Wednesday, April 25

The Hero of Little Street

by Gregory Rogers  
Allen & Unwin, Austrailia 2009
Roaring Brook, US 2012

The Boy, who previously met the Bard and the Bear and battled a Midsummer Knight, takes "readers" on another adventure, this time through the world of Vermeer.

The Boy, out titular hero, is kicking around when a soccer ball appears. One swift kick and the ball lands in a fountain, and the bully boys who were previously playing with the ball are none too happy. They chase the Boy to take refuge in an art museum where he finds himself joined by a dog from one painting, helps a musician in another painting, and is let out into the world of Flemish masters through Vermeer's "Little Street." When his canine companion is taken from him the Boy tracks him down to a basement butchery where hundreds of dogs have been captured and caged. After making a daring escape the Boy and the dogs return to the "real" world where they meet up with the bully boys again. The Boy gets the last laugh as the newly freed dogs chase the bullies down as a favor to their new master, and the Boy continues on to another day and another adventure.  

click image to enlarge
That Rogers does all this without words in a comic-framed format is only half the marvel, his real strength comes in the ability to make the real and the fantasy imaginings slip fluidly in and out. When the dog slips out of Jan Van Eyck "The Arnolfini Wedding" the reader doesn't question it any more than the Boy does, it simply happened and is part of the world. As it is the world Roger's Boy inhabits has the feel of another time and place where time and technology play no part. It adds a sense of timelessness about the whole affair, a story of a boy and a chase and a series of adventures.

And it was while thinking about the story in this light that I realized this is where picture books are more liberal than their wordier counterparts up the literacy line. A picture book has the advantage of being like a short story where there may be a one-up change in the main character's position of predicament from the beginning of the story, but no need for there to be the sort of emotional or plot development necessary for traditional narratives.  I mean, I suppose I could find a three act narrative in The Hero of Little Street – act one: hero chased by bullies; act two: in the museum world; act three: return of the hero triumphant – but in the end it feels more like a cumulative series of adventures in the mode of the Odyssey. Four of five more of these Boy books by Rogers and they could be bundled together into an epic tale of their own.

you probably want to see this bigger, too
The last lingering element that was hard to place was Rogers visual language. It is a comic format but something keeps me from calling it a graphic novel. It isn't simply length, there's something that taps into something I couldn't place for a long time until I studied the poses of the characters, their lines of action while standing still, their contrapposto if you will. One thing computers haven't managed yet is the ability to search for sense connections beyond words, those memory senses of image and smell and touch that can't be entered as a search term. In the end I finally made the connection: Sergio Aragones, the "marginal" artist from MAD magazine whose linguine-legged people and wordless comics are echoed in Rogers' storytelling. The actual influence may not be there at all, but the fluidity of moving through these visual ideas is there, it's a shared vocabulary of images. I think if you know both artists works it's easy to see the connection, even if they are only distant cousins half a world apart.

As a final thought, based on a conversation I had yesterday, one of the great things about picture books like this without words is that it allows "readers" to provide their own dialog, their own interpretation of the story. It's malleable or it can become firmly fixed, but in keeping with the "picture worth a thousand words" Rogers books contain millions of words... but no text.

Saturday, April 21

how supporting ballou sr high school library will make you a magician

You may be thinking that magic is an illusion, a slight of hand, a trick. That's not the kind of magic I have in mind though.

I'm talking about a type of magic that you see when a face lights up. It's a magic I used to live for as a teacher and one I continue to relish as a parent. It's a magic of a moment when someone receives a gift that transcends the physical. It's the Ah-ha!, the joy of surprise, the connection of finding something that speaks to you and let you know that you are not alone in the world. 

I'm talking about the magic of a book.

And I'm asking you to consider becoming a magician, an agent of change that will get books to kids so they can experience that magic.

Each year the blog Guys Lit Wire, which I contribute to, puts together a book fair for a worthy cause, someplace in need of a little outside help. This year we are headed back to Ballou Sr High School in Washington DC because, as much as we were able to help them last year, they are still deep in need when it comes to books.

You can read the whole deal here at Guys Lit Wire. Read the background, click on the link of books, make a purchase. It's pretty straightforward but here's how I like to think about it:

Somewhere out there is a book. It was written by an author with the hopes of one day reaching a reader. One day that book finds its reader and the reader is astounded: it's as if the author wrote the book specifically for them, is speaking directly to them. But in between there is a missing piece of magic, that midwifery that delivers the book to the reader. 

You will never know how you changed a reader's life or even that you did, but never knowing, never being sure, that's the territory shared by magic and faith. 


Be a magician.

Spread the word, help others become magicians. 

Wednesday, April 18

Stickman Odyssey

Book One: An Epic Doodle (2011)
Book Two: The Wrath of Zozimos (2012)
by Christopher Ford

Homer's epic tale reduced to stick figures and plenty of diversions from the classic poem, not that contemporary readers will mind (if they even notice).

If you are a deep and reverent reader of The Odyssey, you should probably just leave now. This graphic novel retelling simply isn't for you.

But if you're a kid who knows little to nothing about classic Greek tales this could do for you what countless hours of watching Rocky and Bulwinkle's Fractured Fairy Tales did for your (grand)parent's generation in terms of learning the tales of the Brothers Grimm, or the way Bugs Bunny cartoons taught generations about classical music and opera.

In short, Stickman Odyssey is a satyric romp through Ancient Greece, where a modern sensibility and simple-but-expressive stick figures poke fun at the often serious (and preposterous) adventures Zozimos.

Plot? It's as episodic and rambling as they come. It begins with a stormy sea and Zozimos calling out for help from the heavens. Out of the sky comes a giant fountain pen to draw Zoimos a raft to safety, where he cries out his thanks for Athena. From this brief encounter we know pretty much all we need to know for the duration. Our hero, far from home, is on a quest to return to the land of his birth, Sticatha, where as an infant he barely escaped the usurper queen before she had a chance to turn him into a crow as she did with his siblings. Raised by his Uncle Nestor, a General of the Royal Army, Zozimos was raised far away and trained as a warrior so that he may one day return and reclaim the crown that was once his father's.

From there, it's the usual. Quests that lead to certain doom somehow thwarted by clever thinking, evil creatures at the command of powerful sorcerers with fatal flaws that make them easily disposed of, the occasional bit of magic that allows for the impossible to happen. Essentially, all the fantastic part of these epic tales fold nicely into a comic narrative where instead of stretching credulity they become a never-ending series of deus ex machina punchlines.

While I have been fond of the series First Second has been putting out of full-blown superhero-style illustrated tales of the Greek gods, there is something satisfying about these doodles and the boom-boom-boom aspect of their shortcut storytelling.

It's got Golems and Hermit frogs and magic boats and hairy eyeball spiders and a cheating Sphinx and a romance straight out of Star Wars (er, maybe its the other way around)...

Good fun, and maybe, as with other culture satires, as good a place as any to get a sense of the classics before one day discovering where the stories came from.