Monday, June 27

Bubble in the Bathtub

by Jo Nesbo 
Aladdin 2011 

Nilly and Lisa are back, this time to help rescue Doctor Proctor who seems to have gotten himself trapped somewhere in time while trying to reunite with an old flame from long ago... 

When Lisa and Nilly receive a postcard from their friend Doctor Proctor (inventor of the infamous Fart Powder that was the subject of the previous book) the discover a secret message indicating that the doctor is in trouble and needs help. With the sale of a collectible postage stamp to an odd woman named Raspa who has a wooden leg with a roller skate at the end of it, the kids tell their parents they're spending the weekend at a friend's house and take off for Paris. From Oslo. With tiny Milly crammed into a carry-on bag because they only have enough money for one ticket.

Once there they find the doctor's hotel room but he is missing. Through luck, Nilly discovers that a powder he was instructed to bring along from the doctor's lab is actually a bubble bath that is the active ingredient for a time machine built out of a bathtub. The doctor's old flame Juliette shows up and explains how she and the doctor were parted many years before, and that he's gone back in time to try and change history. Suddenly everyone is traveling around through time trying to find the doctor and make sure that history doesn't get changed entirely. Napoleon, Joan of Arc, the French Revolution, the Tour de France, the Eiffel Tower, all of it may or may not be irreparably altered as Nilly, Lisa, Raspa, Juliette, and the doctor himself go zipping around in the bathtub hoping to correct, undo, and generally mess with historical events so that there can be a happy ending.

Head-spinning plot twists and preposterous time travel paradoxes?  Oh, heck yeah, but its so much fun that you either twist yourself into a pretzel trying to sort it all out or, better, you taken them for the goofy fun they are and roll with them. Nilly and Lisa understand they cannot change the past without having profound effects on the future, but some histories were just meant to be no matter what the shift in events.  When Nilly impersonates Napoleon he knows what is supposed to happen that day at Waterloo, but is all that bloodshed necessary? No, Nilly decides instead to convince the French troops to go home, pretend they suffered heavy losses, and return to their families and breakfasts. On the other side of the battle, finding the French troops gone, Wellington and company decide to pretend they won a great battle, and return home to their families with a similar story. Nilly has changed history, but the outcome is still recorded the same and no one is the wiser. And as far as the paradoxes are concerned, when Lisa helps a despondent Gustav Eiffel by sketching out an idea for a tower it's hard not to get up in the snake eating its own tail. It's the ultimate answer to the chicken-egg question: they both came first.

Nesbo has written one big, slobbery shaggy dog of a book that is hard to resist. Middle grade books that push 200 pages really need to prove themselves to me, but at 425 pages I never felt like I was being dragged along. The humor is irreverent and droll, wacky and sophisticated at the same time, it honors the spirit of adventure and the desire for nonsense in dealing with the adult world, and is one of the few books (if any?) where the central story was about kids helping two adults reunite for love.

Nesbo, Norway's (perhaps Europe's) leading adult crime novelist has taken another step toward establishing a reputation on par with Roald Dahl – the better parts at least. While his adult fiction is dark his middle grade books (there is a third not yet in translation) are the most Dahl-esque stories I have read. Evil and ugliness lurk in the adult characters, as they do in real life, but Nilly and Lisa treat them with the same aplomb any kid would in dealing with schoolyard bullies. Nilly's pluck in getting his friends out of the guillotine is as absurd as it is natural in the world Nesbo creates. If anything, Nesbo does one better than Dahl by empowering his characters with an indestructible passion and innocence.

I know people like to get excited by authors and series, and that generally isn't me. But after reading dozens and dozens of middle grade books it's genuinely exciting when someone truly "gets" what it means to be a kid and can make it funny while delivering the serious stuff amid a truly absurd adventure. I sincerely wish Nesbo a long career in both his adult and children's books, and that his books get the attention they deserve. I'm doing my part.

Friday, June 17

Nothing Ever Happens On My Block

written and illustrated by  
Ellen Raskin  
Atheneum  1980 

While a boy sits and mopes there's plenty of things going on that he casually seems to ignore.   

In some ways Chester Filbert is like many kids who complain of nothing to do in a world where adults are more than happy to point out all the possibilities.  There Chester sits, a figure clad in black against a line drawing of his street full of houses with more Victorian gingerbreading than any historical town you can name. Soon people appear, in bright primary colors, kids playing ding-dong-ditch and girls jumping rope, a window washer, a gardner, a thief, a fire and a fire truck. All the while Filbert complains, comparing his dull block to places that have marching bands and haunted houses and pirates, basically everything he'd like to see instead of acknowledging the excitement bustling around him. Accidents pile up around Chester, kids get hurt, cars crash, an armored car dumps money everywhere and Chester goes home having decided that when he grows up he's going to move away from this crummy place.  

In he picture book game there are books where the reader can see more than the character can – I know there are others but I'm at a loss to recall them right now – making the story interactive and a bit of a game. Here, Raskin takes a common childhood complaint as her source and it works, but...

But I wonder when books play this game of "see how foolish the main character is behaving," especially picture books and early readers, if the message backfires. What happens when the reader identifies with the main character and, as in this case, can point out how preposterous the scene is while complaining that these same things never happen on the reader's block as well. The reader ends up feeling even more justified; not only don't they have thieves and police giving chase and trucks dumping money at their feet they also don't have haunted houses or parades either. Instead of being able to say to a reader "There's plenty of things happening if you open your eyes!" this narrative provides young readers the ammunition to say "Yeah? Like what?" 

Maybe there's an alternate reading to this story, something I haven't considered. What if this was the sort of thing that happened on Chester's street every day and he had become so numbed to it that all he longs for are the things he's never seen before. Or what if, what if everything we the reader sees is spectral, the ghosts of things and people that once lived on that street and now, like that kid in The Sixth Sense, appear to him in his ennui begging for the closure he has no interest in giving them? Why else would they all appear in monochrome from head to toe if these were not these shade's shades?

Okay, perhaps too close a reading, too unfair to over generalize. But let me ask if this book could be written or published today. Would we accept a main character who is unchanged at the end, a story where only the reader has (perhaps) been moved forward in their thinking?  It reads a little like a concept story with no resolution, the first act of a three-act play.

It's funny, because I don't feel this way about If I Ran the Circus and it's otherwise resolution-free story. Perhaps because in the act of imagining there is a celebration of creativity at hand where Nothing Ever Happens... is the antithesis of creativity, it's simply a list of complaints from a child who wants the world handed to them and can't be bothered to think about anything other than what's wrong.

And after all that, I still sorta like this book. I like the size (again a smaller picture book, about 6"x7") and I like the unchanging background with the action layered on top, like the various layers in multiplane animation. Color highlights aside, the details of the line drawing beg for closer inspection, though it might have been nice if they hid some secrets among their curves. Is it too much to wish for a gargoyle or a nest of birds with a little hatchling action? Now see, there I go, acting like Chester and longing for things that aren't while ignoring the things that are.

Wednesday, June 15

Punch in New York

 written and illustrated by
Alice Provensen
Viking  1991

When the star of a famed Italian puppet theatre is stolen fro his owner he goes on a mischievous romp through modern day New York City only to realize there's no place like home... unless you get to rip off someone in the process.

Landing in New York, Il Professore Tucci-Piccini (all Punch puppeteers are referred to as Professor) has one of his bags stolen from him, the one containing his star, Mr. Punch. Back at the thieves den when they discover the suitcase is not full of money they toss Punch out of the window where he lands on a baker in the street and sets of on his very Punch-like adventure across the city. After a couple of isolated incidents Punch falls in with a pack of muggers and quickly becomes their leader, convincing them to help him steal the car of a wealthy man and driving it – preposterously across the roofs of buildings – to his home. Lauded for his excellent driving Punch is hired on as the regular chauffeur but he becomes lonely for his old family, the puppet theatre, and in the end manages to combine his old and new jobs into one sweet deal.

Punch has always been a bad boy, and his antics have always been enjoyed for their outrageousness. In updating the Punch tale, Provensen has found ways to incorporate some of the standby characters – policeman and alligator – in a way very much in keeping with modern times. Other, trickier characters such as the beadle, the devil, the hangman, and even Judy and the baby are sidelined probably because of how quickly they would become hot-button problems if introduced. In the traditional play Punch is a serial murderer and clearly that wouldn't do for a picture book. Instead, Provensen gives us a Punch without his historical trappings but with plenty of bad behavior that walks the tightrope between playful and dangerous.

Provensen's illustrations sit like stacks of multiple planes, almost naive in perspective. The large city scenes are crowded with textual details, names of stores and signs and places that suggest that nothing in New York is real unless it has a name attached to it. Some of the businesses are real (the Waldorf) while the rich man named Helmstrump seems an amalgam of Helmsley and Trump and his name appears on buildings throughout. It's difficult to know if Provensen is going for commentary or providing adults with an inside joke and I'm not quite sure it works either way. But the color palate of oil paint on velum is bright and bold

The historical origins of a Punch and Judy puppet show go pack to the 16th century Italian commedia dell'arte where a set of stock characters would perform farces that openly mocked the morality of decent people. Punch, a hunchbacked hooked-nosed dwarf, was an obnoxious braggart, a violent drunkard, and a coward who settled every disagreement with a paddle that was larger than himself. He would beat police and church figures, outwit the devil, and got away with murder, literally. The no one in their right mind would cheer for such a person in real life. This puppet surrogate allowed audiences to laugh at the folly of the bad guy getting away with it.

And I feel the need to interject here that this desire to root for the bad guy exists to this day in modern entertainment. We like to imagine ourselves getting away with it, yet at the same time feel relief in seeing the lawbreakers get caught or killed. It feeds our fantasies and then calms our sense of morality, but this need of a moral coda is a modern desire; we have come to a place where we would feel guilty without an explicit ending that the bad guys didn't get away with it, unable to allow our sense of morality rest unspoken. In that way we have become rather weak (or at least lazy) as a society when it comes to using our intellect while enjoying entertainment.

I mention this because the reason I had to check this book out was that someone pointed out a couple of bad reviews on this book on Amazon. I am beginning to believe that comments and product reviews on websites are proof of our failures in education and that they represent 90% of the population.  That aside, I was astonished (I shouldn't have been) that someone thought this book taught bad values ("values" being a the operative word that told me all I needed to know about the commenter) and two of the three reviewers felt the book should be banned. The one who complained about the values even suggested people not buy this "book" (the word book in quotes) as if somehow disagreeing with its content made it less of a book than one they agreed with.

Yes, I can see how if you believed that puppets could come to life, talk to people, drive cars around town, and generally create mischief, that you might believe the book is a deliberate attempt to teach young readers how to lie, cheat and steal. If you cannot tell the difference between a drawing of a fictitious character in a picture book and real people in the world – and worse, if you do not know how to have a conversation with your children to help them understand the differences between what is real and what isn't – then you have a bigger problem than can be solved by banning books. I don't think you need to be cultured in a way that you understand the history of Italian commedia and English puppet theatre in order to understand this book, but if you have a problem with this book then you're also going to have a hard time with gangster movies, with the moral ambiguities of James Bond, even with cute little picture books with talking animals in it; I can think of no greater lie than teaching kids animals can think, behave, and reason just like them.  I realize some people take the bible literally, as is their right to do so, but to apply that same standard to all books is to suggest that all fiction is real or that there's no difference between made-up stories and those in the bible.

Come on, is this really the state of our educational system today?

Is Punch in New York a great book? No, but it is a fine introduction to a classic buffoon from another time and place, where the people weren't so smart that they were offended by a broad farce.

Monday, June 13

Fight the Night

written and illustrated by  
Tomie de Paola  
Lippencott  1968  

Ronald so refuses to go to sleep that he vows to fight the night, until the morning if necessary.  

Playing outside until bedtime, Ronald refuses to cooperate. Even as his mother coaxes him into pajamas and into bed with the vague promises that tomorrow is another day and perhaps there might be a surprise for him and that the night would catch him and make him sleepy, Ronald is having none of it. Donning a cape, a pot repurposed into a helmet, and a flashlight Ronald climbs under his bedclothes and creeps in the darkness toward the foot of the bed where the Night lives. 

Squeezing out the other end he emerges in his outside fantasy world prepared to take on the Night. But the Night is having none of it, calling out "Go too sleep before it's too late." Demanding a fight Ronald promises to catch him with his flashlight but the Night decrees "You will never catch me" and so the chase is on. Eventually the Night insists Ronald must be getting sleepy, and despite his protests his eyes show fatigue. But come the dawn Ronald has succeeded, and with the Night in retreat he climbs back into his bed from the bottom, removes his helmet and cape, and from the bottom of the bed hears the night laughing at him just as mother calls out that breakfast is ready. With that Ronald draws the covers over him and sleeps all day, the Night having finally caught him as his mother had promised.  

In this very early Tomie De Paola book we are treated to a classic Hero on a Night Journey, literally this time battling the night. It also happens to be a classic Epic in the battle between kids and their parents come bed time, especially in summertime when the sun is lout long past dinner and neighborhood games of hide-and-seek are a rite of childhood if ever there was one. Here our Epic Warrior Ronald seriously dons his fighting gear and actively goes in search of the Night, vowing to vanquish it once and for all. The Night, elemental and omnipresent, becomes his transformative night passage to self-mastery, proving once and for all that the night can be fought. The Warrior, having vanquished his foe, returns home the way he came having proved himself and grown up to the point he no longer need heed his parents. He has earned the sleep of the Hero returned triumphant.  

De Paola's lines are young and not quite as assured as they later became. Placed alongside the 60s work of Mercer Mayer and Maurice Sendak the three writer-illustrators could easily be assumed at having come from the same school; De Paola's thatched crosshatching aligns with earlier Sendak, while the poses, facial features, and attitudes of the main characters seem to come from Mayer's family tree. Which is not to suggest there was any conscious effort to copy one another or create a unified style. I don't mean to suggest there was a deliberate attempt to copy or mimic each other, only that they are very much of the time and before de Paola's lines softened and his color palate neutralized to its recognizable state that it is today.  

I was curious to check out some early de Paola after hearing him speak at a recent SCBWI conference. There was a sense, looking back, that he felt he didn't know what he was doing when he started in children's books, a trope of modesty I have heard from others, most notably and hysterically from Peter Sis. These illustrators who come to children's books seemingly by accident are coy in the way they hide their light under a bushel. While it may be true enough that these illustrators were not schooled in the sequential storytelling art of picture books the way contemporary illustrators can now establish themselves with completed books as portfolio pieces, it cannot be ignored that the sense of story and the essence of what is true about childhood had been completely absorbed. A solid understanding of the classic tales, of heroes and their journeys, and of children at play, these things de Paola understood and captured here.  

Fight the Night can be viewed as a less sophisticated Where the Wild Things are, but what a pity it isn't still around to give younger readers a chance to imagine a journey into the night with a Hero with an articulated goal and success in his charge against the oppressive nature of adults against childhood.  

Wednesday, June 8

Who, Said Sue, Said Whoo?

written and illustrated by Ellen Raskin  
Atheneum  1973  

As Sue drives her jalopy she encounters any number of creatures that say any number of things, but the chitter-chatter mystery sends them running for cover.  And then there's that moral...   

In this cumulative story a young woman drivers her car across the landscape encountering any number of sounds. Each page answers the mystery of the sound from before while adding a new one to the coda that asks "The who, said Sue / Said chitter-chitter-chatter..." Throughout it isn't always obvious for readers to guess the animal making the noises – a cow says moo, but a goose goes "quitter-quatter," sounds mostly chosen for their rhythm within the story. In the end it turns out the chitter-chitter-chatter was coming from the engine compartment of the car... and made by a skunk, which sends the collected animals and Sue running.  

Were the book to end there it would be serviceable, certainly no worse than any number of picture books put out today, but Raskin leaves the reader with an interesting parting thought in the form of a moral. As the skunk drives off in Sue's car accompanied by a chimp with a cold the words "Moral: Words aren't everything" hang above the illustration. If the book's central question was in understanding the sounds different creatures made, only to discover that sometimes there are much greater mysteries afoot, what are we to make of the chimp and skunk taking off together? It's clear the implication that the chimp cannot smell the skunk and thus has nothing to fear, but were we supposed to be afraid of these unusual noises before discovering their origin?  This isn't clear, and the disconnect between this last line, the rest of the text, and the imagery is confusing at best.  

Raskin again provides textured line drawings and bold colors surrounded by a lot of white space, in addition to the smaller 7 by 8 inch size. The book is intimate and cute but in its efforts to moralize comes up short and unsatisfying.

Monday, June 6


 written and illustrated by Ellen Raskin 
Atheneum  1976   

When a girl named Iris begins mistaking the fantastical for everyday items an eye exam is on order in a picture book by the author of The Westing Game...

Iris starts out by telling the reader that she didn't always wear glasses, but then one day a dragon showed up at her door.  Then came the pygmy nuthatch, the Indian, the chestnut mare. What Iris saw were the general shapes of different things that would come together to create something her brain could make sense of. The dragon, for example, turned out to be her Aunt Fanny standing against a tree, a house, and a trail that made the whole look more menacing by the sum of its parts. Finally, Iris goes to the eye doctor who gives her the bad news: she needs glasses. Iris fights all of her options when they are described by color and shape, but when her mother re-frames the question – "Would you like to look older or younger, sweeter or smarter, like a scholar or a movie star..." – Iris is instantly more interested in glasses. In the end Iris is happier wearing her spectacles but still takes them off once in a while for a glimpse at the spectacles she used to see.

Spreads feature Iris on the left side in a line drawing with what she sees done up in pointillist shading against a solid color, followed in the next spread by the same arrangement but this time with the scene clearly delineated and in full color. Ignoring that many of the things Iris sees would hardly remain stationary enough for her to hold these shapes, to say nothing of items like a TV which she couldn't have confused, there is still a bit of squinty-eyed whimsy at the way Iris approaches life. Too young perhaps to realize she's having eyesight problems (it happened to me in third grade so I can relate) she is fairly good-natured about the whole experience until she finds she has to wear glasses.

The concept has been done since, by Suzy Lee in particular, and perhaps before Raskin did it, but for a thirty-five year old it doesn't feel too dated or stodgy. Change "Native American" for "Indian" and I think it would be fine. 

There is something very 1960s mod in her style of illustration, and very approachable. In fact, what initially startled me was that it was small for a picture book. At just under 6 x 8 inches – one-fourth the size of many picture books today – the book's intimacy draws in a reader's attention. Almost as if the book had been designed with a nearsighted reader in mind. But it raises an interested question today as many publishers point out the high cost of producing picture books: why not simply make them smaller? Not every book needs to e lap-sized, and an argument can be made for picture books to be manageable for younger readers. Just a thought.

I only discovered this week that Raskin was also an illustrator and began her career (as many illustrators do) working on other's books before writing and illustrating her own. In fact, she is responsible for the iconic woodcut illustrations for the New Directions edition of A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, a book I've owned and replaced without ever making the connection. A quick Google search for Ellen Raskin illustrations yields a number of surprises, including book covers I have seen before including adult titles like A Passage to India and a Nathaniel West collection.