Thursday, October 27

Resistance: Book 1

written by Carla Jablonski
art by Leland Purvis
First Second 2010

This graphic novel set during the Occupation of France by the Nazis in World War II shows the work of the Resistance movement through the eyes of children who find themselves in the thick of things.

Teen Paul finds himself the man of the house when his father is taken away by the German Occupying forces. When they Germans come and take away his Jewish friend Henri's parents Paul and his younger sister concoct a plan first to hide Henri for his own safety, then find themselves recruited to help the Resistance get information into the hands of those behind the lines in Occupied Paris.

The overall treatment of the story is fairly workmanlike. A reader with any knowledge of the Nazi occupation of France won't be surprised to read about characters who defied the Germans and worked hard to defeat them underground. That teens and young children were involved doesn't feel revelatory as children have played important roles in the history (and fictions) of all revolts. The pluck of nerve of these kids is a given; anything less wouldn't provide us with the story. But it's a story that drags, a story that is either overly simplistic or overly illustrated, depending on the spread of the moment. Scenes either don't have much impact despite their importance – like the taking of Henri's parents which takes place off stage – or their impact is drawn out over several panels where they could have been better handed with a single image.

I think there's room for a graphic novel about the Resistance movement in France, and that it would make a valuable alternative for readers interested in going deeper into World War II abroad, deeper than they can in most history classes. I only wish this book, and perhaps this series (a trilogy) could be condensed into a single volume of manageable length. We'll see when its finished whether the series drags or if its merely my impatience with this first book's mise en scene for the subsequent stories.

Wednesday, October 26

Lost States

Lost States:
True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It
by Michael J. Trinklein
Quirk Books 2010

What if the United States had accepted every proposal to form a new state? One really messed up flag, that's for sure!  

Growing up in Southern California it is hard not to notice that there is a simmering animosity with neighbors to the north. It isn't so much that Sacramento, the state's northern nowheresville capitol, is out of touch with the urban hipness of Los Angeles, Hollywood, and the wealthy enclaves of Santa Barbara and San Diego counties. Nor was it the hippie-centric enclaves of Santa Cruz and San Francisco who felt that the south was nothing more than water-stealing conservatives. It was the fact that California was, and is, a "destination state" that draws immigrants from all over the country, so much so that fewer than one in seven Californians is a native. Basically, the state is full of people up and down the coast who'll never agree with one another; dividing the state into factions seems like a good idea only until it comes time to discuss how to do it, at which point things fall apart.

Every state in the United States, apparently, has some version of this story. Reading Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It is a fun little romp through the growing pains of a young nation and the people who would mold it to their personal agendas. Some of these lost states were merely boundary squabbles latter settled by politicians, others were publicity stunts designed to attract tourists or business, and still more have been proposed as a matter of political or economic practicality like the annexation of various islands for some strategic advantage. Each of the Lost States receives a brief history of its proposal and why it failed as well as a map outlining (or in most cases approximating) it's location in relation to what state is currently in its place. Many of these proposed states are clearly the results of the early land grabs and settlements of the 19th century. The really odd and interesting stories are the ones that reveal hidden, sometimes dark, histories. American Imperialism is alive and well in the proposal for adding the island nation of Saipan to the nation (or incorporating it into Guam and making an honest state of them both). The only problem is that Saipan – a slave-trading sweatshop nation that produces a huge amount of name-brand clothing with "Made in the USA" legally attached to it – would never be allowed to told what to do by a strong democracy like Guam, much less agree to US labor laws under which it would be bound.

Odder still is the former Soviet republic of Albania actively seeking to become the fifty-first state. So eager in fact that English is an official language and when the US seeks allies for foreign intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, Albania is first to step up. While there might be some political advantage gained by having a state wedged into the Adriatic coast between Greece and Montenegro, chances are better that Russia and the European Union might see the move as an opening salvo toward world domination. As Lost States suggests, Albania courting statehood is akin to "talking about marriage on the first date. Run, America, run!"

There's a lot to be learned in this book beyond the trivial. Apparently when Texas was admitted to the Union it was allowed the provision to divide itself up into as many as four states without having to seek Congressional approval. As the book points out, this means that the area of Texas could have as many as eight senators in Washington instead of two. It seems like Governor Rick Perry should have focused his attentions on dividing his state rather than promoting succession a while back. It amazes me that provision is still on the books.

Trinklein's maps are individual and well-created for the most part. Sometimes modifying older maps, creating new maps as necessary, for anyone who loves looking at or studying maps its fun to imagine how different things would be if, say, we talked vacationing in New Sweden instead of Maryland, or went to the Grand Canyon in New Mexico, or if, somehow, No Man's Land simply remained the unclaimed panhandle of Oklahoma.

(This review is cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire today, a great resource for books of interest to teen boys and their minders.)

Tuesday, October 25

Where's Walrus

by Steven Savage
Scholastic 2011

After escaping from the zoo a Walrus find "ingenious" ways to remain hidden in plain sight from the zookeeper. Complete with "twist" ending!

I have to call this one the way I see it: It's Where's Waldo meets Goodnight Gorilla. Also: this is a board book disguised as a picture book.

One afternoon while the zookeeper naps nearby a Walrus, in what looks like an above ground swimming pool, simply waddles out the gates of the zoo and into the big city. In scene by wordless scene the Walrus hides in plain sight by blending in. Here he is a statue in the fountain. There he is a fireman working a hose. It often takes little more than a hat and a few props to elude the zookeeper, who besides working at one of the poorest designed zoos in the world is clearly a dolt himself. Finally the Walrus hides at a diving competition (performing a "twist," if you will, off the high dive) where he is not only spotted by the zookeeper but wins a gold medal. This gives the zookeeper an idea and in the end Walrus has a new and more humane pool with a diving board to perform for the public.

Obviously, younger pre-readers are going to enjoy pointing out where the Walrus is on every page while laughing at the buffoon of a zookeeper for missing him. The simplified graphics on a picture book-size page seem like a waste; their flat tones and bold shapes would not only reduce well to a smaller sized board book they might actually look better for not taking up so much space.

As for the "twist" at the end, where Walrus's diving feats impress the zookeeper and provide him with a new home, well, that sort of speaks to why Walrus ran away in the first place. The story isn't just about a mischevious Walrus, it's about an animal in a pool so small that it has no way to entertain itself and must go in search of fun elsewhere. It not only answers the unasked question "Why did the Walrus escape from the zoo?" but underscores one of the larger issues surrounding the idea of capturing wild animals in the first place; is a zoo really the most humane way to appreciate wild animals? In the end Walrus isn't just a captured animal, he's an exploited one, putting on shows to draw people to the zoo.

Overthinking the book, am I? With a cute concept and easy-to-scan illustrations it can be easy to miss the imagery presented to young readers matter-of-factly. The treatment of animals in zoos and aquariums varies, and even where animals are well treated there is still the idea of our presenting animals in faux environments under the guise of their being educational. Many a time I've been to a zoo and seen a depressed animal in an enclosure – if you can read emotions in humans you can do it in animals equally well – and overheard parents tells young ones "Oh, they're just tired from running around all morning" or something equally dismissive. Go to the big cat house during feeding time and hear those lions and tigers roar with such ferocity that the sound penetrates your body and you appreciate the bars that separate you while at the same time realize that, perhaps, this is not the way things should be.

So despite my misgivings about the casual representation of zoos to small children, I think the book is fine for what it is. I don't know why this didn't go straight-to-board-book because I have a hard time understanding the justification for its size. If it were a truly Where's Waldo situation where you had to pour over the details of a page for hours to find the hidden elements I would understand it. As it is, Walrus is large, impossible to miss, and the humor of the zookeeper not finding him wears thin even for the few pages that it takes place in the story.

Wednesday, October 12

Happy Belated Blogiversary to Me!

Oh, Holy Undies, how could I have missed my own 5th Anniversary? 

So a quick scan of the records showed that five years and nine days ago I embarked on this journey to read, write, and review books for children and young adults. What began as an exploration to better educate myself eventually led to an MFA at Vermont College and what is clearly becoming my great second act in life. I would hardly have guessed as much, but it appears that this blog and all that has come from it was the spark that ignited the tinder of my quasi midlife crisis. 

Since I didn't know it was on the horizon I haven't exactly planned anything for this celebration. Sorry, if I'd known I'd have sent our invitations and baked us all a grand and glorious gooey cake. Instead I think I'll republish my first-ever online book review of a book intended for children, something from my own childhood that made me keenly aware of a book as something other than a mere entertainment. And while you're all enjoying that I'll go look in the mirror for telltale lines of age. 

What do you think, should the blog get a face lift? Can anyone recommend any good digital plastic surgeons?


Originally published October 3, 2006

The Magic Finger

by Roald Dahl 
illustrated by William Pene du Bois
41 pages Harper & Row 1966
This is a story of a girl with anger management issues, a story with a high sense of justice and a low tolerance for senseless violence, and the delightfully quirky world that Roald Dahl excelled at creating. The Magic Finger is a pushing, prodding, poke-in-the-eye, accusatory allegory to war via a pointed attack on the tradition of English sport hunting. In the right light, it could also be a call to vegetarianism, though I don't know that was Dahl's intent back in the mid-60's.

Our unnamed antagonist -- who'll I call Zak for reasons to be explained -- is the type of child who is a tempest beneath a barely calm surface. When humiliated by her teacher for spelling cat with a 'k' (and Twain had something to say about this) her boiling point is reached as fast as it takes to point her finger and turn the font of derision into a house pet. In the fantasy world of children's literature this casual power and transformation is presented as a natural occurrence, one in every classroom. Zak's abilities and her unwillingness to be trifled with are the point at which we jump to the real story.

Zak's neighbors, the Greggs, are a typical English hunting family proud to return from the fields with their kill, one duck a piece. The injustice of this needless killing sends Zak to seeing colors, and in her rainbow fury she turns her neighbors into duck-sized, bird-winged humanoids for the night. And because this universe needs balance (and the Gregg's need a lesson) their house is taken over with people-sized, human-armed ducks. As the humans are chased out and fired at with their own guns they quickly take to the trees and learn the obvious but valuable lesson of seeing the world from the eyes of the hunted. Come morning the world is set to rights and the Greggs set about atoning for their hunting sins while Zak goes of in search of another family that needs a lesson.

The joy I had discovering this shortly after it was first published left a lingering mark. In some ways I prefer this to Dahl's better-acknowledged classics James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in that it distills the lesson and entertains without unnecessary baggage.

Sadly, modern editions of this book no longer contain the original illustrations by du Bois, favoring instead more cartoon-y illustrations by Quintin Blake who has illustrated (or re-illustrated in this case) all of Dahl's books currently in print. This apparently was Dahl's illustrator of choice beginning with The B.F.G and presumably the earlier books were re-illustrated with his approval. One of my favorite parts of the original is the doubled page that allows you to watch the school teacher turn into a cat. There is also a multi-page spread where Zak's fury changes color but are presented in black and white ink wash that may be the result of economics (color being more expensive to print) but force readers to translate colors to emotions in a way that is more internal (and less obvious) than a similar expression in Leo Lionni's Frederick.

As for Zak, unless you read the original edition you won't see a little girl wearing a sailor's hat with that name on it, pointing at the reader in an homage to James Montgomery Flagg's Uncle Sam posters of the early 20th century. This closing image appropriates the iconic military recruiting image and transforms it into an accusation addressed to the reader. Is Zak attempting to teach you a lesson for your unknown sins, or is she merely warning you to beware your actions. Written and illustrated early in the Vietnam conflict the message isn't overt in Dahl's text but du Bois illustration appears to draw a connection between the senselessness of sport hunting and mindlessness of war.

Perhaps it is time to re-release the original edition.

Tuesday, October 11

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories

by Dr. Seuss
introduction by Charles D. Cohen
Random House  2011

Seven previously published magazine stories by the late Bard of Beginner Books, collected in book form for the first time.

The story of this collection has been in the news a lot lately, and certainly been on a lot of folks' radar since its publication announcement in the spring. The idea that there was enough Seuss that hadn't been seen widely since the 1950s is certainly newsworthy, although the nostalgia market being what it is it's impossible to not fear that the collection would consist of inferior material deliberately abandoned by Theodore Geisel for good reason. That said, with a market that consists of a half century full of people who learned to read on Seuss titles there was no way you could risk the reputation of the master by putting out an inferior product. No, it would be impossible to toss of a collection of rejects and risk the ire of Boomers who would pillory those attempting to profit from junk.

The Bippolo Seed is, like others, a collection of tales featuring familiar Seuss characters, animals, morals, and above all, that cadence, that anapestic tetrameter that is as distinctly Seuss as iambic pentameter is to Shakespeare. To read the book, to start a Seuss story new to the eye, it is almost impossible to not begin by reading aloud. It's as if something deep is tapped in the root memory of our reading brain that triggers this connection between when we first learned to read and how one is "supposed" to read Seuss. There is probably a paper on cognitive science about this (or if there isn't there should be) and to do so, to read this Seuss collection aloud, reveals some interesting information about these early stories and the development of that cadence we know by heart and memory.

Gustav's original magazine appearance
Writing for magazines, space was necessarily limited. Seuss was either asked or pitched his stories to fill two or four or five pages (best to fill a layout) and his illustrations would need to fit around the text, and vice versa. In some cases the magazine pages would contain multiple layouts on a single page. The effect this has is that there are large chunks of text to accompany a single illustration, and with the stories in The Bippolo Seed already we can feel, intrinsically, that something isn't quite right. The lines are long, longer than they would be for a beginning reader, occasionally spilling into the next line in a way that reads far more complicated than their later Beginner Book components. They also explain more than they show, no doubt another necessary component of their magazine straitjacket. But then, of course, these were stories meant to be read to a child, no by a child. Their presentation in an adult magazine was clearly aimed at parents (mothers) to use at storytime. Lap-sitters weren't expected to follow along with the text, or make connections between pictures and language the way they would with The Cat in the Hat or even Horton Hears a Who.

To be sure, these aren't second-rate Seuss stories, nor are they the way the good Doctor would have chosen to present them in book form had he the chance to come back to this world and guide us. "Gustav, the Goldfish" already got the book treatment when his wife at the time Helen Palmer converted it to Fish Our of Water, though seeing the story told in rhyme gives it a greater feeling of urgency. "The Bippolo Seed" with it's tale of endless wishing and greed follows the typical Seussian mold of a cumulative story that would sit nicely between If I Ran the Zoo, though a more direct connection can be found in "The Great Henry McBride" and his daydreaming of multiple occupations – from a time when holding down more than one job wasn't out of economic necessity!  "The Rabbit, the Bear, and the Zinniga-Zanniga," beyond being a mouthful that can get tricky to catch the rhythms, offers a story of quick-thinking that would be suitable filler as a shorter story in any Seuss collection. "Steak for Supper" and it's Mulberry Street location suggests a possible sequel to the book that started it all back in 1937, and "The Strange Shirt Spot" has seen print before... as the stain-in-the-tub sequence from The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Of the seven stories presented the weakest and most derivative is "Tadd and Todd" which suggests Seuss' attempt to give his spin to another pair of twin T's, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, though with a more post-Freudian case of identity crisis.

text in search of an illustration (or two). double click for a larger view
If these stories can be said to be lacking anything it is more illustrations. Naturally, if they had more illustrations they wouldn't have fit the magazines, nor would they be collectible in a single book. I remember when The Lorax originally appeared as a magazine feature (yes, I am that old) it didn't matter than I'd already read the story, I wanted the book version for its additional illustrations and that "real book" feel. As much as any master in the field, Seuss knew how to pace a story and set-up those page turns, and it's that touch that is missing here. The words sit in their little blocks, and the illustrations have been expertly reproduced and colored, but that sense of flow, those layouts that force the eye across the page, back and forth between word and image, that's missing here in The Bippolo Seed.

That said, there are few who can do what Dr. Seuss did, and even with their minor flaws and limitations, its nice that there is a new Seuss for a new generation to have as their own. And for those older Seuss fans its an even better reminder of what can and should be expected in terms of books for young readers.