Friday, April 29

Cousins of Clouds

Elephant Poems 
by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer 
illustrated by Megan Halsey and Sean Addy 
Clarion House / Houghton Mifflin  2011 

A collection of poetic ruminations on pachyderms coupled with informational bits that might work on multiple levels for older and younger audiences.   

The second largest mammals on the planet get the poetic treatment from a variety of perspectives that describe and explain as much as they meditate and drift.  Each poem includes a bit of non-fiction that informs the reader separate from the poem's language and intent, with illustrations that underscores the many facets of elephants. 

One particular spread covers the bases here.  One one page we get "Ivory:"

Excuse me?
You want what?
Two of my teeth? I think not!
Find another souvenir.
My enemy is drawing near~
my calf and I must disappear.

This is accompanied on the same page a line drawing of an elephant drawn on top of collaged brown paper that gives the animal shades of character as it stares the reader down.  Beneath is an explanation of how elephants were once hunted for their ivory and how a boycott on ivory sales was instituted in 1989.  On the facing page we get another poem, "Mud Spa:"  


Completely divine,
muddy chocolate sublime
splattered onto my skin–
better yet, I'll dive in.

The playful poem, and equally playful illustration, gives us an image we have seen before, but the accompanying sidebar text explains how elephant skins are sensitive to sunburn and insect bites, making the mud bath more of an essential element of survival more than playtime.  In these two pages we get a range of information and imagery that paints a concise picture of elephants in a way dry text could not.  

This is what made me think about how this book -- reformatted, and slightly modified -- would work equally well with an audience older than what we would normally consider for picture books.  I know there are older readers, including teens, who don't have problems reading picture books, but there are as many if not more who would find the poems and information appealing if presented differently.   

Not to suggest there's anything wrong with the collection as it is, no, no.  In fact, I'd like to see more like this, books with a melding of fiction (and poetry) among the non-fiction.  The reader with a preference for one will end up reading the other and reaping the benefits. 

Monday, April 25


What We Wear Under There  
by Ruth Freeman Swain 
illustrated by John O'Brien 
Holiday House  2008 

A picture book history of undergarments over the ages that provides some basic coverage but nonetheless has a few holes.

This was a book on my radar some time ago that dropped off and resurfaced mysteriously.  All I could remember going in was how I thought this was the perfect subject for a picture book, something that might pair nicely with Fartiste, or perhaps even Captain Underpants

For the most part what we get is serviceable.  The book moves historically from breechclouts  and loincloths through the middle ages, hop skit fads, corsets and nylons, and diapers ancient and modern.  The problem for me occurs early on when we start getting some unfamiliar vocabulary and nothing to help us understand it. "During the Middle Ages in Europe, women wore coarse shifts over their loincloths for warmth."  Having only previously been told about loincloths as the single bandage-wrap ancient Egyptians wore, and with no idea what the shape and covering a shift looks like, all we are given as an illustration is a single panel showing a pair of knights jousting.  We sort of get a glimpse of a shapeless garment that might be a shift a couple pages later hanging from a clothes line, but not enough to really understand its coverage or purpose.  

Other unexplained and unseen garments include doublets, petticoats, bloomers and the actual Chinese pants that are constructed in a way that allowed for easy access when using the bathroom.  Pants that open when you squat and close when you stand up?  I have seen these pants and they are an interesting point in fashion engineering and would be the sort of thing a reader would also want to see. 

It's difficult to pin down the source of the problem here.  The book is clearly researched, with an easy-to-read text, but fails to really give us a sense of what the evolution of underwear looked like.  This is a picture book, so that point is unforgivable.  At the same time, working only from the text, an illustrator might have felt limited without doing the author's research all over.  I would like to think that an editor would make sure the illustrator had everything they needed in the way of source materials, or that the pictures illuminated what was hinted at in the text, but that isn't the case here.

So in the end Underwear: What We Wear Under There gives us a peek at at unmentionables but fails to provide enough coverage to satisfy.

Friday, April 8

Do You Know What I'm Going To Do Next Saturday?

by Helen Palmer
with photographs by Lynn Fayman
Beginner Books / Random House  1963

One tow-headed boy's laundry list of what he intends to do includes a good deal of eating and pretty large amount of time hanging out with the Marines.  Includes gun play. 

This is perhaps Palmer and Fayman's finest collaboration and also it's most incendiary by modern standards.  A boy – let's call him Timmy in honor the owner of TVs Lassie, a generic type of the era – is standing around telling a younger boy of his plans for his next day of leisure. The younger boy is attentive on this first page and we won't see him again until the last page.

Timmy has big plans.  He's going to eat a breakfast that includes both donuts and pancakes, more pancakes than you'd probably eat at home in a year. Then he's going to work off those carbs by swimming, playing five games of tennis simultaneously, then beat an entire team at beach volleyball. A few ice cream sodas as a snack and then it's back to two-fisted bowling, water skiing, scuba diving, and a little wire walking.

Then things get interesting.

Timmy's going to fly around in a military jet, then in a military helicopter.  Okay, so maybe this Timmy has a friend or relative in the military.  No biggie.  A massive lunch later and Timmy's off to get a haircut but... wait a minute.  This barber is giving military buzz cuts. Four pages of the razor horror sends Timmy running down the railroad tracks vowing to keep his hair at all costs!

But then he hitches up with the Marines.  "Did you ever play with the United States Marines?" he asks the reader.  Why, no, Timmy.  It never occurred to me that that was an option for a seven year old boy.

"Shooting!  I'll got shooting with the United States Marines."  And sure enough, Timmy's there, gun in hand.  He's also at the firing range with a semi-automatic rifle.  Niiice.

After yet another meal (because we all know how boys love to eat) Timmy goes through all the basic training, beating every Marine in sight, but finally making his escape to do other things on his list.  No one holds Timmy down, not even the Marines!  But that escape left him hungry, so Timmy eats a hundred miles of spaghetti which earns him a spot leading the Marine band, a fine finish to a bust Saturday.

Oh, and that other boy he was bragging to in the beginning?  He's fast asleep on the last page.  Yes, sir!

In some ways this book needs to be seen to be believed, but someone else has already uploaded it as a Flickr set which you can check out right here.  You'll see, I didn't exaggerate the summary one bit.

It's interesting that no one considered it unusual to depict a boy talking about and joining up with a branch of the military, or handling real guns.  It's entirely consistent with my memories growing up of reenacting the war movies we saw on TV and owning blank guns and water pistols.  We cannot imagine putting a weapon in the hand of a child today, much less in the hands of a child in a beginning reader, yet boys today still do play at war and own water cannons and imitate the imaginary battles they see in video games.  In that sense it almost feels hypocritical that books don't accurately reflect the world of the boy today, that we have gotten so politically correct that we feel the problems of the influence of violence somehow rested in books and not in a culture that continues to supply children with the tools and images of violence.

The same with food. I cannot imagine a book today "promoting" this sense of unbalanced and unbridled eating that takes place here, but what's beyond the images?  This is a story of a boy bragging, and so naturally he isn't going to be bragging about getting his three-to-five servings of fruit and vegetables and making sure he doesn't exceed his 2000 calorie daily limit. And despite all the sugars and fats, this was 1963 and there wasn't a drop of high fructose corn syrup to trigger onset diabetes.  The boy is active and there's no room for sitting around with video games eating empty snack calories, no fat-saturated fast foods to bring on childhood obesity.  To our modern eyes we see the horrors of caloric excess but we fail to acknowledge that removing these images from books didn't make kids healthier.  As with guns, the problems exist outside the book and rest with a culture of denial.

Something I didn't know until I did some digging was that in the pre- and early internet days the rumor was that this book had been banned by the good Dr. Seuss himself, primarily because it advocates suicide.  WHAT?!  Apparently, between all the guns and the phrase "Next Saturday I'm going to blow my head off!" (in reference to playing a tuba), along with the fact that Palmer committed suicide herself a few years later after developing cancer, the assumption was the book was... well, yo now how rumors go. Unfortunate wording aside, it's a pretty big stretch to read into that tuba playing as a coded message to kids. 

So what have we learned this week from the mostly out-of-print oeuvre of Helen Palmer?  If we strip away the photos – as much for their dated qualities as their racial bias – we have books that celebrate the childhood imagination at its most uninhibited. We saw boys using tools unsupervised and with the freedom to learn about and solve design problems through physical experience.  We saw children fearlessly interacting with animals in a (mostly) respectful manner.  We heard the natural exaggerations of childhood told in a realistic and authentic manner without judgment or moralizing. In short, the Palmer-Fayman books validated and mirrored the experiential world of beginning readers who, like most of us, want to see something we can relate to in our reading.

From an historical perspective these books seem bizarre, and at times it is hard to deny the amazement that catches us off guard when we see things like a child handling a gun.  But at their core they are brave and bold, and more importantly honest, portrayals of a time when children's books trusted the reader's intelligence enough not to insult it was false safeties.  These books did not assume or remove the role of the parent in teaching their children right from wrong.  If anything these titles and their imagery remind us that reading, beginning reading, is not a passive activity meant to serve as a passive minder, reading is an activity meant to engender thought and meaning.

By making books "responsible" and "safe" for children we have abdicated our adult duties in knowing what our children are reading.  We no longer need to worry if a book contains materials we object to, and if they do we threaten to sue the publisher or have them banned from a library or threaten a politician's next election by forcing them to take action.  The irresponsibility we see in these books is really just the reflection of our own guilty conscious asking why we have chosen false battles in the name of protecting the children.

Finally, I should mention that Helen Palmer does still have one book in print called A Fish Out of Water (1961).  Based on a story Dr. Seuss published in 1950 called "Gustav the Goldfish" (which will be part of a collection of new Seuss stories to be printed this fall), it is the story of a boy in charge of a pet shop who is warned not to overfeed the fish.  When he does the fish grows to troubling proportions, causing the pet shop owner to come and (mysteriously) save the day.  Unlike Palmer's other books it was illustrated by P.D. Eastman which manages to prevent it from looking aged.  Also unlike other Palmer books the boys misbehavior results in catastrophies that require the help of adults (police officer, pet shop owner) to help him solve.  The book ends with a moral message, the boy promising never to disobey and overfeed the fish. 

This is the type of thing that is still safe. Obey authority figures, let adults solve your problems, and trust that fantasy illustrations aren't as dangerous as photographs.  Perhaps the reason Seuss let his wife adapt the original in the first place was because even he knew it was lacking the subversive qualities that made his own work resonate with readers.

Wednesday, April 6

I Was Kissed By a Seal at the Zoo

by Helen Palmer 
with photographs by Lynn Fayman 
Beginner Books / Random House 1962

A group of kids go to the zoo and do things no kid would ever be allowed to do, setting up some false expectations and perhaps forever ruining the notion of zoos to children forever. 

"What would you do if you went to the zoo?" is the question posed to a number of children.  One would want to play with a baby lion, another would make friends with a walrus, one would escort his brother around the petting zoo, another would help out with the baby elephant, the chimps, the penguins, and finally the titular seal.  "Those are the things we would do at the zoo. And do you know something? We went there! And we did them." 

Cruel, cruel world, giving children books featuring photos of real kids really doing these things.  Playing with a lion cub like it was a kitten, spending time with the trainers while they care for and train walruses and elephants, waddling around with penguins and petting gazelles.  It's no mystery why this book is no longer in print: think of the poor parents! Think of the poor zoos having to tell kids that, no, they don't just let kids wander around the exhibits just because they want to. Not these days, and I sincerely doubt they ever did.  

No, what Palmer does is begin with this premise of asking kids what they would do – simple wishing, not harmful and not unusual – then presents these fantasies with photos that suggest these wishes are possible.  Now, no one wants to bring up a kid's expectations only to let them down, but Palmer goes one step too far in the end by showing us a line-up of the kids featured throughout the book with the closing note that they really did these things. Perhaps a follow-up title would have been I Played Keep-Away From a Shark at the Aquarium! 

If reading Why I Built the Boogle House planted the seed of catching my own wild pets, I Was Kissed by a Seal... no doubt made me excited the next time my parents told me we were going to the zoo.  It wouldn't have been the same zoo in the book but why would I believe that all zoos were alike?  Why not expect an all-access pass to any animal that captured my fancy?

Growing up in the 60s and 70s my generation experienced first-hand the repercussions of the lies of post-war America. The optimism of the 1950s that crumbled during the Vietnam era were largely the result of kids realizing that the world was nothing like the promises delivered to them on a regular basis.  It isn't simply a question of being denied jet packs and space-age living, but the collection of promises we watched erode over time. It begins simply with a denial to play with lion cubs at the zoo but eventually includes the myths of family life as presented on TV, the casual lies of advertising, the college education as a guarantee of employment, the job for life and the retirement plan that takes care of all your needs.  The sting of reality was impossible to ignore while our parents tried to explain to us the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King, or why they would turn off the news when they heard any mention of the "conflict" in Southeast Asia.  They couldn't even call it a war.

No, they could no longer offer beginning readers a world that never existed.  The fantasy of I Wish That I Had Duck Feet is fine, escapism and childhood fancy could still be found in the reportage of a book like A Hole is to Dig, but none of this photo-realism to serve as false documentary.  

Perhaps I'm being unfair to a cherished childhood memory.  Perhaps the real reason the book went out of print, and rightly so. was because there wasn't a single non-white child in the bunch.  That arrogance of the white default is still around in publishing, despite Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day arriving a year after I Was Kissed by a Seal... proved that kids don't see color as a difference, they have to be taught it.

No matter what, I cannot shake the deep rivers of nostalgia this book opens up.  Sadly, I can no longer see it with the same innocent eyes.

Monday, April 4

Why I Built the Boogle House

by Helen Palmer
with photographs by Lynn Fayman
Random House / Beginner Books  1964

A boy trades up from a turtle to increasing larger pets, building and modifying homes for them, until finally he has a house big enough for a Boogle. (What's a Boogle?)

It starts with a turtle, a pet this boy has always wanted.  He builds a house for it to live in out of wood.  The next day the turtle has run away.  He wants a new pet.  He goes down to the pond and snatches a duck.  The duck doesn't fit in the turtle house so he modifies the house until the duck fits.  But the duck is noisy so he trades it for a kitten.  Now the house is too small for a kitten, so he builds it up until it's large enough. This goes on.  Kitten for a rabbit, rabbit for a dog, dog for a goat, goat for a horse. When the house for a horse draws the attention of the police who inform him that he can't keep a horse in his backyard the boy decides to dedicate the house to the imaginary Boogle he hopes to catch one day.  In the meantime he has outfitted his Boogle house into a rather nice private clubhouse with plants and a beaded curtain.

I love the innocence of children's books from the early days.  So free of concerns about children emulating behavior and notions of property and fears of litigation.  There's a reason this book is out of print, and it has nothing to do with the dated photos from the early 1960s.

Putting aside the problems of appropriating ones pets from local ponds (and the lack of concern for feeding any of the pets, which is perhaps why they tend to run away or become a nuisence) what Why I Built the Boogle House has going for it is the unbridled enthusiasm this boy has in building homes for these animals.  That and a seemingly endless supply of lumber and access to hand tools.  I'm not even going to pretend that this book didn't somehow inspire me to want to do the same thing (and longtime readers may remember I once tried to convince my parents to let me have a pet squirrel in our apartment when I was around 6 years old).

What this dated title by Dr. Seuss's first wife gets right is the mindset of a boy, albeit short-sighted in some ways, who recognizes that caring for a pet means providing for it as best he can.  In the pre-feminist way that dolls and doll play helped girls prepare for their lives as housewives and mothers, boys with their ownership of pets helped condition them to the notion of having and providing for families.  Trading up, the great American Dream of building bigger and better, the idea of not only making something with your hands but doing so with a purpose, these are the messages that truly explain why the boy, anyone really, sets out to build a Boogle house.  The Boogle, though the boy thinks he's hedging his bets by building for something that cannot be outgrown, is actually the future, his future.  The Boogle house his is retirement plan, his real estate venture, his safety net.  We build toward the eventuality of what we one day might need. It is a lesson about saving and planning, and one we have drifted far from in the past 50 years.

As best as I can tell, Helen Palmer published four children's books under her name, the only one still in print being A Fish Out of Water which was originally a story by Dr. Seuss called "Gustav the Goldfish" which appeared in Redbook magazine in 1950.  The other three books – Why I Built the Boogle House, Do You Know What I'm Going To Do Next Saturday, and I Was Kissed By a Seal at the Zoo – are decidedly different in that they use black and white photos (which conventional wisdom claims don't age well with readers) and feature situations and ideas which are no longer in favor with modern reader.  Or rather, they are no longer in favor with adults, because as Maurice Sendak reminds us, “Books don’t go out of fashion with children. They just go out of fashion with adults and publishers.”

I hunted these books down because they became dislodged from the deep storage of my memory banks and I wanted to understand why they had disappeared both in print and from memory.  For the most part I think the memory question is answered with "out of sight, out of mind." Many of not most of the books from my childhood never survived my childhood. Either from neglect on my part or destruction at the hands of my younger sibling, or perhaps in one of my mother's general purges (which might also explain my book hoarding... hmm), few of the books I owned made it into my teen years. Decades later, as memories of childhood books began to resurface I became driven to locate as many as possible, if for no other reason that reassure myself that I wasn't crazy – those books did exist!  Yes, it turns out, there was a children's book where a boy fires guns at a rifle range with the Marines, and another where kids play with lion cubs, and even a picture book by Aldous Huxley. There are some pretty interesting nuggets when you go digging around the past in children's literature.

With that in mind, later this week I'll be looking at the two other books by Palmer and casually examining how things have changed for both children and books since the early 1960s.  I would love to hear what your memories were of children's books from the past, not just the Helen Palmer books but about any. What books have gone out of print in your time, what lost treasures have you gone looking for?