Tuesday, May 29

The Rain Puddle

by Adelaide Holl   
pictures by Roger Duvoisin
Lothrop, Lee & Shepard 1965

The barnyard is once again astir when the little red hen convinces the other animals that a puddle contains their drowned doppelgangers!

Coming across a puddle a plump hen catches sight of her reflection and assumes that another bird has fallen and needs rescuing. One by one the hen convinces the cow, sheep, pig, turkey, horse and others that their reflections are others who have fallen in. And as they rush about trying to find help the puddle dries up and they all assume the trapped animals were freed and part of the melee. Once it is over only an owl sitting on a branch above it all chuckles to himself.

Falling squarely in the tradition of dumb animals who apparently drink water to survive but cannot fathom their own reflection without resorting to illogical panic, the one upside of this book are the illustrations by Duvoisin. The use of the blank white page to serve as the puddle, drawn from a high, almost flat plane, is simplicity at its most brilliant. He's taken the artist's ability to see that the water doesn't need to be represented, only the reflection, and in that the white highlight and forced perspective are best represented by white space. It's almost zen, this absence-as-presence, and really the only reason to read this book.

Aw, that sounded harsh. I don't mean to imply that the story itself is entirely without merit, except that if it were more traditionally rendered there is little to distinguish it from countless other similar fables. With the reflections beneath a translucent blue water – as we might imagine water to be represented in a traditional illustration – we lose the power of the negative space and the sense of how brilliant and realistic the reflections are for the animals. The simple eloquence of the illustrations compensates for the busy cut-a-cuts! gobble-obble-obbles! mooo-mooos! and oink-oinks! cluttering the text.

Perhaps okay for lap-sitters if you run across a copy at the library, but a must for illustrators looking to learn at the feet of a master.

Thursday, May 24

Planet Tad

by Tim Carvell
HarperCollins 2012

Emmy-Award winning head writer for The Daily Show! and contributor to MAD Magazine! attempts to write a middle grade book!

There are five levels of humor:
Hilarious – laughs so hard the belly aches, the eyes water
Funny – consistent laughter, often pointed and insightful, occasionally absurd
Amusing – good for the occasional laugh-out-loud (IRL not fake LOLs)
Smirkworthy – a solid effort that misses the target, but forgiveable
Trying Too Hard – rock bottom, unfunny, unimaginative, lazy

Sure, some of these are modifiable with adjectives like uproarious and riotous and mildly, but these are five points on a scale as exponential as the Richter scale is for earthquakes. There are degrees of Funny that lead up to Hilarious and down to Amusing, but there is a percipitous drop from Smirkworthy to Trying Too Hard. And when you reach rock bottom there has to be a point where the intended audience is left wondering: why can't they see this isn't working?

Planet Tad is Trying Too Hard to be funny.

Understand, humor is hard to pull off. There are rules for establishing a situation that appears to be normal, setting a trap of expectation that creates tension that anticipates humor, then springing an unexpected curve that relieves that tension with a release of laughter. Sometimes you have to lay down a lot of groundwork before a joke can payoff, but doing so makes the humor that much stronger. It also sometimes helps to let the audience know what to expect – give them a small taste – so they will follow you along until the jokes pay out.

Where Planet Tad falters is right at the beginning when Tad explains he has five resolutions for the new year: start a blog (which this book is a chronicle of), finish seventh grade, get girls to notice him, do an ollie on a skateboard, and begin shaving. Is any of that funny, even to a twelve year old kid? It is possible to make those things funny down the road, but there's nothing inherently funny in the list itself, and presuming this is what Tad's exploits are going to be about, well, why bother? What would be funny?

What if Tad instead decided to give himself Hemingway's list of things you must do to be a man – plant a tree, fight a bull, write a novel, and father a child. Two of these could already be incorporated into Planet Tad: he's already writing a novel via these blog posts, and at one point as part of a lesson on sexual responsibility Tad and a girl have to share custody of an egg for a week without breaking it. In an effort to end the week with an egg in tact Tad boils it, only to be discovered at the end of the week when it rolls off the teacher's desk. He boiled their kid, ha ha. How much funnier than what's in this book would it be if Tad took his "fathering" instincts to their (il)logical conclusions, trying to hatch an infertile egg, or truly becoming paternal during the week to the point where he defends his "son's" honor in a fight because someone made fun of him? Carvell sells his readers short by setting his sights too low, and the result is that the humor doesn't evoke sympathy, cringing anticipation, or even a true moment where you can laugh inwardly.

The point here isn't to rewrite Carvell's book, but to underscore just how badly he missed the mark. The meandering blog posts sound authentic in the way that kids would simply record their life events and move on, but the list of resolutions is barely thread enough to string it al together and even Tad himself seems to only casually remember what he's set out to do. The gags themselves also play out too fast, with set-up and resolution happening within a few pages. Where marketing for the book touts this as being squarely aimed at the Wimpy Kid crowd those intended readers will be sorely disappointed that Carvell can't pull off what Kinney did with jokes that were set up pages and pages earlier that delivered their punchlines when a reader least expected it. Wimpy Kid's humor was droll, dry, and delivered with expert timing; Planet Tad rushes the humor (what little it has) so fast and moves on to the next gag that readers might not even realize there was a punchline to the gag at all.

Fortunatley, kids are smart, and when faced with Trying Too Hard humor they know when to say "Why can't they see this isn't working?"

And then they'll move on to better, funnier books.

Tuesday, May 22

The Eleventh Plague

by Jeff Hirsch
Scholastic 2011

I'm going to pose a seemingly nonsensical riddle worthy of the Mad Hatter: How are good dystopian novels like gangster films from the 1930s?

In a future very near to us war has broken out between the US and China, where biological weapons were used to unleash virus that brought about a world-wide pandemic and plague. In a distant future, sixteen years after the war, chaos reigns as small enclaves of survivors eek out primitive lives as society tries to pull itself back together. Small bands of scavengers brave the wilds sifting through the detritus of shopping malls and downed aircraft looking for anything of value to trade for food or necessities. America, it seems, is little more than pockets of feudal communities clinging tenaciously to the way things were with roving bands of ex-military slave traders looking to trade the only commodity left on the planet. This is the backdrop against which The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch begins.

For his entire sixteen years all Stephen has known is the nomadic life under the direction of his ex-Marine grandfather, and the book opens with Stephen and his dad burying the patriarch who like millions before him has succumbed to the plague. There is a sense of being relieved of a burden while at the same time being set adrift. Stephen and his father will continue as they have, as scavengers looking to trade for sustenance, but is that really all they want from life?

Holed up in an abandoned plane during a storm, Stephen and his dad encounter a group of slavers with some newly caught slaves. Their moral compasses properly set, they attempt to free the slaves but are barely able to flee for their own lives. During the escape Stephen's father is injured and falls into a coma, and while nursing him he is taken by what he believes are a rival band of slavers. Instead he is taken to the town of Settler's Landing where, for the first time, Stephen catches a glimpse of what life was like before he was born.

Unlike some of the other encampments of survivors trying to make their way in the new world, Settler's Landing is engaged on returning things to as close to normal as possible. They farm, the have a school for children, kids play baseball, and they all live in homes that were clearly part of a gated community before things went bad. They are shut off from the rest of the world and doing just fine, but Stephen's life has taught him to be wary of strangers even as they have the medicine and knowledge to keep his dad from dying. Slowly Stephen accepts his place in the community, drawn to another orphan, Jenny, a Chinese girl who has a chip on her shoulder as big as they come. It is Jenny the misfit outsider who shows Stephen some of the cracks in the facade of Settler's Landing, and its her wild anti-authoritarian mischief that spins the story into it's second act examination of whether mankind is simply doomed to destroy itself.

When I first was aware of this book last fall I gave it a glance and then put it aside. It felt a little too much like well-trod territory. Then recently I overheard someone in a bookstore rhapsodize over it because "it has a positive, hopeful ending."

That got me thinking: don't all good dystopias have this sense, this need, for a cathartic ending?

The question then is: what, exactly, is a "good" or hopeful ending for a story about how human civilization has brought itself to the brink of extinction? Is it a return to the old, comfortable world we currently live in or the promise of something new learned from the ashes of the old?

I think this may be the most valuable point of conversation for teens about these dystopias they are drawn to – what exactly is it that gives them more comfort, and ending where the world will turn back to where it was, or a world that has learned and will move forward? In some ways I think this is a trick question, because in order to accept that this bleak future will bring about change is to suggest that everything the way it is now is entirely (or nearly so) wrong. And yet, with the glimmer of hope on the horizon, there isn't really a concrete sense of what that next step would be. It's like belling the cat to say "all we have to do to change things is..." but if we're so smart then why can't we change things without nearly annihilating civilization?

But I have an alternate theory about why people are drawn to these dark futures, and it mirrors a time of great anxiety in American history where stories of crime and violence engaged the imaginations of movie-going audiences of that era. Let's look back at the question I opened with.

The answer to the riddle about dystopias and gangster films lies in what people want from their narrative entertainment, be it movies, TV, or books. In the 1920s and 30s during the depression and prohibition there was a rise in the gangster movie, films that seemed to celebrate the lives of notorious criminals and fictitious public enemies. At a time when people had so little beyond their economic anxieties, there was some satisfaction in watching the stories of people bold enough to take what they wanted, by any means of force necessary. Audiences rooted for these "bad guys" as they moved from one murderous exploit to another... but only up to a point. In the end, the gangster had to die. He had to. There was no way for an audience to reconcile rooting for the bad and feeling good about it unless there was a cathartic moment of justice in the end. It was okay to ride along on the sideboards of those big cars while people were being tommy-gunned so long as we knew that the world would be put to right in the end.

And this is where I think we are with modern dystopian novels. The economy is in the dumps, wages have stagnated while corporate profits have boomed, we're actually in worse times economically than during the Great Depression, so we need some sort of diversion that makes us feel better at the end of the day. Our current anxieties about the world demand some sort of outlet. We need to see the world worse than it currently is in order to feel like things aren't so bad, and like a gangster movie, readers want to delve into these dark futures but only if they can emerge with a sense that things are not as bad as they seem. They want to emerge from the book and find some comfort in the world they currently live in, not worry about how to change it. If these dystopias truly were suggesting a global change was necessary they would set about showing readers a road map out of our current path toward these dark places, but they do not. To do so would risk becoming pedantic on the safe side and propaganda on the extreme.

People didn't leave gangster movies wanting to take up a sub machine gun to shoot up the town, just as kids who read dystopic novels don't put down the book feeling a sense of nihilistic hopelessness. This idea of these books being to "dark" comes from adult denial of just how dark the world looks to kids at the moment. Historically, teens have always felt the older generations have screwed things up and should just get the hell out of their way. So if you think a dark work of fiction is more detrimental to a child's mind than, say, our current divisive political climate or the profits-over-people mindset of big business, then, as the hippies used to say, you're part of the problem.

Fix the world and the books will fix themselves.

This review is cross-posted today with Guys Lit Wire, home to all things teen boy readers might like. 

Monday, May 7


by I. C. Springman
illustrated by Brian Lies
Houghton Mifflin, 2012

It's Hoarders for the picture book set! A thieving magpie collects and collects until... well, as they say, less is more.

One of the oddest thing about reviewing  picture books is that it often takes more words to describe them than it does to read them. Quite simply we have the story of a bird with a propensity for stealing colorful, shiny things and bringing them back to his tree where they accumulate until, finally, the weight of everything sends it all tumbling to the ground. At last the blackbird is forced to accept that only a small number of things is the right amount.

For a book to illustrate the concepts of more, less, too much, and enough, More is a beautiful vehicle. The paintings have the studied care of detail painted into them yet the layout is simple enough to stay focused on the action. But from the perspective of narrative I am bothered by the mouse (or mice, as there are more than one) that acts as the blackbird's external voice or reason. I've thought about this for a while now and what I think bothers me is the dissonance between the illustrations and the cartoon-like behavior of the mice. If the illustrations were more comic the dynamic might have made more sense, but as it is the realism of the blackbird against the imploring nature of his tree-bound rodent friend reads a little like a National Geographic documentary with Disney characters animated into the proceedings.  

But I do like the message of learning to do with less, and imagine many a parent will appreciate having some ammunition against young lap-sitters who might be tempted by commercial culture to want more and more and more.

Now if it didn't have Jiminy Field Mouse and his moral tacked onto it...  

Friday, May 4

The Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius

Adapted from the Latin by M. D. Usher
Illustrations by T. Motley
David R. Godine 2011

Ah, the good old days of Ancient Rome, where a reckless traveler manages to turn himself into an ass – literally, a donkey – and survive to tell the unbelievable tale to his traveling companions.

First, for those who know the original tale and might have some concerns, Usher's adaptation is cleaned up enough for slightly raunchy middle grade tastes while keeping the overall plot in tact. For those new to the story Lucius, the narrator, comes across another pair of travelers on the road to Thessaly who are deep in a heated argument. It appears one, an 11 year old boy named Prudentius, has a fantastic story and the other insists he is a liar. Lucius is asked to listen to the tale and decide whether he believes it, and if he does he will agree to put the pair up for the night at an inn. Lucius's curiosity is piqued, and he agrees to the terms.

In very short order we hear of a magic ointment that can turn a person into an animal, and without a moment's hesitation Prudentius becomes an ass only to learn that the ointment is meant for nighttime use. In order to undo the spell he must eat rose petals, but before he can find them he is discovered and treated as the ass he is, forced to eat hay and live the life of a beast of burden. From here it is one event after another, where Prudentius the ass is sold, beaten by a mean boy, stolen by thieves, all the while maintaining his human capacity for human thought and feeling but only able to bray. At last Prudentius is restored to human form (deus ex machina through the assistance of the goddess Isis herself) and he is a changed man – changed in that he was a man originally but Isis has turned him into a boy with all his year's wisdom in tact. The tale ends with the travelers arriving at their destination and Lucius concedes that, though fantastic, he believes the story and prepares to uphold his end of the bargain. There might even be a story he can write in all this...

Excised from this retelling but in the original is the elaborate tale-within-a-tale of Cupid and Psyche. Though this additional story might have accounted for the passing of time along the road it does divert attention away from the primary storyline. What is interesting is that this change underscores how the focus on Prudentius's tale of becoming an ass ambles along through a series of unpredictable events. This isn't the narrative tradition we now expect which is character and goal driven. Okay, it is, because he does set out initially to find roses to relieve him of the magic, but he just as quickly is willing to give up hopes of being human when he finds a way to turn his transformation into an asset. In the end the story manages to come full circle but has the hero taken a journey or were we treated to a series of Chaucer-like tales of life in Ancient Rome connected by a donkey? Or perhaps these are closer to the tales of Sheheraazade, tales told to achieve a means to an end, loosely connected by the teller right down to the nesting of stories within stories.

Purists may be upset with some of the liberties Usher has taken with the text – turning Lucius into a man hearing the tale rather than being the focus of the adventures, softening the ribald nature of the story – but I think there is something to be said for providing younger readers an introduction to the tale they might pick it up again some day. Outside of college-prep Latin or AP Literature classes I don't believe The Golden Ass is in the general curriculum, and that's too bad.

What Vermont classics professor Usher manages in 96 pages is to make the first complete novel from antiquity accessible to a modern audience. Boys especially, the quick-witted ones with a taste for wordplay, will enjoy the text's unsubtle uses of the word ass, and all readers will enjoy the occasional illustrations by Motley that accompany moments in the story. There probably isn't much beyond this to recommend to readers who enjoy The Golden Ass and would hunger for more – unlike fans of Greek mythology being able to turn to a variety of stories ancient and modern – but there's enough here to counter any argument that ancient history is boring.