the crucial timing necessary to replicate the illness in a controlled setting.  But many of the doctors involved died before the final results were discovered and understood by those who carried their efforts forward.  

It's a compelling mystery because of the variables that must be discovered both through trial and error and because little was known or understood about the simple organisms known as viruses.  Jurmain has chosen to get close to the story, to use primary source material to reconstruct the narrative of how the scientists worked to come to a conclusion.  She admits early on that she is unable to include source material for the Cuban doctors involved because that material is unavailable.  It would be nice to think that some day normalized relations between Cuba and the US might give us the full picture of the story, but as it is written there are few missing gaps of consequence and the story doesn't suffer for the lack.

While not profusely illustrated it does contain plenty of photos from the era that remind the reader just how crude the practice of medicine was just 100 years ago. The crude hospital and research facilities, the crude metal syringes, and the handwritten medical charts all add to the overall mood of the story, yellowed with age and looking for all the world like they might still carry the sickness with them.  There is an appropriate creepiness to The Secret of the Yellow Death and that will be a huge part of its appeal to readers.  Gross when it needs to be, creepy and disgusting in a scientific setting, and the constant question – are they ever going to figure this out? – combine for a compelling read.

Thursday, March 3

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)

by Barbara Kerley  
illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham  

In an everything-old-is-new-again twist we get a biographical picture book portrait of Samuel Langhorne Clemens from a fresh pair of eyes... his daughter's.  

"According to Susy, people were... well, just plain wrong about her papa."  And so begins both the story of and about Mark Twain's oldest daughter's attempt to capture the man she knew in her own journal when she was thirteen years old. 

What we are treated to is a sort of dual biography of Twain told by dual narrators.  Susy begins her biography of her father in secret but continues on once her parents discover the journal, at which point Twain becomes, and acknowledges, an unreliable subject.  Knowing his daughter is taking notes he deliberately makes scenes to be recorded, but Susy is quick to note they are manufactured.  She also succeeds in recording his routines and unguarded moments.  These don't necessarily contradict our general impression of who Twain was but rounds out more of his life as a working family man, a humorist who his young daughter saw more as a philosopher when not in public.  

Both Kerley and Susy manage to keep the focus on Twain, giving is a more balanced view of the subject.  We see so little of Susy beyond the part of her journal that include her in family outings, but she gives us a glimpse now and then. We sense that daughter who longed to set the record straight about her Papa, and who felt the need to preserve a certain unvarnished truth about a man the public saw only in one or two dimensions. In the backmatter, Kerely includes a single page of instructions for how the reader can write a biography about a member of the family, using Suzy's approach to gathering and presenting material.  I found it instantly fascinating how well both Kerley and Susy could draw a rounded picture of their subject by following these guidelines... and how much they underscore what we don't know about Susy Clemens herself. It's only natural that we see Twain and his family during the brief year Susy is taking note, and limited to those passages that illuminate the portrait provided, but I did finish the book wanting to know more about Susy.  

The text itself co-mingles actual quotes with original narrative and highlights the quoted material in a way that makes it stand out on the page.  This is something I have actually advocated for in picture book biographies as a quick, visual way to clue the reader in on which words can be documented and which are authorial summary.  What I hadn't expected, and hat shows up occasionally here, are fragments of sentences and phrases that end up strung together in a Zagat restaurant review sort of format.  Here, Kerley is describing where Twain found his daughter's journal with his biography inside: 

He examined the book with "deep pleasure," delighting in Suzy's "frequently desperate" spelling. He approved of how she didn't "cover up one's deficiencies but gave them equal showing with one's handsomer qualities."   

While these sentences read cleanly aloud, they take on an awkward quality on the page that I hadn't previously considered. I was first drawn to this problem of highlighted attribution with Jeanette Winter's My Name is Georgia where quoted material was not only italicized but mixed with narrative written in the first person. By avoiding the first person -- and by including whole chunks of Susy's journal in tact as inserts throughout the book -- Kerley instead juggles three voices in the text: Susy's journal, Twain's observations after the fact, and her own. It's a fairly sophisticated approach and what it might lack in visual cleanliness it more than makes up for in its sturdy, well told narrative. 

This is the second time Kerley has been paired up with Fotheringham and I think it makes for a winning combination.  In What To Do About Alice I made note that I thought Fotheringham's  illustrations weren't up to his usual standard, but that isn't the case here.  Using a rich set of tones that at once nostalgic yet modern, Fotheringham juxtaposes sturdy caricature illustrations of Twain and his family alongside more impressionistic details of buildings and animals for a layering effect that makes the focus of each spread pop.  And throughout words, either spoken or written, fly about the pages like filigree curlicues from a fountain pen.  It's a nice abstract touch that adds a sense of animation to illustrations.   

Kereley once again sets a standard for picture book biographies with a fresh approach and solid research.

(Whoa, that ended up sounding a little too blurb-y.)