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.
I have never been very good at all that best / best of / ten best BS. My little mind has trouble finding a common metric between different books. How can you say whether the silly and charming linear narrative of Sophie's Squash is "better" or "worse" than - for example - the dreamlike, lyrical Red Knit Cap Girl to the Rescue?
Which illustrations are better? DOES NOT COMPUTE.
I try, though - as previously mentioned, I'm a first-round Cybils judge and I will help pick a shortlist of the best picture books of the year, but oh I am so glad I'm not in the group that has to narrow it down to one.
Instead, I thought I'd run down the reading experiences that made the deepest impressions on me this year. GOOD and BAD. GET READY.
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.
Not really. Nobody sings. Well, they sing, but it's not... Oh just watch it.
I know what you're thinking. "Oh, sure, she's always complaining she has no time to read, but she'll spend most of Memorial Day weekend - when she should be barbecuing or binge-watching Arrested Development (Fun fact: I have never watched Arrested Development!) clipping video."
It's true. But I can't help it. I love making videos with my kids. And this one was inspired by the forthcoming Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, pictures by Matthew Myers.
Actually, I was just looking for an excuse to dress Ezra up in an Afro wig and a pink bed jacket. If you look closely, that's the same jacket Miss Volker wore in our production of Dead End in Norvelt. Jack Gantos was a good sport about our massacre of his Newbery Award-winning book, hope Mac & Jon don't get too mad at us for blowing their framing device.
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!"
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.
This I love. The Amazing Hamweenie is the tragic story of a cat whose vast ambitions for fame and stardom are viciously thwarted by his mundane surroundings.
Viciously. Thwarted. "Don't you know who I am?" he cries, in the piteous tones of a diva plucked from her glittering dressing room and plunged into a life among peasants. He is forced to endure tea parties with stuffed animals, he is transported in a doll carriage, and while he can see the exciting world out the window, all he can do is lounge on the sill, suffering.
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!
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.
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!
Once, very briefly, I worked in publishing. I learned a lot in that short time, and I learned things that have come in handy in most of my subsequent jobs. (I have also briefly worked in museums, in software, in ice cream, and in men's pants, and the knowledge that I gained in each of those venues has had unexpected applications later in life. For example, I can still estimate a man's inseam at 25 paces.)
In my capacity as an Editorial Assistant, I had occasion to sit in on those production meetings that were really budget meetings, during which line items like color, paper, coatings, die-cuts, and binding options were discussed with a sometimes brutal disregard for the needs of the content. Those meetings would make a grown man weak in the knees.
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.
Do you love Marcia Williams? I love Marcia Williams. Marcia Williams is a British illustrator and author. She writes large-format, intensively-illustrated adaptations of classical literature for kids.
Let me tell you how great this is: lots of little kids get into tales of adventure, and then their parents think to themselves, "Oh, I'll bet he would love Robin Hood!" Or King Arthur, or the story of Troy, etc. And then they ask the librarian - "I want him to read King Arthur." Whereupon the librarian is like, "Errr... you know that adultery and patricide play a big part in that story, right? Is he ready for The Sword in the Stone?"
Why does a kid read a biography?
A couple of reasons. The most common reason is the old "I have to write a book report on George Washington Carver." Boy do you want to find a peppy, well-illustrated biography of George Washington Carver for that kid. A decent book, written by someone who actually cares about and is interested in George Washington Carver, as opposed to a generic series biography written by someone who got the assignment in an email, will make all the difference for that kid.
The Groundbreaking, Chance-Taking Life of George Washington Carver and Science and Invention in America by Cheryl Harness. National Geographic Children's Books.
These Cheryl Harness biographies are just the right length for older elementary school students. Heavily illustrated by the author and loaded with extras like timelines and maps, they are interestingleisure reads but work for writing reports as well.
Some kids will read biographies by choice: either they're interested in the subject, and they're inhaling everything they can find about, say, Jimi Hendrix in every medium available; or they're that kid who only likes true stories. That kid deserves a subscription to the National Geographic Photobiographies series.
Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix by Gary Golio, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe. Clarion Books. This impressionistic book about Jimi is notable for its wild mixed-media illustrations and for an afterword that addresses his use of drugs and alcohol without being judgemental or whitewashing the facts.
When I asked my friend Tracy, who teaches 3rd grade, if any recent biographies jump out at her as being particularly noteworthy, she shrugged. "The Harry Houdini book," she said, "but mostly I just enjoy reading the biographies that the kids write."
Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini by Sid Fleischman. Greenwillow Books. Fleischman has also written a long-form kids' biography of Mark Twain, called The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West.
Tracy's response, though, is a great reason to encourage kids to read biographies. Barbara Kerley's The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According To Susy) is a lively portrait of the writer as an eccentric family man, and includes portions of the biography written by his (ultimately tragically ill-fated) daughter Susy. Ms. Kerley also includes a page of entertaining instructions for writing a biography yourself.
I've been asking around, and it seems to me a lot of people can remember maybe one biography that they read as a kid that made a big impression on them. For my husband, it was a book about an ice hockey player called Roger Crozier, Daredevil Goalie.
Crozier was a "daredevil" because for many years he didn't wear a facemask. I would say maybe he should have.
For me, it was Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft, the story of six men crossing the Pacific on a handmade raft. Like-minded readers today might try Into Thin Air, The Perfect Storm, or a biography of an Arctic explorer.
Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson (Photobiographies)by Dolores Johnson. National Geographic Children's Books.
You never know who is going to inspire a young person. It's worth asking what they're interested in, what they want to be when they grow up, what fiction books they read.
A kid who likes funny fiction will love the nonfiction stories that children's author Jon Scieszka tells about growing up with his five brothers. I would like to note that I finally found a name that stumped Maryland Morning host Tom Hall - luckily, Mr. Scieszka's website gives us a handy pronunciation guide!
Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka, by Jon Scieszka. Viking Juvenile.
People who like princessy books will love the light, wonderfully stylish drawings of Audrey Hepburn in the picture book Just Being Audrey. Her mother was a baroness! How come I never knew that?
Just Being Audrey by Margaret Cardillo, illustrated by Julia Denos. Balzer + Bray.
Kid is thinking about law? Why not think big!
Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx / La juez que crecio en el Bronx by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Edel Rodriguez. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Bonus for being bilingual!
By the way, Jonah Winter is a name to look for when choosing biographies for children. He's written picture book bios of all kinds of people, from Frida Kahlo to Hildegard von Bingen to Sandy Koufax. He comes by his interest honestly - his mother Jeanette Winter, with whom he collaborated on the Hildegard book and a book about Diego Rivera, also writes picture book bios to watch for. She has done Jane Goodall, Georgia O'Keeffe, Bach, Emily Dickinson and more.
Another terrific author who has something of a specialty in biographies for kids is Kathleen Krull. Wilma Rudolph, Jim Henson, Cesar Chavez and L. Frank Baum have each caught her attention. She also has written a series of lively collected biographies - books about musicians, presidents, athletes, pirates, writers taken in context. Look for books with "(and What the Neighbors Thought)" in the title.
Lives of the Athletes: Thrills, Spills (and What the Neighbors Thought) by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Harcourt.
Emily Arnold McCully, who is probably best known for Mirette on the High Wire, for which she won the Caldecott Medal, also writes and illustrates terrific nonfiction. Manjiro: The Boy Who Risked His Life for Two Countries (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) tells about a Japanese boy who helped open up relations between Japan and the U.S. in the 1800's.
Which brings us to another important point about biographies written for children. What I just wrote about Manjiro makes it sound boring as dirt - but in the hands of a talented writer like Emily Arnold McCully, his story sings with pathos and adventure. The pictures glow and the characters come alive.
Biographies are written for children of all ages and reading abilities. Dan Yaccarino's book on the ocean environmentalist Jacques Cousteau has no more than two sentences per page, with bright, graphic illustrations.
The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Dan Yaccarino. Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Second and third graders can handle a little more text: I love Keep Your Eye on the Kid: The Early Years of Buster Keaton by Catherine Brighton, about Buster Keaton's early years. The way this book breaks down Keaton's pratfalls and early movie-making process, it's hard not to want to try some of his tricks out for yourself.
I'm going to leave off with a book about a woman whose tricks you should maybe not try at home. Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart is probably the best of many Amelia Earhart books written for kids. The story of Amelia's life is told in strong, well-paced chapters, but between each chapter we get the hour-by-hour account of her fatal flight and the subsequent rescue efforts. Author Candace Fleming has pieced together a great deal of research, and without speculating on the fate of Amelia and her navigator, allows us to imagine her voice desperately calling out over the radio in the empty Pacific.
Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade.
And be sure to listen to my conversation with host Tom Hall on this Friday's Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast on Maryland's NPR station, WYPR 88.1 FM. If you're out of the listening area, audio of the segment will be online by the end of the day on Maryland Morning's website.
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.
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.
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.
If I owned as many plastic bugs, letters, numbers, dice, marbles, dolls, blocks, dollhouse furniture, and Matchbox cars that Valorie Fisher does - and at times it feels like I do - those objects would be broken, tangled, mangled, and covered in dust, not bright and sweet and clean like the hundreds (thousands?) of little treasures in this book.
Not that this is important or will contribute to your enjoyment of Everything I Need to Know Before I'm Five, it's just an extra image to conjure. Valorie Fisher's living room, I bet, isn't carpeted with this toy mulch; nor are her plastic roosters living with their plastic kin in the bottom of a plastic bin that has not been excavated SINCE THESE KIDS WERE THREE I mean come on can't we get rid of SOME of this stuff?!
On the other hand, I will bet her house isn't some hyper-organized scrapbooker's heaven, either. I bet it's adorable. I used to know a couple who had decorated the rooms in their house in themes: there was the Maya Room, with frescoes and faux Pre-Columbian statues; and the Fresnel Room, papered in plastic Fresnel lenses. The fireplace in their kitchen was a mosaic of bottle caps, and the mantel was a parade of hundreds of salt and pepper shakers.
I'm a little distracted. We had an earthquake yesterday, it's possible you heard about it. Nobody was hurt, power and water stayed on, looks like we're going to have to have our chimney rebuilt la la la I'm not thinking about that right now... and as I walked around the house picking up framed photographs and art from the floor where they had fallen, I thought of my friends and their house full of knicknacks. What a mess I bet it is over there. My office is floor-to-ceiling books, and when the house started shaking I remember making a very specific wish that I not be buried under them. If Valorie Fisher keeps her doodad collections in her studio on shelves, she might have been buried under half a ton of particulated kitsch.
That's no way to go.
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.
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.
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:
I suppose it had to happen sooner or later. Most of my friends have gone through it already. Some of them have had to deal with it over and over. I'm just lucky I have boys, and I can shear 'em like sheep.
It's head lice.
There are some picture books that I gravitate to so strongly, it's like they are the Sun and I am a speck of planetary debris.
Hm. "Debris" sounds so drab. Brightly colored planetary debris. Planetary crayon shavings. Or... planetary confetti. I am wearing my calavera cowboy shirt today, and feeling not at all drab.
Plus I am looking at this orangey yellowy and bright white picture book, which is probably what made me think about the Sun, and that book is not making me feel drab either.
I'd have had this book reviewed earlier, but there was a manners emergency.
One of Zhou's teachers came into the library with her almost-three-year-old son, who has got to be one of the cutest little guys in the whole world. She was looking for ABC books, truck books, and dinosaur books (I love three-year-old boys!) - and also a manners book that wasn't too heavy-handed.
I kind of pooh-poohed her - at almost three, there's plenty of time to teach him about elbows on the table. At almost three, they're so cute that we still forgive them if they forget to say "excuse me" when they burp. We're programmed that way. But Kayisha had this story to tell:
I am going to sing a song about Hervé Tullet. Heck, his name is practically a song already.
The kids all say:
Let me have that!
This one's blue!
I made a match!
The teachers all say:
What do you see?
Use your finger!
Can I keep this?
We could play all day,
While our tiny brains develop
In a million different ways.
(Hmmph. This is why my husband is the extemporaneous lyricist in my house, not me. I do a good melody, but he's the guy who, pouring the bubble bath in the tub for our younger son, rhymed "car key" with "Gethsemane" in his extemporaneous Jesus bubble bath song. I can't top that.)
My guest reviewer today - my very first guest reviewer, by the way, but I have a couple more lined up - is my colleague Christina, aka Dances With Chickens.
I give most of the real people in my life blogonyms when I mention them on the interpoops, partly because I love giving people nicknames and I'll use any excuse to do it, and partly because if they get pissed off at me I can say, "Er... whaddaya talking about? When I referred to 'my colleague Token Boy Librarian' I was talking about... uh... the other... boy librarian."
"Look!" I said. And also "Awww!"
"This guy has the most delicate etchy line, but his shapes are bold and strong."
"I like the little details. Look at her with her heart-shaped glasses!"
Maybe I should save this one for the hot weather that is to come. Because right now I have heard that it's going to snow one last time in our neck of the woods before Spring (and, immediately on its heels, Summer) shows up for good. Sigh. Quit, already!
Meanwhile, I have the sunny skies and sepia tones of a new Arthur Geisert book to keep me warm. Arthur Geisert is an etcher of pigs, a devotee of hot-air sailing ships, a contraptionist if there ever was one, and yes I just made up that word in his honor. Hogwash and Oops and Lights Out delight kids and adults who enjoy cause-and-effect, who dream of a better mousetrap, who can't see a stream of water in a gutter without building a tiny dam.
Let's just get this right out of the way: Emily Gravett earned my undying devotion long ago, with Monkey and Me, and she's never let me down since. So - no surprises - I am going to gush about this book. Get ready.
Chameleon, who is drawn using the most vibrant colored pencils on the roughest paper I've ever seen, is sad. All that throaty texture and voluptuous color is for nought - he is nothing but blue on the inside. So, gamely, he tries to make friends.
He turns himself yellow and curvy to try to fit in with his potential new friend Banana. No dice. Turns orangey sunset gold and blub-blub-blubs at his potential new friend Fish. That fish's expression is priceless, as is the green grasshopper's when Chameleon hops after him in pursuit of companionship.
Poor Chameleon. He has all but given up, faded whitely into the page, when a there's a tap on his tail.
Look! Someone who shares his appetite for fun, his bangin' dance moves, AND his fashion sense! The other chameleon, I mean - I'm sure it was just a coincidence that this book arrived the day I wore my new purple suede cape embroidered with multicolored flowers over a green and blue striped sweater.
This is your storytime: you read the book, then we all get to do our best imitations of bananas, snails, socks and rocks. And at the end, we strike our most fabulous pose! Have a wonderful weekend, everyone! And if you live in Baltimore, join us Sunday at The Chameleon Cafe to eat the amazing small plate creations of chef Jeff Smith (the man who taught me how to carve a pig head) in support of The Neighborhoods of Greater Lauraville! 4pm to 7pm, $40 prix fixe.
Cloudette. Cloudette is a little bitty soft white cloud. A friendly little cumulus cream puff whose name, as I say, is Cloudette. I could say that all day: isn't it satisfying when you come upon something that is that just-right and self-evident? "Yes," you think. "Of course her name is Cloudette." It's so clever - not show-offy clever, just cute clever. Clever like putting bacon in a chocolate bar. Anyone could have thought of it. But you know what? Tom Lichtenheld thought of it.
And since Tom Lichtenheld thought of it, he got to write a story for Cloudette, too. It's not a very complicated story. It's got a status quo, a note of dissatisfaction, crisis, venue change, and resolution. That's a nice arc, and in Lichtenheld's hands it has balance and excellent pace. It's a story that's built like a brick... rainbow.
It's the right time of year to be thinking about trees. The gigantic willow outside my window is just beginning its annual fireworks show: today it is dripping antique gold stippled faintly with grass green. That's pollen, mostly - just a warning that this review might be a little less coherent than usual. Pollen makes me dippy.
The trees in this book are better-known than my willow. Older, for sure. Larger (the Tule Tree in Mexico measures 177 feet in circumference), taller (a coast redwood named Hyperion is 379 feet tall), more hollow (the Boab Tree, used as a prison in Australia, could fit 10 men inside).
When an idea is so simple you can't believe nobody's thought of it before - and to my knowledge, IN the whole history of books, which is a pretty long damn history, nobody has - and when that idea works SO well that everyone who encounters it, from age 3 to, well so far I haven't discovered an upper limit, gasps at its cleverness... well, that's magic.
(Contrary to what the tag line of this video avers. Screw you guys, I know magic when I see it!)
Press Here is a book that's been compared to an iPad app. Simple instructions ("Press here." "Rub the dot on the left." "Clap once.") create the illusion that the reader is rearranging a series of dots, causing them to multiply, grow, change color, etc. But I'll tell you - don't worry about the iPad app comparison. I've shown this book to plenty of people who've never touched an iPad, and they are charmed and blown away, just as I was the first time I saw it, at ALA Midwinter in San Diego.
This is the rare picture book that I feel compelled to carry with me wherever I go. Delightful, simple, and everyone who sees it wants to show it to someone else, to share the magic. Best of all, it invites imitation. If it weren't French, I'd expect Hervé Tullet to win the Caldecott Medal for it. Bravo. And thank you to Chronicle Books for sending me a copy.