The warmness, it is all around. I live in Baltimore, and a large percentage of our Gross Domestic Product this time of year (mid-April til October) is humidity. Humidity and 90-degree temperatures.
It's kind of ridiculous. I have spent an August weekend in New Orleans that was more temperate. I have crossed the Equator and been more comfortable. I have ridden in an open boat on the AMAZON and not chafed so badly. Camped in THE SAHARA. Hiked THE BADLANDS. I experienced nicer weather in THOSE PLACES. Where else have I been that's hot? MADURAI, INDIA. No, Madurai was hotter than this. I actually thought we were going to die in Madurai.
Nothing for it but to go to work, help kids with their summer reading assignments, and read picture books. What have I read this week that knocked my socks off? These books:
I do this about quarterly, don't I - maybe I should make it a regular thing. Oh who am I kidding. One of the benefits of writing your own blog is you don't have to adhere to any schedule. Well, that and you can swear.
Froodle by Antoinette Portis
YES I like books by Antoinette Portis and NO I am not going to change my mind. Just like Crow is not going to fall victim to the silly craze sweeping through the yard. Little Brown Bird is supposed to say "peep." Cardinal is supposed to say "chip." THAT'S JUST THE WAY THINGS ARE. Until that malcontent Little Brown Bird opened his daggone beak and... WELL. I just want to come out and say I'm on Crow's side.
That Little Brown Bird. Damn hippie.
This is what's wrong with me. This is what's very very WROOONNG with me - and that was Bill Murray in Stripes in case you missed the reference ("We're ten and one!") (Not anymore, brother).
I have been neglecting the crap out of Pink Me for MONTHS because I've started reviewing for Booklist Online and those guys send me I swear 5 books a month. And not five 32-page picture books, although sometimes yeah I get picture books. No. I get five NOVELS. Five middle-grade books about burping and zombie pets. Five YA sci-fi barnburners. Shit involving fairies.
And some decent stuff, for sure.
Plus I've been neglecting Pink Me because I am churning through as much YA horror as I can stomach. Funny horror, ghostie horror, horror that turns out to not be terribly scary after all. Lotsa horror. I'm doing this because my colleague Paula and I are giving a talk, called "Something Wicked This Way Comes of Age" (Paula's title and is that good or what?!), at the YA Lit Symposium in Austin next fall.
I didn't need those boots. Nobody needs $600 boots.
It can't be easy, right? Writing a cookbook for kids? I mean, if you're writing a cookbook, that means you are a good cook. You know your asparagus from your elbow macaroni, if you know what I mean. And here you are writing instructions for people who don't know what the salt looks like when you tell them to get it out of the cupboard.
IT'S THE BLUE CYLINDRICAL CONTAINER. CYLINDER. YOU KNOW, ROUND LIKE A... oh Christ I'll get it. SEE? THIS IS SALT.
Well there aren't a lot of shopping days left until Christmas, but the good news is that in these depressing final days, when the best that most stores can offer is a choice between Picked-over or Shopworn, your favorite independent bookstore is an absolute ACE at getting that brand-new book - or books - for you just about right away.
Let's place our order, shall we?
Dot, Clem, Ozzie, Ollie, Maya, Nalah, Loula, and Ripple. Henry, Dorothy, Francis, Betsy, Willow, Jemmy Button and Anna Hibiscus. Plus French film icon Jacques Tati and former Vikings defensive end Alan Page.
These are my new best friends. And they are just a very few of the main characters of picture books nominated for Best Picture Book in the Cybils Awards. Go on, take a peek at the nominations list. Wow, right?
It's a diverse bunch of folks - there's a dolphin, a dog, foxes, monsters, princesses, squirrels and more than one bunny. Loula is French, Noah and Na'amah are South Asian in The Enduring Ark, the Lucky Ducklings live in Montauk, the Tiny King is Japanese, and Anna Hibiscus lives in "Africa, amazing Africa." Jemmy Button was real. Mr. Hulot was the fictional alter ego of the real actor Jacques Tati.
Captain Cat is a crazy-eyed, cat-lovin', Santa-bearded old sailing man. After a lifetime as a sort of less-than mediocre trader (he tends to swap valuable goods for worthless felines), Captain Cat decides it's finally time to see the places on his bucket list. Blown way off course by a really nicely drawn storm, he and his crowd of cats fetch up at a sweet, wealthy, rat-infested remote island presided over by a skinny-legged wild-haired Queen. With her unhinged grin and mens' shoes, the Queen is kind of like a tropical Pippi.
MAN this is a great story. I'm not kidding.
Portmanteau post time! Since returning from vacation I've made a concerted effort to catch up on new picture books. It's a burden. I'm kidding. It's a joy. I love paging through a giant stack - it's like sitting on your friend's floor going through her records. Thirty years ago. *shakes head* *misses 12" record albums for a minute* *wonders where all her Siouxsie and the Banshees records got to*
Anyway, when you read ten or twenty picture books at a time, the winners - and the weirdos, and the "hmm" books - quickly distinguish themselves from the rank and file.
A family of hippie hipsters - or post-hipster hippies if you want to split hairs - move from their Hampden rowhouse to a field outside of Monkton and build a house, two toddlers in tow and a bun in the oven. Does mom wear glasses? Does dad wear plaid? Is their jeep a vintage Willys, are their shoes extra-chunky? Does a cat lurk on the periphery?
Do not hold any of these things against them.
Well, I read a hundred new picture books yesterday. I do that sometimes, just chew through a teetering stack of new ones. There's no time - no time! to write reviews, so here are my snappety-snap judgements and random associations. Aren't you glad I'm not on the Caldecott Committee like our friend Travis? Those guys probably have to get all reasoned and articulate, instead of, like, holding up a book in front of my colleagues and going, "Look! Ha ha!"
At one point a couple weeks ago, I had 84 kidlit-related apps on my iPad, because I was a first-round judge for the Cybils Awards in the apps category. I have been involved with the Cybils for a few years now, previously serving as a judge in the graphic novels and nonfiction picture books categories, and every year I love it. The best is getting to know the other critics on the panels. Lalitha, Carisa, Cathy, and Mary Ann, it was a privilege and I learned so much!
These are the finalists that we chose (it was tough!):
Hey ho it is time for me to haul a giant tote bag of beautiful and enticing books for the kids on your gift list down to Maryland's NPR station (WYPR 88.1 FM) and let Maryland Morning's Tom Hall pick a few he'd like me to talk about! Unfortunately, that segment got lost in the scheduling shuffle this year, so I'll have to make do with a list on Pink Me. NOT a hardship - on the Internet, I have unlimited air time!
So here are the books I am sticking in my Santa sack:
I’d love to call these “holiday” gift ideas, but the fact is, Hannukah gift purchasing is all but DONE. I missed that Galilean fishing vessel. So unless you give gifts for Kwanzaa or Yule (God Jul to you Dances With Chickens!), at this point, it’s all about Christmas. So what is the fat man going to bring the kids you love?
If you read picture books to kids on any kind of regular basis - that is, if you are now or have ever been a parent, a teacher, or a librarian - chances are you have come across the books that you just can't sell. The words you can't wrap your tongue around, the insipid characters whose lines you just hate to hear yourself saying, the forced rhymes that refuse to bounce where you expect them to.
And then there will be that beautiful day when you crack open Your Book. The book that flows off your tongue, the book whose jokes you were born to sell. That book might be I Must Have Bobo! by the Rosenthals, or Banana! by Ed Vere. Could be you found your book long ago and it was Is Your Mama a Llama? by Deborah Guarino, or Jamberry by Bruce Degen.
A new MAD Magazine anthology has been published, celebrating - errr, "celebrating" - 60 years of, as they call it, "humor, satire, stupidity and stupidity." Good old MAD. It's where we went for dumb grunting laughs before God invented Homer Simpson.
And although sometimes it's easy to forget the huge amount of satire in MAD, MAD is also kind of where we went for snarky, well-informed chuckles before God invented Jon Stewart.
AND it was our source of slightly baffled grins while we were still too young to be well-informed or snarky. In fact, MAD was making snide remarks long before "snark" was anything other than some kind of bandersnatch variant.
But whatever the impetus, I am on a deification kick right now. And just for the moment, just because these are the great picture books that have crossed my path recently, these are the effigies decorating my shrine:
Well, the cutest thing happened a couple weeks ago. I was in the studio at WYPR, Maryland's NPR station, preparing to record a segment about comics for kids with Tom Hall of Maryland Morning and Snow Wildsmith, librarian, blogger, and co-author of A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics: Choosing Titles Your Children Will Love. Snow's great. She knows EVERYthing about comics, and she sometimes wears tiny hats. AWESOME tiny hats.
Snow lives in North Carolina, so she couldn't come in to the studio, but she called in on the phone. The producer needed to get a level on her voice, and asked her to just sort of read whatever she randomly had on her desk. What did Snow have on her desk? Vampirina Ballerina. What was on my own desk? Vampirina Ballerina. Coincidence? Yes! A spooooky coincidence!
Here's your latest list of great graphic novels for kids, courtesy of the legwork I did prior to a recent appearance on WYPR's Maryland Morning. This time, host Tom Hall and I were joined by author and librarian Snow Wildsmith (my idea!) for a talk about which graphic novels, how graphic novels, and, most importantly, why graphic novels for kids. Snow and I get all smarty-sounding at a couple of points there, I totally encourage you to listen:
I have been in a weird mood all day. I just finished reading a really cool and funny adult sci-fi novel (Year Zero by Rob Reid), plus I'm by myself in the house, my whole entire family being out of town, and I'm working the evening shift. So I feel a little unreal.
And then the first picture book I picked up at work today features a pocket-size walrus who emerges from an oversized walnut. Yeah. I should just start drinking right away, don't you think?
I lead a pretty prosaic life. The biggest, hairiest, most mysterious creature in my life (no cracks about library customers, please, esteemed co-workers!) is our big orange cat, Babe. Named for Babe the Blue Ox, not Babe Didrickson Zaharias or Babe the Gallant Pig. But as mystifying as Babe's behavior sometimes is, he is depressingly accessible. He's no cryptid, in other words.
And sometimes you just need a little mystery. Ergo, Bigfoot...
So Ashley Spires put out this absolutely cute picture book a couple months ago, Larf, that is all about being alone - and that's ok - and reaching out to someone - which is also ok - but being nervous about it - understandable, and also ok - but then meeting someone nice anyway. Which is way ok.
Love Larf. Love Ashley Spires! Ashley Spires, in case you didn't realize, which I didn't, is the person responsible for that farting dreamer of a housecat, Binky (Binky the Space Cat). Every one of those books is a charmer, as is Larf. Larf is, contrary to what I think are most people's expectations about Sasquatches, rather a neat person. He folds his laundry and washes his dishes after he uses them. He wears a neat red scarf. He lives alone but he's not lonely. Not super lonely anyway.
Don't call me lazy. No, man, really you can't. I have been reading nonstop - just, I have other obligations, and the books I am reading are not for Pink Me. (Except for Necromancing the Stone by Lish McBride, oh and The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi, and Sons of the 613 by Mike Rubens - I've read those recently, I just don't have time to review them! Aagh! They're all great? Can I just say that for now? I promise there will be reviews later.)
Also, they all have great covers:
So, in the interest of actually performing some sort of informational service, which is all I've ever tried to do (insert pious expression and posture here), I brought out the Flip camera and asked my boys about the books on my coffee table. My boys are, after all, the target audience. And they read, oh Jesus they read like crazy!
Here's the big pile of books and an introduction to my reviewers:
Oh David Small! For decades you and your wife gave us stories that we loved, populated by characters that, for all their exaggerated features, were wonderful, recognizable real people. Your landscapes and buildings always looked effortless but terrific. Then you wrote Stitches: A Memoir, and we all cried our eyes out. Amazing graphic novel memoir. And I don't know about other people in my industry, but I figured, given the acclaim Stitches garnered, David Small would then by and large quit illustrating picture books.
So pleased to be wrong!
I would have liked to have met Maurice Sendak. As impatient and uncompromising as he seems to have been, he took this stuff seriously in a way that I feel like I recognize - and he knew it was all folly at the same time.
I will wager that almost every person involved with picture books has learned something from Maurice. I know I have. In the Night Kitchen taught me to look at all the stuff inside the pictures; Where the Wild Things Are, with its expanding and contracting picture area, taught me to look at the page as a whole; and his illustrations for the Little Bear books showed me that animal characters need not be cartoonish or unrealistic to be endearing.
It is a fitting coincidence, therefore - a random tribute - that this past week was a particularly good one for illustration in picture books. Here are the ones I brought home to share and savor with my sons, not a line of 'ordinariness' in any of them:
In the new picture book Chloe and the Lion, a little girl blows a jarfull of change on the merry-go-round, gets dizzy, loses her way in the woods, and meets a hungry lion. Then she ends up standing on a street corner wearing a tube top in order to lure more unsuspecting children into the lion's clutches.
Wait. No. That's not what happens at all! That's me, the reviewer, hijacking the story. Which I am completely not supposed to do. Bad reviewer! Fired!
Hey and you know who else is not supposed to hijack the story of a picture book? The illustrator. Yup. The illustrator is not supposed to draw a purple dragon instead of a hungry lion (even if a dragon is way cooler), because if he does, the author is going to step in with a WAITAMINIT, VARLET - YOU DRAWS WHAT I TELLS YA TO DRAW, and then maybe the illustrator will retaliate by drawing the author in a variety of interesting and humiliating outfits, and then the illustrator will find himself FIRED. And eaten.
Like it? Me too!
Liam is a little pig who insists that he is a bunny. His family assures him they love him just the way he is; his sister tells him to get over it. He is still insistent: "Hello, my name is Liam and I'll be your Easter Bunny." The neighbors are skeptical but his parents continue to love and support him.
And I say, "Love it."
Unruly. We can start with that. There's something rough and challenging about the word. It calls to mind glamorous rogues who are always getting in bar fights. Elizabeth Taylor in Taming of the Shrew. Wouldn't you like to be thought of as 'unruly' from time to time? Slightly unsafe? Unpredictable, like the high-heeled little spitfire on the cover of this new picture book?
Let's open her up and see.
On the title page we see a uniformed maid, an old lady with a big bottom, high heels and garters, down on her knees with a bucket scrubbing marker off the striped wallpaper. On the next we meet our evil little regent, rollerskating down the hall in a pink tutu and bow, marking the wall with a thick china marker. Her eyes are cast back at the maid and she is smiling a tiny, rotten smile.
I think I'm going to like this. I love characters that actually shock children.
I have in the recent past poked (gentle) (I hope) fun at Jon Klassen's illustration style, saying that in the future, people will be able to pull a book illustrated by him off the shelf and say, "Oh yeah... 2011! Remember that, with the slightly spattery browny-gray inks and deadpan expressions? I Want My Hat Back! I loved that!"
Totally. I have worn that rich but drab palette for the past five years. I've wanted a skirt with his blocky animal figures on it ever since Cats' Night Out. His cover for The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place almost made me want to read that book.
But now, reading Extra Yarn, we learn about his color, too. It's good color.
It's a Friday afternoon and my son, 8-year-old Zhou, is helping me review Zero the Hero. Joan Holub wrote this book, and Tom Lichtenheld did the drawings. Lichtenheld has been a Pink Me favorite ever since Shark vs. Train for his clear, happy colors, lovely layering, and strong, funky line. And Joan Holub's Goddess Girls books are getting a lot of play with my middle grade girl readers. She sent a stack of goddess bookmarks along with the ARC of this picture book, and they were snapped up in a jiffy.
Your Neighborhood Librarian: So, youngster. What do you like about this book?
You know the kid. She puts star stickers on the apples of her cheeks. He insists on wearing a cape everywhere. She may grow up to be the kind of lady who spraypaints one boot yellow and the other silver. He may grow up to be the guy who owns fifty hats and knows how to ride a unicycle.
I know a disproportionate number of people like that, I think. How has that happened?
Anyway, Gaye Chapman, the illustrator of this dreamy silken kaleidoscope of a picture book, is probably one of those people. Lord knows she draws for them. But before I start piling up a bunch of adjectives about the art, let me summarize the story:
Whew! Glad to be done with the Newbery post! That award is so loaded, so hard to talk about without hurting someone's feelings. On to the Caldecott!
From Ice by Arthur Geisert
Why is it that, while Newbery conversations feel like minefields, Caldecott conversations feel like wildflower-strewn Alpine pastures? Is it because every artist whose work even gets mentioned in the same breath as the C-word is by definition inarguably talented? Is it because you get to look at pretty things while you're looking for examples, rather than getting paper cuts leafing through novels trying to find that passage where the author really nails it?
From Me... Jane by Patrick McDonnell
I think it's because it's a lot easier to put your finger on what you find worthy in a particular book's illustration program than it is to pinpoint what you like about a big piece of prose. You can say, "Marla Frazee is a wizard of the color black," or "The fat contour lines that Kevin Henkes uses make his shapes so accessible to little kids." And I think that unfortunately, Newbery conversations often switch around to what you didn't like about an author's characters or style.
From If You Lived Here by Giles Laroche
But I've spent some time cross-referencing the Cybils picture book finalists (fiction and nonfiction - on which panel I served this year) with the few Mock Caldecott lists that people dream up, along with all the illustrated things I've read this year, and I came up with a list of some books that I think are among the items the 2011 Caldecott Committee spent time talking about on their way to conferring one Medal and up to four Honors.
Don't take my word for it though (really, DON'T) - motor on over to your library and check out a huge batch of picture books so you can play along yourself! I'll be running down some of these books on the radio January 13 at about 9:40 am, on WYPR's Maryland Morning program. 88.1 on your FM dial in Baltimore, and online at www.wypr.org.
Gr 3-6–Fans of Calvin and Hobbes will gravitate to this graphic-novel chapter book featuring an inventive kid and his talking dog.
Mal has typical social trouble at school, hiding his intelligence and struggling to make his feelings known to a cute girl while trying to avoid the class blowhard. His single mom doesn’t seem to be very supportive, sending him to bed without supper, threatening to ground him, and spanking him in the first three chapters, but these travails set him up as an underdog who will prevail in the end.
There is a secret joy that librarians are allowed at holiday time. Although we are ardent in encouraging people to borrow, not buy, most of us... well, we're kind of into books. We can't help wanting to own them. And though librarians vary in the extent to which they successfully keep themselves out of bookstores - some don't even try - all bets are off when it comes to buying gifts for our family and friends.
I stopped in at WYPR's Maryland Morning to talk to host Tom Hall about this subject. I brought a great huge stack of books and asked Tom to pick out the ones he wanted to know more about. If you miss the broadcast, you can listen to our conversation on the Maryland Morning website by the end of the day. The station has also posted a list of the books I brought to the station, or click "Read more" to see an expanded version (book trailers! whee!).
When I was a kid, we had a big fat book called Golden Treasury of Children's Literature. It was full of excerpts from longer books - a chapter from Mary Poppins, a chapter from The Wizard of Oz. Some poetry, some obscure stuff. A really scary Rapunzel. I ate that book up and then forgot it, although I think it is the reason that I have an unexplained but vehement dislike of excerpts. I felt terribly cheated, not getting the whole story.
I forgot the book, but the images from it nonetheless live strongly in my head. Kind of like a K-Tel record, the book excerpts it contained were not illustrated with the canonical illustrations one associates with these works. They were very good - I think Charley Harper illustrated the Bambi story - but they were different, and they imprinted strongly on my mind. For example, despite multiple readings of an edition of The Hobbit with the Tolkein illustrations, and despite the towering charisma of Ian McKellen, I still envision the Gandalf in that book when I see Gandalf in my head.
I swear to God, I thought the last thing I needed was One More Butterfly Book. And I also thought, when I saw that this book had been nominated for a Cybils Award in the Nonfiction Picture Book category, for which I am a first-round judge, that maybe I had finally outgrown my susceptibility to Sylvia Long's gorgeous watercolors and graceful calligraphy.
After all, I am well aware that A Seed Is Sleepy and An Egg Is Quiet - I have bought those books, I have gifted those books, and I have recommended those books. They make good baby shower gifts, among other things. I mean, as well as being informative and inspiring. I thought there was probably not one more serene natural subject worthy of Ms. Long's well-researched scrutiny and Dianna Hutts Aston's tranquil prose.
But holy crap, I could stare at this thing for hours. Lovely.
So if you have Waiting for Wings and Arabella Miller's Tiny Caterpillar and Laurence Pringle's An Extraordinary Life in your school or classroom library and you thought you were done, well, better make a little room on the shelf. And give your kids sketchbooks and some colored pencils - they're going to want to go outside and draw something.
Something like this owl butterfly, caligo memnon, with a 5-inch wingspan.
Ok, stop: the peaceful, rapturous expression on our girl scientist's face as she lets fly a slice of bologna in the school cafeteria would have sold me on this book even if I had not already been giggling, snorting, and cackling on almost every page prior.
I'm going to scan that page. Hold on.
Tsk. I can't fit the book on the scanner without breaking it in half, and it's a library book. I'm going to take a picture of that page. Hold on.
Look at that. That's a The-Hills-Are-Alive face. That's Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet crossing the finish line with a half-ton of wild but gifted racehorse under her butt. That face - you just know it - is going to get in soooo much trouble in about fifteen seconds, but for now, that is the face of scientific validation.
That bunny is a total evangelist, right? That app actually does things that the book can't do, and that is a book that does things that most books can't do. Pat the Bunny is the app that turns arms-crossed, grumbly librarians into wide-eyed murmury librarians. Bobo Explores Light (reviewed earlier) does that too.
Just press play.
No, I mean it. You want to know what an iPad does, and why? Just hit the play button on that trailer for the new children's science app Bobo Explores Light up there.
What an iPad does, and why:
Misnomer. False advertising. NOT picture books for parents. This is NOT a review of Go the F**k to Sleep. What I think about that book was expressed quite soundly - and strongly - by Roger Sutton of The Horn Book. Roger Sutton is a modern-day hero.
No. These are picture books that are fully for children. Funny, sweet, colorful, devoid of swear words. BUT. They are books that grown-ups will legitimately enjoy themselves. It is one of the perks of having little kids - you have an excuse to consume picture books. Some picture books are insipid or tedious. But some are sly and sparkling.
There is a giant, bulging slob of a penguin in the refrigerator on the front cover of this book. A giant bulging penguin who has apparently eaten everything in the refrigerator. A bear and a bunny confront the penguin. They are deadpan, silent - are they coming face to face with the consequences of a previous bad decision? Is the penguin a nightmarish symbol of some kind, a living, breathing reminder of our greedy id?
I don't know. I haven't read the book yet. I was just so struck by the cover that I had to sit and gaze at it for a little while. These colors are wonderfully sophisticated - the walls and floor are three different shades of khaki tan, the bear and bunny are two edible browns, and the interior of the fridge is light blue with a lot of gray in it. This is a cotton pencil skirt, a man-tailored ice blue silk shirt, and a very nice leather belt, perhaps from Façonnable. Ok, on my budget, maybe J. Crew.
It's a bittersweet day here on the Pink Me couch. The season's changing, the pool has closed. We recently made the not-difficult-at-all decision to finally ditch this bony old beast for a new couch, one with padding in all the right places, one with cushions that have yet to be vomited on. It's an exciting moment, but I can't help wondering if we will be as happy on the new couch as we have been on the - truly repulsive - Jennifer Convertibles sofa that I bought in New York so many years ago. The frog-printed slipcover will be going too.
Will our crazy pillows fit on it? Will we all fit on it? The boys are getting bigger, and nowadays much more likely to be buried in a D&D manual than in a Hardy Boys mystery.
Added to this seasonal introspection is a sliver of bad news that has hit our family unexpectedly hard: Charley, the World's Oldest Living Brine Shrimp, has died.
I am still on a brief break from the teen novels about serial killers and grave robbers and cannibals and cannibalistic grave-robbing serial killers. And Direct Instruction.
I swear, it's true. Along with all the war-torn future Earths and vicious madmen I've been reading about this summer was one novel the villain of which was nominally an unknown sneaky-Pete serial killer but structurally and actually? the villain was the (admittedly rather joyless) teaching model known as Direct Instruction. Specifically, the Slavin variant of DI, developed at Johns Hopkins University right here in the beautiful burg of Baltimore.
I read that and I was like, "Hey!" Slavin's approach, called Success For All, is a wholly scripted 90-minute intensive daily session of phonics instruction, and was designed for use in failing schools in this city. And believe you me, I spent some time in Baltimore City District Court this week, and this town could use a lot more reading instruction.
But it was just kind of weird. You've got a serial killer, perhaps two, running around town murdering cats, clearly working his or her way up to killing a human, and yet a huge amount of authorial energy was expended on describing and excoriating Direct Instruction. I'm not here to defend DI, but it was like having a character attend a Waldorf school and then spending half the book describing how oppressive and creepy it is to spend one's days in a classroom with no corners.
(These are terrible sentences I'm writing. Maybe I could use a little Slavin-style finger-snapping rote learning myself.)
Anyway. That book was called Deviant, and I think I'd like to read more by Adrian McKinty (go read his blog and I think you'll fall in love), but I'm not going to actually review this one - just note its weird little obsession with educational theory and then mentally catalog it as something to recommend to those kids slouching around the teen section who roll their eyes at paranormal horror because they Just. Want. Murderers! I should not forget to also tell those kids to read Seita Parkkola's evil school novel The School of Possibilities. And then Janne Teller's Nothing. Dan Wells's I Am Not A Serial Killer and its sequelae.
Aggh! I can't quit! BUT. I am reviewing a board book here - I need to get my head out of that trunk full of disarticulated body parts and get on with it.
Speaking of Baltimore. This bright, fun little board book counts as a Direct Instruction tool - our friends One through Ten appear on successive pages, printed in big Arabic numerals, along with objects to be counted that demonstrate the meaning of the numerals. None of your exploratory, inquiry-based learning going on here: this is an ordinal-number practicum.
I jest, of course. 123 Baltimore is blissfully free of dogma, but full of love. Every Baltimorean will recognize the colors used on page four, on which four footballs bounce around the page's edges; visitors will smile at page nine, which features Baltimore's unofficial city symbol, the pink flamingo; but it may take a true city nerd (me!) to identify the seven funky robots on page seven as the World's First Robot Family by DeVon Smith on permanent display at the American Visionary Art Museum.
I also believe quite firmly that the six row houses on page six are not, as noted in the key at the end, the "Painted Ladies" of Charles Village, but rather the two-storey bowfront rowhouses on Keswick Rd. My friend and colleague (and fellow city nerd) Mrs. McSweeney fingers the porch rowhouses on Abell Avenue as the illustration source. I bet when I get home Mr. Librarian (the ultimate city nerd!) will be able to cite what exact block of which street they are.
It's a souvenir of our gritty city, a reminder of our kitsch credentials, a fun way to learn to count to ten, and does not contain even one gouged-out eyeball.
Well, I've been on something of a YA kick this summer, as all both of my regular readers could tell. I'm preparing to be a facilitator at Books for the Beast this fall, in the Horror/Suspense category (join us, won't you?), and so there have been a lot of cannibals and nail-biting (do cannibals bite their nails?) around my house lately.
Maybe that's why I responded so warmly to this dumpling of an ABC book that I found on the New Picture Books shelf. It has pie! A girl in ponytails! And an extremely winsome dog of the beagle-y terrier-y variety. WHAT could be more wholesome than that?
The beagle's name, I find out from the book's website, is Georgie. And the little girl in the blue jumper is Grace. A is for apple pie, and B C and D are the verbs Grace uses to bake it, cool it, and dish it out. After that, it's all Georgie, finding a crumb on the floor and then obsessing over that fat pie, plotting and pining in a realistically single-minded puppy way. Alison Murray's text is cool and simple and perky, getting around the tricky letters so smartly that I had to go back and look - what did she do about X?
The art features a subtly unusual palette of navy blue, blood red, burnt orange, and the slightly off pastels that are produced when those colors are watered down. This scheme results in contrasts that are graphically strong - the navy blue jumper against a watery blue background, for example - while maintaining color harmony.
This looks to me like good confident ink and brush drawing on top of chunky, forthright shapes done in some kind of print process - silk screen I guess, given the texture. The ink still looks sticky, which is an effect I love for children's books. After watching dozens of kids visually reverse-engineer the illustrations in dozens of picture books so that they can try to duplicate a style or effect, I am partial to art techniques that reveal process or bear the imprint of the materials used.
More of this Scotswoman's art is on her blog, called everything is pattern.
The Three Pandas by Valerie Mih and See Here Studios
Little Mei Mei goes walking in the forest and smells something yummy. Why, it's the three bowls of bamboo porridge that Mama, Papa, and Baby Panda left on their table while they took a walk! Mmm, that baby panda's porridge is 只是权 (just right)!
Layered photo collage is the medium for the gorgeous but friendly illustrations. Not too flashy, with homey interiors featuring Chinese furnishings and decor, and lovely misty exteriors depicting a sunny clearing in the bamboo forest. Mei Mei is adorable, with a giant toothy smile, and the pandas are just the giant balls of fluffy fur that pandas always are. I like the unobtrusive music, all tinkly piano and clarinet notes, though I confess I might have wished for more Chinese instrumentation.
AND IT'S BILINGUAL. Why does not every single dang iPad app give the user multiple language options? (Note: IT'S EASY.) The Chinese narration is clear and expressive. My picture book app review buddy, four-year-old Baby A, got a big kick out of listening to the app in Chinese and telling me the story, as if she were translating.
Recently, I read a book written for grownups. It happens! Of course, the book I read was Nerd Do Well, the memoir of actor and comedian Simon Pegg, and Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz, Star Trek) is nothing if not an overgrown eleven-year-old boy, so actually, the book didn't fall that far outside my usual purview.
It was a kind of so-so book, if you want to know. The fanboy confessional can often descend into aching self-importance (see also: Patton Oswalt), but there were some brilliant discussions of pop culture, criticism, and pop culture criticism (also see also: Patton Oswalt). Mostly about Star Wars. Simon Pegg has thought a lot about Star Wars.
As have we all, n'est-ce pas?
In my house, Star Wars is practically a family member. Storm troopers, clone troopers, Jedi, Sith, sand people - their costumes and powers find their way into every mode of imaginative play engaged in by my sons. I have fought my way to a grudging détente over what I still call the second three movies - we own them on DVD, but they cannot be watched while I am in the house.
(I mean, come on. In the second series of Star Wars movies, they named Leia's adoptive father "Bail." If that isn't telegraphing a certain abdication of commitment on the part of the filmmakers, I don't know what.)
Recently, I assembled all the Star Wars gimmick books in our house and got the boys to run 'em down. By 'gimmick books' I mean the engineered books - the DK Readers are not included in this review, nor are the nominally grown-up novels like The Thrawn Trilogy, The X-Wing Series, Jedi Academy Trilogy, The Han Solo Trilogy (I might read that), or The Bounty Hunter Wars.
If I weren't already fully developed, brain-wise (and probably on the downward slope, a likelihood that is difficult to deny, given how frequently I leave my phone at home and my inability to Tweet with any regularity), I would expect to be about fifteen points smarter by the time I closed this book.
There's a striped bee. On the head of a red bird. In a green-leaved tree. In the bed of a yellow truck. And then our perspective shifts so that the truck appears to be driving across a black and white landscape as the bird flies away. What was that?! Oh. We were looking at the truck across the back of a cow. Hi, cow. The cow is standing in a flat green field next to wavy blue water.
What's next for the bird? What will that big white thing turn out to be? And why would a bee ride on a bird's head?
Craig Frazier (Lots of Dots, the Stanley books) gives us a wordless picture book full of large shapes, bold patterns, clear colors, and a surprising amount of personality. Rather than leave his giant color fields plain and flat, often a subtle gradient will indicate contour or volume.
Wordless books are the most wonderful investments. The best ones allow the reader to conjure endless stories, like the protagonist of Still Life With Woodpecker, who meditates on a Camel pack for several years. Or like Jane Eyre, filling the blank endpapers of books with her own thoughts.
Maybe I am not all that far gone after all. I've been through Bee & Bird three or four times now and I'm still finding new things that tickle me. And my husband and I finished the diagramless New York Times crossword puzzle last Sunday. We should just keep exposing ourselves to patterns and shifting perspectives, and maybe watch Powers of Ten every couple months.
Put Bee & Bird on your short list of things that are mind-blowing and fun at the same time. Bubble wands, kaleidoscopes, wordless books.
Jon Scieszka has five brothers. Jon Scieszka is a funny writer. Ergo, Jon Scieszka's stories about growing up with his five brothers = funny. Oh, I laughed out loud, all right. I read bits aloud to the librarians in the workroom who wanted to know just what was so damn funny, and they laughed out loud. But we're moms. Moms of boys. We have to think boys are funny, or else go googoo and end up carted away in a van.
I first reviewed this book two years ago. I read it to myself while our house was undergoing extensive renovation. It was kind of a distracted review, touching on Peruvian hats, Luke Wilson and my great-cousin Margaret's nose.
But such a funny book. I really needed the laughs during those dark days - my kitchen was open to the outside world for about a week, making it less kitchen-y and more like, let's say, a shed.
We have revisited Knucklehead this summer, now that it is available on audio, read by Mr. Scieszka himself. I checked it out of the library specifically for the benefit of my husband and his multitude of siblings, many of whom were going to be in from out of town and spending copious hours in our minivan last week.
You know what would make a great picture book app for the iPad? Bang on the Drum All Day. Yes, the Todd Rundgren song. It speaks of the cathartic power of music, how it can transport us, and testifies to the bliss of creative activity. Plus it is super-hooky and unapologetically stupid.
I don't want to work,
I just want to bang on the drum all day.
I don't want to play,
I just want to bang on the drum all day.
Ever since I was a tiny boy,
I don't want no candy, I don't need no toy.
I took a stick and an old coffee can,
I bang on that drum til I got blisters on my hand!
Right? Any kid can play the drum. You could make an iPad app with drum pads of various tones, let a kid tap the screen to make rhythms and hear the difference between a tom and a snare and a bass drum - heck, they could even learn how to play a backbeat or a paradiddle. It would be so fun!
Sigh. Nobody ever asks me.
But the ever-amusing Rundgren is kind of just the guy to do it, so here's hoping he gets an iPad and befriends a couple of youthful fans/software developers. Til then, I will have to content myself with what's actually out there in picture book iPad app-land. To wit:
Sometimes I get a request from a library customer or a friend that is so inspiring, it sticks with me for days. Our friend Doug, who is finishing up a master's in education sometime in the next decade or so, is working up a model English class for middle schoolers who have been studying ecology. He figured he'd read them The Lorax as a discussion starter, but wondered if I had any other suggestions.
Now, The Lorax is pretty much on the nose for this purpose, but it's long, and sing-songy, and might already be familiar to middle schoolers as an environmental cautionary tale. So I rubbed my hands together and thought.
Ants. Just the word, for me, cues up Sharkey's Day. You know, that dry, surreal, scritchy-scratchy Laurie Anderson song: "Sharkey says: All of life comes from some strange lagoon. It rises up, it bucks up to its full height from a boggy swamp on a foggy night. It creeps into your house. It's life!"
Ants are that kind of strange, that kind of miraculous.
Amos Latteier, a Toronto-based performing and installation artist, seems to see them this way too. Who would not? The facts about ants will blow your mind. 22,000 species! Biomass comparable to humans!
There are ants that function as soft-serve machines, ants that squeeze goo out of their larvae in order to stick leaves together, ants that farm, ants that herd, ants whose sting feels like getting shot (see "bullet ant," above). Ant queens can live decades. Ant sperm can live decades! Heck, the little black ants that live in your yard can dig nests five feet deep!
I could go on half the day about the weirdness of ants. Don't you wish I would? No?