Judith Viorst, by virtue of that book she wrote last year when Alexander and his family moved in with her temporarily and made her shiver for the fate of her velvet upholstered parlor chairs (Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days: An Almost Completely Honest Account of What Happened to Our Family When Our Youngest ... Came to Live with Us for Three Months), sticks in my mind as some kind of Joan Didion character. Sharp-eyed, funny, a little uncompromising, extremely self-aware. She lives in D.C., not New York or CT, and D.C. to me implies a certain Nina Totenbergitude.
Or a Mrs. Basil E. Frankweileriness. Like she'd be a person who speaks to children directly and appraisingly, a person who has no patience for the kind of performances that adults sometimes put on in front of children, and who finds the recitations of cuteness or precociousness that children are sometimes expected to roll out in front of adults likewise appalling.
Am I assuming too much about Judith Viorst? Well, clearly. What do I know? Maybe she speaks baby talk to grocery clerks and wears amusement park souvenir sweatshirts every day. But nothing in her new book Lulu and the Brontosaurus would lead me to believe that she is anything but the classy, smart-alecky dame I imagine.
She begins, as any smart-alecky dame would, by explaining that YES SHE KNOWS it's called an apatosaurus nowadays but she likes the word "brontosaurus" better and if that's a problem for you, you can just close the book. Go ahead.
(And actually, madame, it was an apatosaurus first. You may know this as well and just decided not to get into it, because after all once you start explaining paleontology you can get going down that hole and not come out until you've defended your PhD at University of Chicago, but. Brontosaurus was named after apatosaurus was described, but later someone realized they were in fact the same animal, and so 'brontosaurus' was discarded in favor of the precedent nomenclature. I am smart-alecky too.)
Then she goes on to use the word "butt" (as in "Lulu was a pain in the...") on the first page of Chapter One, and there is just no turning back from there. Grandma Judith snaps this story right along in her no-nonsense, conversational way, and it's as if she's making it up to pass the time while we all sit in the kitchen peeling potatoes and chopping celery. Later she'll quiz you on the presidents. There's a little rhythm, a little attitude, a few fine animal voices if you are so inclined, a song (to be sung in the most obnoxious voice you can manage - I tried Tim Curry's Carmelita Spats voice mixed with a little Eric Cartman), and a modicum of violence. It's jazzy.
It's suited perfectly by Lane Smith's pencil drawings. Keeping the illustrations black and white gives the book a timeless quality - like the Tashi stories that I reviewed a few months ago, this book looks like it could be decades old and only recently rediscovered. I love it when that happens, and people are like, "OMG! People in the '60's had a sense of humor! Who knew?!" In addition, the shapes Lane Smith uses, especially in his foliage, are straight off the barkcloth curtains Carol Brady picked out for the laundry room.
Lately it seems like some artists are referencing midcentury abstraction more and more, and I will let you know when I get sick of that, but chances are you'll be waiting a while. Looking through Lane Smith's art is a lot like visiting galleries with my parents in 1972.
There is a good kind of tension here between the streamlined, off-kilter geometric shapes and the whispery, textured pencil. An illustration that could be all style is given a storytelling quality in part because we are made so aware of the materials and process. Because of the way that the paper's texture shows, we can see variations in pressure, and we are with the artist as he draws. I am not against art created digitally, but I do have an old-fashioned bias in favor of the tactile qualities of materials.
So, speaking of holes you can fall down and go bye-bye and not emerge from until you've got (another) graduate degree, I spent some time while writing this review looking at old illustration. I visited the Flickr Vintage Children's Books pool. I reminisced about The Golden Treasury of Children's Literature, a big fat book I had when I was a kid, and which I didn't realize until later was really quite an item. It included excerpts from the Hobbit and Mary Poppins, the scariest version of Rapunzel ever, and some of the finest, weirdest illustration I know, by people like Charley Harper, Gordon Laite, the Provensens.
And I discovered the work of this guy, Theodor Kittelsen:
That is some kind of coincidence, I'd say. That palette, some of the shapes, the shading and the composition look a lot like what Lane Smith did in this Lulu book. Nice. Mr. Kittelsen was a Norwegian illustrator who sort of specialized in trolls at the turn of the last century. He's a good one to know, and I'm happy to have fallen down this hole if it meant I met his work.
Anyway. I read Lulu and the Brontosaurus aloud to my sons and they thought it was at least as fun as I did. It's set up like a chapter book, and would be an easy First Chapter book for independent reading as well. Have fun!