Friday, May 20

The Moon Jumpers

by Janice May Udry  
pictures by Maurice Sendak  
Harper & Row   1959  

Four children frolic beneath the light of the full moon.  Yup, it's as simple as that.  

On the title page we get a small verse of poetry that sets the tone for the book. 
Summer night is the cool dark grass  
And big tired trees  
With the moon sailing  
On a wind.   
Once the sun has set, the moon is in the sky and Mother and Father are otherwise occupied, the children go outside and do what kids do on a summer night.  They climb trees and dance around and tell ghost stories. And once the Moon Jumpers have had their fun and its time for bed they return sleepily and go to bed with dreams of the morning sun on their minds.  

There is a poetic dreaminess to the text, and so little actual plot, that I am tempted to take the text and submit it to agents just to see if anyone today thought this was commercial enough.  Now, this was a Caldecott Honor Book and I'm going to assume that everyone I would submit the text to would recognize it immediately (right?), but I would still be curious to see how this would be viewed today.  

As for Sendak's art, these are the early years and where he already has his color palate and shading in place for Where the Wild Things Are five years down the road, though the style of his human characters is still very much in progress developmentally.  Their poses and gestures are full and free-spirited (for the kids at least) and there's a glimmer of Max in the facial expressions. 

It's a quiet little book without being cute or cloying.

Wednesday, May 18


by William Pene Du Bois  
Viking Press  1956  

In an animal factory in the sky winged artists invent new animals, including one very unusual looking lion.  

Artist Foreman, looking suspiciously like an angel, was one of the first animal designers in the Animal Factory in the sky.  Now in semi-retirement as, well, a foreman to the other artists, he has come up with a new name for an animal -- LION -- and sets about to design an animal to fit the name.  Artist Foreman being a bit rusty designs a multi-colored quadruped with whiskers and a mane of feathers, the tale of a fish, and a variegated striped pattern that defies nature.  Doubting that he has made an animal to match the great name he has given it he goes around to the other animal designers and asks them, in one word, what they think is wrong with the creature.  Size, feathers, color, legs, haircut... each of these responses sends Artist Foreman back to the drawing board to make the necessary adjustments.  

Finally he takes his creation to the Chief Designer and asks what is wrong with this marvelous creature and is told "Nothing!"  Ah, but the Chief Designer hasn't heard the proposed noise for the Lion -- PEEP PEEP! -- but his suggestion that a creature like that would make a mighty ROAR leaves Artist Foreman little choice but to accept that a peeping lion would be as wrong as everything else he originally thought about his creature.  So Artist Foreman returned to his drawing board and roared with happiness over his latest creation.  

This is one of those time capsule books, something I had totally forgotten I'd read as a small boy.  When I stumbled upon the title on a Caldecott book list (it's an Honor title), and with fond memories of his other books besides The 21 Balloons, I had to hunt it down. My first reaction was What an odd take on the creation stories.  Clearly we are shown a heaven in the clouds, with angels of creation in the service of a god, but what we know of the Biblical creation was that the animals were created by God and not his underlings working in a factory.  Then there's the notion that God merely signs off on these creatures not of his design, and that no one dares contradict him... it all reads like an odd bureaucracy, complete with yes-men and semi-competent foremen whose employees laugh at him behind his back. Though fifty years ahead of its time, the book seems to argue both for and against the idea of Intelligent Design.

Of the mid-century children's book authors and illustrators William Pene Du Bois fits an odd space in my nostalgic heart.  There is a childlike whimsy and logic to his stories and illustrations that, as an adult, don't quite hold up.  At the same time that innocence is oddly in keeping with the way kids think.  The odd fraternity of The Three Policemen, the looney inventions of Lazy Tommy Pumpkinhead, even his original illustrations for Roald Dahl's The Magic Finger all speak to this sense of Du Bois channeling some other world that looks like ours but simply isn't.

In Lion he gives a glimpse of a heaven no one has ever claimed, before or since, with angels working an animal factory, working their way through trial and error.  The story allows the reader (or listener) a chance to recognize everything that is wrong with the Lion and decide for themselves what exactly is wrong with Artist Foreman's creation. Were it not for the wings and the clouds the story could be set anywhere, setting becomes almost incidental from the start. The Animal Factory in the Sky is simply a door through which we are given entry into Du Bois imagination.

I was surprised that a single library in my local system had a copy of this book on hand.  Out of print since 1986, I wonder how often it gets checked out by young readers, and how long before this lone copy ends up discarded and lost to the memory of grown children from another era.

Wednesday, May 11

Aliens on Vacation

by Clete Barrett Smith
Disney / Hyperion  2011 

When Scrub is shunted off to his Grandmother's for the summer he discovers that her Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast is more than a name... 

Scrub just knows his summer is going to suck. Having to spend his summer helping his grandmother run her Star Wars hippie-decor B&B in the middle-of-nowhere Washington was bad enough, but knowing that his best friend Tyler was going to be doing basketball camp and tournaments across the country was killing him.  There is no way Scrub would ever make the seventh grade all-star team next year, not with Tyler gaining the coach's favor three times a week in practice and in games on the weekend. But with his parents called off on last-minute business trips, and no way to convince them he could take care of himself at home alone, there is little Scrub can do but suck it up and stick it out the best he can.

Initially he assumes Grandma's business caters to the sci-fi nerds after meeting with one of the guests, a tall man with loose, ash colored skin.  With a better understanding of the House Rules ("Two arms, two legs, one head" and "No harming the natives" in particular) Scrub begins to realize that "Intergalactic" is more than just a name for Grandma's establishment; she truly is catering to visitors from other planets!  But the resort only works as long as the "guests" can remain unnoticed while on vacation, and it falls to Scrub to help Grandma keep her hostel/travel portal a secret. 

Naturally, there are suspicious locals, including Sheriff Tate who is certain that Grandma is up to no good, and Amy who suspects there's a connection between the B&B and life on other planets. And then there's the little issue of the intergalactic transporter shutting down leaving vacationers trapped on Earth. It's only a matter of time before the carefully hidden truth is about be be exposed, right there on the lawn in front of the B&B with world media attention.  But if Scrub saves the day and can protect Grandma and her guests his actions will not only get the Sheriff fired but cause him enough ridicule to force him out of town... taking his daughter (and Scrub's only real friend) Amy with him.  Is there any way Scrub can make the right decision for everyone?

Among all the book's characters I do have a favorite and that's Mr. Harnox, the aforementioned tall guest with ashen skin who happens to be stuck on Earth. Throughout, Mr. Harnox is constantly making discoveries about his new home (a description of cacti sounds delicious) while at the same time applying the lessons Grandma has tried to instill in all her guests, ("Everything deserves a second chance"). Alternately comic relief and an alternate viewpoint on the world, his loopy wide-eyed innocence coupled with his unusual diet creates a character that wouldn't be out of place in a Charles Addams cartoon.

Smith gives readers a solid everykid in Scrub; neither nerdy nor geeky nor uber-hip.  He's just a kid, an easygoing vehicle for dealing with whatever gets thrown his way, which ends up being quite a bit, actually.  There isn't any mystery what Grandma is up to, or that Scrub will figure it out, so much as a question of what is the right thing to do in any given situation, and can Scrub handle it.  What's interesting is how adept Scrub is at his various care-taking duties – helping the aliens prepare to look human before leaving the B&B, shopping for excessive amounts of ammonia and aluminum to keep one long-term guest fed, and even mitigating conversations between the guests and locals to quell suspicions. Scrub finds, as many kids do, that fluid middle space where they are maleable to any given situation and it becomes an empowering thing for a kid to find they are both needed and capable when it comes to being responsible. There's a strong thread of compassion woven throughout though Smith doesn't draw any undue attention toward it. 

Which is not to suggest Aliens of Vacation is a dry "message" story.  It's a solid, plot-driven middle grade book with heart that will have readers longing for distant relatives with intergalactic transporters in their homes.

Full disclosure: Clete Barrett Smith and I were students together at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program and I received my copy of the book from his publicist.