Thursday, July 25

The Skeleton Pirate

by David Lucas
Candlewick Press 2012

The unbeaten Skeleton Pirate who refuses to accept defeat is beaten not once but twice in this quirky picture book.

The Skeleton Pirate knows one thing: that he will never be beaten, and will fight to the, uh, death to prove it. But when a band of pirates chains him up and throws him over board... he still will not accept defeat. rescued by a Mermaid he is free for but a moment when they are both swallowed by a whale. Still refusing to accept his plight the Mermaid has a plan to help them get out of the whale, which succeeds, and sends them both sailing into a golden sunset on a gold-filled ship made of gold, where the Skeleton Pirate looks into those Mermaiden eyes and accepts he has finally been beaten... by love!

While the title might sound on the scary side, younger readers aren't going to be put off by the stylized Skeleton Pirate Lucas has created. Looking for all the world like he might actually be made of balsa wood, he's so far from reality that no child would even consider asking the really big "adult" questions like: Why does he only wear pants? and; "If he's a skeleton, isn't he already dead?" and; "Why is he so cranky?" In truth, I missed the biggest clue of all on the title page where the Skeleton Pirate appears to be emerging from the wreckage of his own ship. Not to read too deeply here, the Skeleton Pirate is a lost soul doing the only thing he knew how to do until something (or rather, someone) came along to show him the truth.

Love beats fighting, any day.

Lucas is very crafty in not letting the romance show up until the final image and gives up a goofy tale in the process. Lucas has a thing for whales, and the sea, and this time around his watercolor palate feels much bolder. I'm a fan.

Friday, May 10

if you want to see a whale

words by julie fogliano
pictures by erin e. stead.
roaring brook press 2013

a very old school picture book
poetic in word and image

now this is what i’m talking about.

the title is the premise
a set of instructions for what you need to do
in order to see a whale

it starts with a window
and quickly moves to a landscape
of the mind
the text and instructions
more of a tone poem
told legato

you must look closely
and rule out those things that aren’t a whale
avoid the distractions
stay alert to the possibilities

and then
when you have done all that
as if by magic
you will see a whale

the text
all lower-case and sans punctuation
reinforces the poetic quality

he illustrations of
a boy
and his dog
and the world of his imagination
are often set against sparse
monochromatic backgrounds
that allow for the focus
on unspoken elements in the text

and there are whales throughout
if you look for them
which is what the picture book
is all about~

seeing and making connections
with what is and isn’t there

i hate to use the word
but even the size of the book

a manageable seven-by-nine inches

not only fits the hands of smaller explorers
but echoes the picture books of old
like the original sendak-krauss collaborations

it reminds us
that small readers
don’t require larger pages
to get lost in
that bigger
doesn’t always mean

even if it’s a book about
spotting a whale

Thursday, April 18

status not so quo

There's reading, and there's writing, and there's blogging about reading and writing.

I haven't been doing enough of any of these lately.

Actually, I have been reading. Quite a lot, and much of it kidlit. I keep meaning to come here to the ol' blog-a-roo and load up what I've been reading but...

And while I've been incredibly busy with a number of writing projects I still don't feel like I'm getting enough done...

But blogging? That just fell off the face of the earth.

So I'm gearing up for a soft relaunch here at the excelsior file and am looking forward to getting back in the groove.

Feel that? That energy in the air? That's my groove. I'm working on the harness so I can get that groove back on.

For those of you still out there, reading; soon.

Tuesday, April 2

A Little Book of Sloth

by Lucy Cooke
Margaret K. McElderry Books 2013

This non-fiction book, ostensibly for kids, should forever change the synonym for sloth from "lazy" to "cute."

Many decades ago when I first learned about sloths and their sloth-like behavior they seemed to me a perfect insult. Calling someone a slug was up there but there was nothing that rolled off the tongue quite like "move it, you sloth!" All I knew of sloths were that they were slow, tree-dwelling, and, uh, slow.

But how slow? I couldn't tell you. And when you think of something as 'slow' there's also that connotation that they might not be as quick-witted as other creatures as well, but was that true of the sloth? I also assumed that the reason they were green was because they were too lazy to groom themselves, but it turns out that there's a very good reason NOT to groom away that algae in their fur.

Who knew?

I know now, and I think many adults will learn quite a bit from this book as they read it to their little ones.

There is a place called Slothville in Costa Rica that is a sanctuary for orphaned and injured sloths. As pictures from this book reveal, even a creature that looks like a cross between a kitten, a piglet and a hedgehog that's been stretched out can be awfully cute. They appear to be the most mellow of jungle creatures, sleeping 70% of their lives away (though no one knows how long that lifespan really is), chowing down on green beans and hibiscus flowers, and hugging, hugging, hugging.

Oh, and I now know that a full-speed they top out at fifteen feet per minute.

And the images make this book. Cooke's fondness for sloths is equally matched by their cute-overload behavior. Hugging stuffed animals, hugging each other, their odd (and equally slow) bathroom routines, and three words that really ought to become a catchphrase for something: bucket of sloth.

Sloths for the win!

Thursday, March 7

Happy Harry's Cafe

by Michael Rosen
illustrated by Richard Holland
Candlewick 2013

Harry makes great soup, or so we are told.

Harry is a Bear.
He work's at a cafe that bears his name.
Harry's friends are birds and cats and other animals.
Harry's friends love his soup so much they come running before it runs out.

But on this day Matt the cat does not like the soup.
Because he hasn't tried it.
Because he has no spoon.

Once Matt has a spoon and tries the soup.
He is so moved he sings a song about the soup that sums up the story.
And everyone joined in and they were all happy.

In the world of children, this story makes sense.
Or rather, it makes up a certain non-sense that is a part of the way kids make up stories.

But it is not a real story.

It is like soup without a spoon.
There is nothing to taste,
and worse,
it is like everyone around you telling you how good the soup is.
But unless you can taste it it isn't very good soup.

Happy Harry's Cafe is told in a very simple way.
Even the youngest lap-sitters will be entertained.
They can watch the animals in Harry's cafe laughing and having a good time,
and then they can retell the story themselves
because it requires very little of them to remember.

On the book flap we are told that Michael Rosen is an award winning author.
And illustrator Richard Holland has illustrated many books
including books that inspired him to develop the collage style he used here,
a mixture of simple cut shapes and suggestive sketching.

They both live in England.

There is nothing bad to be said about them here
except that this particular soup they created
like it's sparse storytelling and muted palate
is pretty bland.

Monday, March 4


by Boaz Yakin
illustrated by Joe Infurnari

Some Greek guy runs from one place to another. And for this a race is named after him.

Have you ever seen a movie storyboard? At its most basic, it's a collection of images with key dialog or actions described beneath the sketches to help communicate what the final film sequence should look like. It is a way for the director to communicate to the cinematographer how to frame a shot, for an editor to get a feel for the tempo of a scene, for a producer to understand what exactly they're paying for. If it were good enough to stand on its own it wouldn't need to cost millions of dollars and countless resources to make, you could simply publish the results and call it a day.

Marathon, written by filmmaker Boaz Yakin (The Punisher, The Rookie, Remember the Titans) and illustrated by Joe Infurnari, reads like a storyboard, one with only the barest of dialog attached and very little story development. You get the jist of scenes, or emotions, of impulses and motivations, and some very direct and unsubtle dialog to help you along, but a large portion of this book is action scenes. Sketchy, difficult-to-make-out action scenes, scenes so hard to follow sometimes you wish they had decided to give every character a different neon color so you could follow what was going on. Because at the center of this book what is going on is a story not often told.

The Olympic sport of marathon was the result of a the Greek legend of Pheidippidies, the messenger sent from the battle at Marathon (a place) to Athens to announce the Persians had been defeated. He made this run after having fought in the Battle of Marathon itself and was so exhausted that after giving his message he died. Buried in the myth is the idea that the god Pan aided the Athenians, and some misguided military decisions based on the favorable placement of the moon. Toss in a little backstory about Pheidippidy-do's being a slave whose family was first spared then killed when he was a boy, and his wife making an offering to the god Pan, and now we've got ourselves a movie.

But not a readable graphic novel.

I get how this could make a compelling action film, and there are hints of that buried in Marathon, but the owing to Infurnari's loose, sketchy nature of the art and Yakin's seemingly tacked on human interest elements, the book simply falls flat.

This was a finalist for the Cybils Award and, quite frankly, I'm curious to know how this got past the first round of judging.