Here comes the Easter Cat
It must have been exciting to live in Europe and North America in the early 1900's. So many things were happening and so much was changing. Electric lights, automobiles, and other inventions were changing the lives of millions of people. In today's picture book you will meet a family whose memebers decide to get their first car, and who end up having an unexpected adventure because of that car.
The Tweedles Go Electric
Illustrated by Marie Lafrance
For ages 5 to 7
Groundwood, 2014, 978-1-55498-167-0
It is 1903 and cars, which are powered by steam or gas, are all the rage. The Tweedles don’t care that cars are the in thing. They are content to get around on their cycles or by using their horse and cart.
Then one day Papa announces that they are going to get a car. Mama is thrilled, as is car-crazy Frankie. Bookish Franny is not particularly excited about having a car. After all, cars at this time are noisy, smelly, and dangerous. Then Papa tells his wife and children that they are not going to have a car powered by steam or gas. They are going to have an electric car.
Mama is rather concerned that the car might not be safe. After all, electricity is such a new thing and people don’t really understand how it works. In fact, they find it “more frightening than a basket of boas.”
In spite of this fear, the Tweedles go to the car dealership and they buy a bright green electric car. Papa drives their new purchase home, which is when he discovers that driving requires that one has a fair bit of nerve. There are so many things that one has to watch out for, and when one is zooming along at ten miles an hour, one has to have lightning fast reflexes. He and his family members never imagine that their new purchase is going to lead to an adventure, new friends, and new prospects.
These days cars are considered a necessity by most people and it is hard to imagine what life would be like if we did not have our cars. It is therefore very interesting to see what it was like to live in America when cars were still a relatively new innovation. It is also amusing to see how the Tweedles cope with their new acquisition.
The small child is a frightening beast. A truly terrifying creature that can level the most powerful adult with the mere pitch of their fury laden screams. As a children’s librarian I used to tell my husband that mine was one of the few jobs I knew where an average day was punctuated by human sobs and screams of terror, misery, and fury. What then is the reasoning behind the idea that you should read a child a book about a fellow kiddo having a meltdown? Well, kids can get a lot out of that kind of identification. They can put themselves into the role of the parent, to a certain extent. Or maybe it’s just good old schadenfreude. Better her than me, eh? Whatever the reasoning, meltdowns make for good picture book fodder. Add in a giant blue gorilla with a penchant for wristwear and you’ve got yourself a picture book as fine as fish hair. A treat to eye and ear alike, Ohora is truly coming into his own with a book that truly has universal appeal. And a gorilla. But I repeat myself.
Amelia and Nilson are inseparable. They play together, eat together, and with some exceptions (Nilson is afraid of water so no baths) they’re never out of one another’s sight. The fact that Amelia is a little girl and Nilson a gigantic blue gorilla? Not an issue. What is an issue is the fact that Nilson has a terribly short fuse. Good thing Amelia knows exactly what to do to calm him down. Don’t want to go with mom to do chores? Amelia calls them adventures instead. Nilson’s getting testy waiting in line at the post office? Amelia hands him her froggy purse. It’s the moment that Nilson gets the the last banana ice cream that Amelia’s composure finally breaks down. Now she’s the one who’s upset. Fortunately, Nilson knows the perfect way to make everything right again.
When we think of the great tantrum picture books out there, the mind immediately leaps to the be all and end all of fits, When Sophie Gets Angry Really Really Angry by Molly Bang. That book sort of set the standards for meltdown lit. It’s simple, it gets to the point, it teaches colors (though that’s more a nice bonus rather than anything else). After Sophie authors tried to come up with different unique takes on a common occurrence. Rosemary Wells came up with Miracle Melts Down, Robie Harris dared to discuss the unmentionable in The Day Leo Said “I Hate You “. And who could forget David Elliott’s truly terrifying Finn Throws a Fit? In the end, this book is almost an older version of Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems (it involves preschooler fits rather than toddler fits, which as any parent will tell you are a different beast entirely). But part of what I like most about No Fits, Nilson! is that it sort of harkens back to the early days of Sophie. Ohora makes a metaphor out of the familiar and in doing so makes it even more understandable than it would be if his gorilla was nowhere in sight.
Ohora’s previous picture book, Stop Snoring, Bernard! was a lovely book to look upon. As an artist, the man has cultivated a kind of acrylic mastery that really does a wonderful job of bringing out the personalities of his characters within a limited color palette. However, while the art in Bernard was at times beyond stunning, his storytelling wasn’t quite there yet. It was all show without the benefit of substance. So it was a great deal of relief that I discovered that No Fits, Nilson! had remedied this little problem. Story wise, Ohora is within his element. He knows that there is no better way of describing a kid’s tantrums than a 400-pound (or so) gorilla. Most important of all, the metaphor works. Nilson is a marvelous stand-in for Amelia, until that moment of spot-on role reversal.
As I mentioned before, the acrylics threaten to become the stars of the show more than once in this book. Limiting himself to blue, red, pink, yellow/beige and green, Ohora’s is a very specific color scheme. Neo-21st century hipster. Indeed the book appears to be set in Brooklyn (though a map on one of the subways manages to crop out most of the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and half of Brooklyn, so maybe I’m reading too much into the setting). As I also mentioned before, painting beautifully is one thing, but coming up with delightful, memorable characters is what separates the RISD grads from the true picture book masters. Nilson is the one that’s going to get the kids the most excited to read this book so it was important for Ohora to make him a unique blue gorilla. Not the kind of guy you’d run into on the street. To do this, Ohora chooses to accessorize. Note the three watches Nilson wears on his left arm and the three on his right. Note his snappy black beret with the yellow trim, and yellow and black sneakers. Next, the artist has to make Nilson a gorilla prone to the grumps but that is essentially lovable in spite of them. For this, Amelia is a very good counterpoint. Her sweetness counteracts Nilson’s barely contained rage. Finally, Ohora throws in some tiny details to make the reading experience enjoyable for adults as well. The typography at work when the tiny words “banana ice cream” move from Amelia’s mouth and eyes to Nilson’s mouth and eyes is a sight to behold. Ditto the funny in-jokes on the subway (New Yorkers may be the only folks who get Ohora’s “Dr. Fuzzmore” ads, and the one for the zoo is a clear cut reference to Stop Snoring, Bernard!).
Yeah, I’m a fan. Kids may be the intended audience for books like this one, but it’s parents that are shelling out the cash to buy. That means you have to appeal to grown-up sensibilities as well as children’s. What Ohora does so well is that he knows how to tap into an appreciation for his material on both a child and adult level. This is no mean feat. Clearly the man knows where to find the picture book sweet spot. A visual feast as well as a treat to the ear, this is a book that’s going to find an audience no matter where it goes. At least it better. Otherwise I might have to sick my own 400-pound gorilla on someone, and believe me . . . you do NOT want to get him angry.
On shelves June 13th
Source: Review from f&g sent from publisher.
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I’m just messing with you. No, I’m not going to actually review my book here. I’m not going to wax rhapsodic over the hidden meanings lurking behind the mysterious cupcake on the cover. I’ll refrain from delving deep into how Lexy’s emotional journey with the giants is just a thinly disguised metaphor for U.S. / Russia relations between the years of 1995-2004 (it isn’t, for the record). I won’t even talk about the twist ending since spoilers make for interesting, if sometimes heartbreaking, reviews.
No, I’ll just talk instead about how happy I am that publication day is here at all. And how pleasant it is to share that day with my buddy / pal / illustrious illustrator Brandon Dorman. I’ve had a couple chances to present the book so far (including one disaster that I’ll get to in a moment) and here is what I have learned.
1. It is possible to read this book to 3-year-olds thanks in large part to the pictures.
This is true. The text is bouncy, which doesn’t hurt matters any, but when one is dealing with very small fry it is also mighty helpful when you have eye-popping visuals on your side. And let me tell you, kids like the art of Brandon Dorman. More than that, they love it.
2. It is possible to read this book to 4-year-olds thanks in large part to the mentions of dances.
I have discovered by reading this at a couple daycares that if you teach kids jazz hands, interpretive dance, the twist, and the chicken dance in the course of reading this book, they don’t get bored. As a children’s librarian I was always the storytime reader whose peripheral visual would zero in on the single kid out of thirty that looked bored. This flaw in the programming has carried over to reading my own book. If one kid is bored I suddenly get this manic tinge to my voice and everything becomes a little more frantic. Be warned, easily bored children. I’m gunning for you.
3. Etsy is the creator of and solution to all of life’s woes.
I learned this truth when I constructed a necklace out of Caldecott cover Shrinky Dinks. To make the necklace I wanted something that featured fuses (as a nod to the name of this blog). So what do you do when you get such an urge? You go to Etsy and search for such a thing. In the case of my book presentations I decided I wanted blue furry boots. So I type “blue furry boots” into Etsy and what do I get? Something even better. Blue furry rave legwarmers. Oh, they’re the pip. Here’s what I look like talking to the kids in ‘em.
Dance for me, little children. Dance, I say!
They are also very easy to snuggle, if snuggling is what you want to do.
Special thanks to Melanie Hope Greenberg for the pics.
4. When you decide to go to a bookstore you’ve never visited before, give ‘em your phone number. Beforehand.
Fun Fact: Did you know that there are TWO bookstores in Brooklyn called Powerhouse? As of Saturday, I did not. And thus begins my tale of woe.
I think there’s a general understanding out there that authors have at least one bad author experience tale they can tell. But that experience, as important as it may be, is not usually their VERY FIRST BOOKSTORE APPEARANCE. Because, you see, on Sunday I knew I was speaking at Powerhouse. So I Googled it, got the address in Dumbo, and merrily traipsed over there. The poor staff was cleaning up from an event the previous night and had no clue what I was talking about. Still, they were very nice and helpful and though they didn’t have any copies of my book I just figured folks might order it. Mind you, “folks” was a pretty optimistic term to be using in my head since nobody was there. I mean nobody. Little tumbleweeds would have been my audience had I spoke.
After giving it some time I packed up, the clerks apologized, and I went home. Mildly mortifying that no one in Brooklyn came to see me, but it was 11:30 on a Sunday morning. Not ideal.
And I would have proceeded in my merry little bubble for whole weeks at a time had I not gotten an email the next afternoon that made it very clear that I had gone to the wrong Powerhouse. That there are, in fact, TWO stores out there with the same name. Two. Not one. Two. And my lovely publicist at Harper Collins had even gone so far as to send me a link to the event with the address front and center. An address that was not in DUMBO at all but Park Slope.
So apparently (and this is where I sink into a puddle of 100% sheer uncut mortification) folks DID come to my event. Folks I like. Folks I would want to see. Folks who would want to see me and who failed to do so because this doofus author merrily went to the wrong friggin’ store.
What have we learned here today, children? Even if a publicist sets everything up for you, give the store your cell phone. All this would have been solved if the store had had my info and had given me a ring. There are other lessons of course (actually READ what your publicist sends you might be right up there) but you can bet I’ll be contacting all my future store appearances with my cell # right now. Yup yup yup.
Onward and upward my patient fellows.
On shelves April 23rd (happy birthday to me!)
Source: Wrote the darn book.
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April is such a hard month--all I want to do is to be outside, getting everything weeded and planted and spruced up, but it's the busiest month at work, busy with the kids' homework, busy busy busy...and so no time to read the big long book that was supposed to be this week's Timeslip Tuesday offering.
I am very sad about the recent, and horribly untimely, death of Australian writer and illustrator Gregory Rogers. I've already featured one of his wordless time-travel picture books (The Hero of Little Street), a book I liked well enough, but today I'm posting about the book I think is his masterpiece, one that is truly a classic, and the one that makes me wish something fierce that Gregory Rogers was still here to give us more --The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard (Roaring Brook Press, 2004).
Here is how, as of the date of this review, Wikipedia defines the term “punk culture”. Ahem. “. . . largely characterized by anti-establishment views and the promotion of individual freedom.” Now look at your toddler. Go on. Give that kiddo a long, lingering look. Consider, for a moment, what makes a small child a small child. Do they believe in individual freedoms? Anyone who has ever attempted to herd a group of them will immediately answer yes. Are they anti-establishment? Well, what would YOU call the kid who draws on the hallways walls in permanent marker? Ladies and gentlemen the only logical explanation to draw from any of this is that toddlers are, and have always been, punk rockers. They have crazy hair, they create one-of-a-kind outfits of their own making, and they certainly have no problem with loud volumes. The evidence is extraordinary. It seems only fitting to hand them a counting book that displays as many different kinds of punks as possible. Looking for the mildest of subversions with a consistently sweet undercurrent, kickin’ art, and fun text? This punk’s for you.
A single, solitary, mohawked punk of the wide cuffed, purple coated, army boot variety goes walking down the street. He runs into his blue haired pal Noriko, she of the bunny-eared car, and then there are two. They, in turn, meet up with green dredded Kevin and the start jamming. It isn’t long before they’re getting ready for a big show, putting up posters, and getting everyone in town involved. More and more punks join the fun until by the slam-bang finish you’ve a party of twelve plus all their madcap friends. At long last it’s time to go home (even Noriko’s car seems to have conked out) and twelve happy punks sleep the night away.
If you have a toddler you read a lot of counting books. It’s part of the deal you sign when the hospital hands over your kid for the first time. “I solemnly swear to read my child an ungodly amount of counting books until the seas turn a boiling roiling red.” Or words along those lines. And when you read a lot of counting books certain patterns start to emerge. You get the distinct feeling that all counting books rhyme in some manner. I don’t know why this should be. It’s not like every children’s book author is actually GOOD at rhyming. They just usually feel obligated to give it a go. So many of them do this, in fact, that when one encounters a picture counting book that does NOT rhyme in any way, shape, or form, the adult reader is thrown. You want to make the cadences even, but the book fights you every step of the way. Such was my experience with “Happy Punks 123”. The first lines are “One happy punk looks around for his friends.” Even before you turn the page you’re attempting to predict the next line. Will it be “Two happy punks now peer through a lens” or “Two happy punks will soon make amends”? Nope. It’s “Are they at Slobotnik Square? Or Calvin Corner?” Turn the page. “Two happy punks sit on a stoop. They like to watch cars and talk to dogs. Hey, is that Kevin?” You see? Other books have set up these weird expectations and you expect John and Jana’s latest to fit the mold. It’s sort of perfect that Happy Punks 123 bucks that expectation by doing its own thing. That’s real punk rock, man. Awesome.
The art in this book is certainly shouldering a great big bulk of the fun. Nothing against the text. Even without its rhymes it’s a nice story of how one gathers friends throughout the day (without cell phones, which makes this downright utopian to some extent). But if the wrong illustrator had jumped on board this ship it would have meant the end of things. As it stands, the art has this laid back, friendly, colorful vibe. There are a lot of speech balloons and signs that mix script and print words. The very font of the book is of the typewriter variety and is snuggled seamlessly into the images. Design wise, the whole enterprise is a pleasure to the eye. It gets a little madcap near the end but with a premise of ever increasing punks you’d feel a bit cheated if it didn’t.
I also loved the subtle little jokes hidden along the way. On the cover, for example, you can see Noriko sporting a shirt that reads “ABCD & EFGH: Home of the Alphabet”. I’m no music guru. I won’t embarrass myself here by confessing how long it took me before I truly knew who Joey Ramone was. However, even I can recognize when a book might be making a reference to CBGB, the original punk rock music club of NYC. I also loved that it was a zombie running the music store (that could be a joke right there) and that they get their treats from “Ornery Penguin’s Gelato”. That’s not a reference to anything. It’s just the illustrator’s excuse to draw a testy penguin character. Who could blame them?
Since we’re dealing with the folks who created A Rule Is To Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy which earned its 15 minutes of fame when the Tea Party decided to make an example out of it, the inclination is to see whether or not John and Jana worked into a little subversion into the story. Did they? Well, I think it’s all in what you want to see. Yes, the sole antagonist in this book is an elephant. But go a little farther into the book and you’ll see he’s not the only elephant on the scene (a nice pink one works as a coat check girl at the club) and even if he were he joins the party at the end and has a wonderful time with the punks. So basically, Happy Punks 1 2 3 is a Rorschach test. You see in it what you want to see.
Basically this is a John Waters film made kid-friendly and picture book accessible. I don’t know that you’d necessarily call Waters “punk”, but then I don’t necessarily think you can slot Waters into any category all that easily. What this book really does is show a vast variety of different types of people, from hard-core rockers to straight edge hipsters. The punk aesthetic ideally celebrates all types of people, all the different ways they want to be (as long as they’re inclusive, obviously). And what John and Jana have done here is show that array, from robots to ultilikilted men to even elephants, if that’s what you’re into. The counting aspect works, and as per all potential bedtime books it ends with everybody asleep. From Portland to Williamsburg you’re bound to find folks loving the Happy Punks 1 2 3 vibe. It’s relentlessly cheery and the kind of book that makes you feel good after you finish it. World of counting books? Prepare to meet the latest, greatest addition to your fold.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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Misc: For the ebook version of this title complete with audio (no word on if there’s music), go no further than here.
Videos: Proof positive that counting and punk rock go hand in hand together.Add a Comment
Last week my blog was a stop on the Dragon and Dangerous Princess blog tour, in which Jim Averbeck, writer and illustrator of Oh No, Little Dragon! (Atheneum Books, 2012) and Dangerously Ever After, by Dashka Slater (my review). At that time I hadn't actually had the pleasure of reading Jim's new book, but that has now been remedied!
4 Stars Drummer Boy of John John Mark Greenwood Frané Lessac Lee and Low Books Pages: 32 Ages: 4+ Jacket: Carnival is coming and the villagers of John John, Trinidad, are getting ready to jump up and celebrate with music dancing, and a parade. Best of all, the Roti King has promised free rotis—tasty friend [...]Add a Comment
5 Stars When a Dragon Moves In Jodi Moore Howard McWilliam 23 Pages Ages: 4 to 8 ........ .......... Inside Jacket: If you build a perfect sandcastle, a dragon will move in—and that’s exactly what happens to one very lucky boy on the beach. The boy and his dragon brave the waves, roast marshmallows, roam [...]Add a Comment
…………………… Victricia Malicia: Book-Loving Buccaneer Carrie Clickard, author Mark Meyers, illustrator 4 Stars ………….. Inside Front Jacket: Victricia Malicia Barrett may have been born on a pirate ship and raised in all the best pirate ways, but she sure is a wreck on deck. Her knots slip, she falls from the rigging, and rats abandon [...]Add a Comment
There is an art to reading a picture book but I’ve not encountered many schools that actually teach that skill. Librarians will learn it in their graduate courses, of course, but what about parents and booksellers? Are they doomed to stumble through their readings without getting some of the insider tips and tricks? Yup, pretty much. The only thing you can really do is just recommend to them picture books that make reading aloud one-on-one or to large groups a painless experience. Books that have an inherent interior rhythm and logic that kids will naturally adhere to. So each and every year I sit and wait for those great picture book readalouds of the year. For 2012 I’ve seen a couple that lend themselves to groups. Up, Tall and High by Ethan Long is ideal for preschoolers. Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds is perfect for the 1st and 2nd graders. But the all-around best readaloud of the year, bar none as far as I can tell, has got to be It’s a Tiger! A boon to librarians and booksellers looking for new storytime fare as well as parents and grandparents, David LaRochelle’s latest is a hoot, a holler, and could even be called a hootenanny if you’re so inclined to call it that.
So you’re walking through the forest, minding your own business, checking out monkeys when you realize that the orange and black tail over there isn’t a vine at all. It’s a TIGER!! Like a shot you (which is to say, the boy in the book) take off lickety split. Still, it doesn’t matter where you go. Whatever you do, that darned tiger seems to follow. Dark caves, ships at sea, desert islands, the tiger is everywhere! At the end you realize that the tiger doesn’t really want to eat you. So to put it to sleep you decide to tell it a story. A story about a boy walking through the forest until he sees a green scaly vine. Wait a minute . . . that’s not a vine . . . .
It took a couple readings before I realized something essential about this particular book. Turns out, this is one of the rare picture books written in the second person. You do this. You do that. The reader actually is the little boy who finds himself inexplicably running into the same orange and black foe over and over again. It’s a narrative technique that I just know that I’ve seen in picture books before, but when I try to think of them I find myself stumped. They’re not as common as you might think and I certainly can’t come up with any that are also great read alouds for large groups. By making the audience the narrator they get all the requisite chills and thrills without actually feeling like they’re in direct danger. It would be a good companion to Michael Rosen’s We’re Going On A Bear Hunt honestly. Same threat level. Same you-are-there aspects.
I think what I like best about the book is the fact that it goes from surprising to funny in fairly short order. The first three or four times you turn the page and encounter a tiger the kids are still uncertain about the order of occurrences. Once the pattern is firmly established, that’s when they can kind of let go and enjoy. Then LaRochelle ratchets up the silly factor and the kids really begin to have fun. We don’t always remember that children have a relatively refined sense of the absurd. They’re literalists, every last one, and though they might point out the flaws in your logic as you read the book (how can you swing and land on the tiger when you just escaped the tiger?) there’s a different kind of fun to be had in telling grown-ups they can’t possibly be right about something. It’s a Tiger! combines several different kinds of reading pleasures then. Interactive (kids can yell “It’s a tiger!” along with the reader). Power plays (telling adults they must be mistaken). The element of surprise. The controlled fear factor. It’s all there. And it’s awesome.
It is difficult for me to be impartial about a book that features the art of Jeremy Tankard. A couple years ago he burst onto the picture book scene with three books that changed the way I do preschool storytimes (Grumpy Bird, Me Hungry!, and Boo Hoo Bird). Even when he’s working on other people’s books, as in the case here, he has a distinctive style that can’t be beat. In this book he utilizes his usual ink and digital media style, but the colors are extraordinary. They just pop off the page with these magnificent blues, greens, oranges, yellows, and reds. It was interesting to note that the pages themselves have a sheen and gleam I’ve not noticed in a picture book before. Hold them up to the light and watch as the thick black lines and colors seem as though they should be transparent, if that makes any sense. That visual pop means that when you reach the every-other-page “surprise” of the tiger, Tankard can really make the animal’s appearance seem surprising. He uses some anime-type lines around the tiger from time to time to direct the eye to the center of the page, which as of this review still has a new and contemporary feel to it. We’ve seen it in books by folks like Dan Santat for years, of course. My suspicion is that though it will certainly make the book feel like an early-21st creation, that doesn’t mean it’ll age poorly. It’s simply a work of its time now.
Long story short, we haven’t seen a boy/tiger relationship this complex since the days of Calvin and Hobbes. Tigers are such cute and cuddly carnivores, and honestly it’s very difficult to be perfectly afraid of something as soft and fluffy as a tiger. That sort of makes them ideal picture book threats. LaRochelle has written innovative picture books for years now (The End, etc.). Pairing him with Tankard just guarantees a hit. Put this one on your Must Have list and stat.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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Ol’ Bloo’s Boogie-Woogie Band and Blues Ensemble by Jan Huling Henri Sorensen, illustrator Peachtree Publishers 5 Stars . Inside Jacket: Ol’ Bloo Donkey has always dreamed of retiring from the cotton field to become a honky-tonk singer. But when he overhears the type of retirement plan Farmer Brown has in mind for him—of the permanent …Add a Comment
Finders Keepers? by Robert Arnett illustrated by Smita Turakhia Atman Press 6 Stars Press Release: A true story, Finder’s Keepers? was inspired by the honesty of one young boy in India who found the author’s lost wallet and could not understand why he should be rewarded for returning to Arnett what was his. The concept …Add a Comment
Poopendous! by Artie Bennett illustrations by Mike Moran Blue Apple Books 4 Stars . Inside Jacket: . . . . . . . . . Ever wanted to ask about it, but felt a little shy? Inside these pages …Add a Comment
You do not know the temptation I am fighting right now to begin this review with some grandiose statement equating a fear of the dark with a fear of death itself. You have my full permission to slap me upside the head if I start off my children’s books reviews with something that bigheaded. The whole reason I was going to do it at all is that after reading a book like Lemony Snicket’s The Dark I find myself wondering about kids and their fears. Most childhood fears tap into the weird id (see, here I go) part of our brains where the unknown takes on greater and grander evils than could possibly occur in the real world. So we get fears of dogs, the color mauve, certain dead-eyed paintings, fruit, and water going down the drain (or so Mr. Rogers claimed, though I’ve never met a kid that went that route), etc. In the light of those others, a healthy fear of the dark makes perfect sense. The dark is where you cannot see and what you cannot see cannot possibly do you any good. That said, there are surprisingly few picture books out there that tackle this very specific fear. Picture books love to tackle a fear of monsters, but the idea of handling something as ephemeral as a fear of the dark is much much harder. It takes a certain kind of writer and a certain kind of illustrator to grasp this fear by the throat and throttle it good and sound. Behold the pairing of Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen. You’ll ne’er see the like again (unless they do another picture book together, in which case, scratch that).
“You might be afraid of the dark, but the dark is not afraid of you.” Laszlo is afraid but there’s not much he can do about it. Seems as though the dark is everywhere you look sometimes. Generally speaking it lives in the basement, and every morning Laszlo would open the door and say, “Hi . . . Hi, dark.” He wouldn’t get a reply. Then, one night, the dark does something unprecedented. It comes into Laszlo’s room and though he has a flashlight, it seems to be everywhere. It says it wants to show him something. Something in the basement. Something in the bottom drawer of an old dresser. Something that helps Laszlo just when he needs it. The dark still visits Laszlo now. It just doesn’t bother him.
There is nothing normal about Lemony Snicket. When he writes a picture book he doesn’t go about it the usual route. Past efforts have included The Composer Is Dead which effectively replaced ye olde stand-by Peter and the Wolf in terms of instrument instruction in many a fine school district. Then there was 13 Words which played out like a bit of experimental theater for the picture book set. I say that, but 16 copies of the book are currently checked out of my own library system. Besides, how can you not love a book that contains the following tags on its record: “cake, depression, friendship, haberdashery, happiness”? Take all that under consideration and The Dark is without a doubt the most normal picture book the man has attempted yet. It has, on paper anyway, a purpose: address children’s fear of the dark. In practice, it’s more complicated than that. More complicated and better.
Snicket does not address a fear of the absence of light by offering up the usual platitudes. He doesn’t delve into the monsters or other beasties that may lurk in its corners. The dark, in Snicket’s universe, acts almost as an attentive guardian. When we look up at the night sky, it is looking back at us. In Laszlo’s own experience, the dark only seeks to help. We don’t quite understand its motivations. The takeaway, rather, is that it is a benign force. Remove the threat and what you’re left with is something that exists alongside you. Interestingly it almost works on a religious level. I would not be the least bit surprised if Sunday school classes started using it as a religious parable for death. Not its original purpose but on the horizon just the same.
It is also a pleasure to read this book aloud. Mr. Snicket’s words require a bit of rereading to fully appreciate them, but appreciate you will. First off, there’s the fact that our hero’s name is Laszlo. A cursory search of children’s books yields many a Laszlo author or illustrator but nary a Laszloian subject. So that’s nice. Then there’s the repetition you don’t necessarily notice at the time (terms like “creaky roof” “smooth, cold windows”) but that sink in with repeated readings. The voice of the dark is particularly interesting. Snicket writes it in such a way as to allow the reader the choice of purring the words, whispering them, putting a bit of creak into the vocal chords, or hissing them. The parent is granted the choice of making the dark threatening in its initial lures or comforting. Long story short, adults would do well to attempt a couple solo readings on their own before attempting with a kiddo. At least figure out what take you’re going for. It demands no less.
The most Snicketish verbal choice, unfortunately, turns out to be the book’s Achilles heel. You’re reading along, merry as you please, when you come to a page that creates a kind of verbal record scratch to the whole proceeding. Laszlo has approached the dark at last. He is nearing something that may turn out to be very scary. And then, just as he grows near, the next page FILLS . . . . with text. Text that is very nice and very well written and perhaps places childhood fears in context better than anything I’ve seen before. All that. By the same token it stops the reading cold. I imagine there must have been a couple editorial consultations about this page. Someone somewhere along the process of publication would have questioned its necessity. Perhaps there was a sterling defense of it that swayed all parties involved and in it remained. Or maybe everyone at Little, Brown loved it the first time they read it. Not quite sure. What I do know is that if you are reading this book to a large group, you will skip this page. And if you are reading one-on-one to your own sprog? Depends on the sprog, of course. Thoughtful sprogs will be able to take it. They may be few and far between, however. The last thing you want when you are watching a horror film and the hero is reaching for the doorknob of the basement is to have the moment interrupted by a five-minute talk on the roots of fear. It might contain a brilliant thesis. You just don’t want to hear it at this particular moment in time.
Canadians have a special relationship to the dark that Americans can’t quite appreciate. I was first alerted to this fact when I read Caroline Woodward’s Singing Away the Dark. That book was about a little girl’s mile long trek through the dark to the stop for her school bus. The book was illustrated by Julie Morstad, whose work reminds me, not a little, of Klassen’s. They share a similar deadpan serenity. If Morstad was an American citizen you can bet she’d get as much attention as Mr. Klassen has acquired in the last few years. In this particular outing, Mr. Klassen works almost in the negative. Much of this book has to be black. Pure black. The kind that has a palpable weight to it. Laszlo and his house fill in the spaces where the dark has yet to penetrate. It was with great pleasure that I watched what the man did with light as well. The colors of a home when lit by a flashlight are different from the colors seen in the slow setting of the evening sun. A toy car that Laszlo abandons in his efforts to escape the dark appears as a dark umber at first, then later pure black in the flashlight’s glow. We only see the early morning light once, and in that case Klassen makes it a lovely cool blue. These are subtle details, but they’re enough to convince the reader that they’re viewing accurate portrayals of each time of day.
The dark is not visually anthropomorphized. It is verbally, of course, with references to it hiding, sitting, or even gazing. One has to sit and shudder for a while when you imagine what this book might have been like with an author that turned the dark into a black blob with facial expressions. It’s not exaggerating to say that such a move would defeat the very purpose of the book itself. The whole reason the book works on a visual level is because Klassen adheres strictly and entirely to the real world. An enterprising soul could take this book, replicate it scene by scene in a live action YouTube video, and not have to dip into the film budget for a single solitary special effect. This is enormously important to children who may actually be afraid of the dark. This book gives a face to a fear that is both nameable and not nameable without giving a literal face to a specific fear. It’s accessible because it is realistic.
When dealing with picture books that seek to exorcise fears, one has to be very careful that you don’t instill a fear where there wasn’t one before. So a child that might never have considered the fact that nighttime can be a scary time might enter into a whole new kind of knowledge with the simple application of this book. That said, those sorts of things are very much on a case-by-case basis. Certainly The Dark will be a boon to some and simply a well-wrought story for others. Pairing Klassen with Snicket feels good when you say it aloud. No surprise then that the result of such a pairing isn’t just good. It’s great. A powerhouse of a comfort book.
On shelves April 2nd.
Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.
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Cheering up someone who is down in the dumps can be very difficult sometimes. After all, we don't always know why the person is sad, and we often don't have any idea what will make them feel happy again. Would they like some flowers? Perhaps a dinner out will help. Maybe chocolate is the answer. In today's book you will see how some charming animals who try to cheer up their friend Mouse.
What is the ultimate goal of the picture book import? When someone takes the time to bring over and translate a work for children, they’re expecting that book to be able to say something universal. They want the book to be enjoyable to child readers regardless of nationality, which, when you sit down and think about it, is a pretty lofty goal. Yet this year I’ve been seeing some absolutely amazing translations in America for kids. From the Colombian Jimmy the Greatest to the Norwegian John Jensen Feels Different to the French My Dad Is Big and Strong, But . . . this has been an amazing year for international children’s literature. Now Spain enters the ring with La Coleccionista de Palabras or The Word Collector. A heady infusion of striking images and playful content, author/illustrator Sonja Wimmer brings us a fantastical tale that has something to say to us today, yesterday, and tomorrow as well.
What do you collect? Coins? Stamps? Stickers? Have you ever considered collecting words? Luna, the heroine of this little tale, does exactly that and the job fills her days. Whether they’re magic words or delicious words or humble words, pretty much if they are words she is interested. The trouble only comes the day that Luna reels in her nets to find just a paltry smattering of words, hardly enough to satisfy. It seems the people of the word just aren’t using the beautiful words out there anymore. So what’s a girl to do when the world grows forgetful? She packs her suitcase with every word in her arsenal and sets off to right a great wrong, that’s what.
This is not a book for lazy people. It demands that you work at it. You can’t just sit back and have the text come to you as you flip through the pages. Some spreads seem fairly straightforward with the words traveling in a single straight line. Other times I felt like I was reading Bob Raczka’s Lemonade again, picking out the words and sentences where I could find them. Your first indication that this isn’t the usual fare comes on the fourth or fifth pages of the story. After reading that there was a girl named Luna who lived in the sky we encounter this luminous (most of the pages are luminous, by the way) image of a red haired child Madonna of sorts staring into a glass container of softly glowing letters like a kid with a firefly jar. When I first encounteredAdd a Comment
When we are old and gray and the stars gleam a little less brightly in the wide firmament above our heads, I have no doubt that there will STILL be children’s librarians out there debating the merits (or lack thereof) of picture books designed with older child readers in mind. To bring this subject up is akin to throwing a lit match on diesel soaked tinder, but what the heck. You see, walk into any decent library and you’ll find a picture book section teaming with fantastic 32-48 page titles that simply do not circulate. And why? Because of the standard belief, sometimes by children, sometimes by adults, that when you reach a certain age you “outgrow” picture books. As if they were a pair of shoes liable to give you blisters if you kept them around too long. This is, naturally, bupkis. Picture books are appropriate for all ages, really (and if you don’t believe me why don’t I just introduce you to a little number I know called The Woolvs in the Sitee). So the fact that a book like Michael Hall’s Cat Tale exists pleases on both the 6-year-old level as well as the 10-year-old level should surprise few. Wielding homonyms like weapons, Hall brings his artistic sensibilities (to say nothing of his love of controlled chaos) to the wordplay realm and the end result is that everyone’s a winner for it.
Meet Lillian, Tilly and William J. Three little cats that are out for a day. In rhyming verse we watch as at first their adventures are small. “They pack some books and kitty chews. They chose a spot. They spot some ewes.” As the book continues they cats become more adventuresome. “They train a duck to duck a shoe. They shoo a truly naughty gnu.” Yet the words begin to get tangled and the cats are in a state. Should they use a rock to squash a berry or use a squash to bury a rock or (after a pause) use their paws to rock a squashberry? Finally everything gets too crazy and the cats find their way out thanks to their tails/tales.
Like many people, when I think of homonyms in works of children’s literature my mind instantly leaps to good old Amelia Bedelia. She continues to reign as the homonym queen to this day. After all, without them she wouldn’t get confused in the slightest. Hall could have done a storyline very much like Amelia’s. The cats could have just wandered about and gotten confused about the difference between boarding a plane and getting to plane a board. Ho and also hum. Instead, Hall takes a risk. He actually connects the sentences and uses his illustrations to make seemingly disparate phrases relate to one another. Now the text reads, “They flee a steer. They steer a plane. They plane a board. They board a train.” All this makes sense in the book since we see the progression from place to place. Note too that just to ratchet up the challenge a little, Hall is making this book rhyme on top of everything else. That’s sort of explained on the title page (Hall wastes no time) where it reads, “From word to word they find their way, Lillian, Tilly, and William J.” Interesting that Hall went with “Lillian” rather than “Lily” since “Lily and Tilly and William J.” has its own nice rhythm. There’s no denying how satisfying it is to begin with a Lillian and end with a William, though. Even if they don’t rhyme precisely.
When Hall wrote his previous book The Perfect Square there was wit on display but it seemed to be mostly of the visual variety. Cat Tale doles out the wit a little more on the verbal end of the spectrum, but there’s no denying that the art is also just great. As with the aforementioned Perfect Square Hall’s art consists of acrylic painted textures and paper cutouts that were combined digitally. Not that you can tell where the computer came in or how it was used. The colors in this book don’t have that faux clip-art coloring so often found in slapdash computer art. Instead it looks like Hall took out his sponge and his brightest hues and created something truly lovely. From the vibrant orange of the train to the deep and satisfying blue of the steer, there’s a method to Hall’s madness. A beautiful sumptuous method.
There is admittedly one moment in the book where I got seriously confused, so I wonder how it’ll fly with the pre-adolescent set. To be fair, that’s sort of the whole point of the spread. As the cats go along the homonyms gets crazier and crazier until there’s a virtual explosion of cats, steer, gnus, ducks, cars, shoes, ewes, you name it. The trouble is that I couldn’t make the mental leap from that image to the next one involving the cats’ tails. I know it makes sense on a practical level, but I felt like the transition was a bit too rough. Something a bit slower, a bit more staid, could have suited the storyline a little better.
I know a librarian who uses older picture books for her 2-3rd grade parent/child bookclub. It’s as good a solution as any I know to get those book circulating, that’s for sure. Of course, my dearest hope is that teachers discover this book as well. With the rise of interest in the Core Curriculum, folks need to remember that teaching homonyms doesn’t have to be rote and dull as dishwater. It can involve naughty gnus and rocked squashberries! A visual feast and too clever by half, Hall’s latest begs to be read aloud and pored over. A little book that deserves all the attention it can receive. Teachers, parents, librarians, and booksellers, take note.
On shelves August 28th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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Ever tried to write a picture book before? Blooming bloody hard work they are. Synthesizing a point down to as few words as possible without sacrificing story or character is akin to trying to cram a muffin into a mouse hole. It takes skill and talent, particularly if your subject matter is broad. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that if you’re dealing with a very specific subject, like a baby train robber or a dog that wants to fly a rocket to the moon, that is far and away much easier to write about than the big concepts like “love” or “need” or “friendship”. Friendship, as it happens, is at least a little easier since you can pep up your storyline with lots of superfluous details and folderol if needs be. That’s why I sort of get floored when I see something as simple and perfect as Jonathan & Martha. With art and design so beautiful you just want to stroke the pages for a couple hours, as well as story and characters that stand out and demand to be noticed, the eminent Czech author/illustrator Petr Horacek outdoes himself and makes the rest of us a little jealous that he can make it look so very easy.
When we meet our heroes, Jonathan and Martha are two lonely worms living on either side of a large pear tree. One day a magnificently sized green pear falls to the ground. Unaware of the others’ presence, the two eat their way into a fast acquaintance. They immediately set about fighting one another, only to find that their tails are now inextricably linked. Forced to share, the two discover the pleasure of enjoying food, large and small, together. And when a hungry birdie finds a fast (and mildly painful) way of separating them, they now like sharing so much that they’re willing to keep on doing it. Tangled tails or no.
How often do you pet the pages of your picture books? I’m not talking about those tactile board books with their fur and scale elements. No, I mean beautifully crafted picture books where the very paper feels like it could stand up to wind, rain and storm. Books where part of the joy is in running your fingertips over the raised thick illustrations on the book jacket (a pleasure sadly lost to any library system that protects those jackets with plastic covers). Phaidon has pulled out all the stops with this little British import, lavishing their title with thick papers, beautiful die-cuts, covers that beg to be touched, and enough colors to pop out an eye or two.
All that designy stuff aside (and, let’s admit it, that’s just the stuff that gets adults shopping in museum gift shops excited rather than children) there’s a ton of kid appeal to be found here. I have two words for you: worm headlock. Now tell me you’re not interested in seeing that. The book itself looks like it was created in the Eric Carle vein, with beautiful painted sections found alongside parts that may or may not be computer generated (on Horacek’s artistic style the book remains mum). Getting right down to the characters of Jonathan and Martha themselves, I found myself hugely pleased that Horacek chose to make them almost physically identical. Many’s the artist who would have felt obligated to make clear Martha’s femininity with some kind of bow or some long overwrought eyelashes. Part of the charm of the story, though, is the fact that the two worms are pretty much identical (Jonathan’s a touch longer in the tail). Feminizing details would be at odds here.
And did I happen to mention that it reads aloud well? It’s a big book, you see, weighing at around 9″ x 9″. That means it really pops when you read it in a storytime. When you hold it high, a room full of children can make out the details perfectly. And as anyone with any readaloud experience will tell you, die-cuts are a reader’s best friend. It doesn’t hurt matters any that the words work just splendidly as well. I remember a couple of years ago when Horacek’s Silly Suzy Goose was brought to the States and readers were split into two factions. On the one hand you had the folks who thought it was a gift of a readaloud destined for storytime greatness. On the other hand there were a lot of people (present company included) driven positively mad by some of the phrases in the book. No such problems exist here. The writing is incredibly simple and straightforward, punctuated occasionally by a little “Ouch!” on occasion. There’s not a child alive who could watch that ginormous hungry bird and not feel some twinge of fear for the fate of our tangled twosome.
Lots of other picture books come to mind when I read this book. The die-cuts evoke The Very Hungry Caterpillar while the idea of two enemies stuck together so that they become friends is akin to Randy Cecil’s beautifully twisted Horsefly and Honeybee. Jonathan & Martha is clearly it’s own queer little beastie, though. Eye-catching enough to arouse the interest of even the snottiest adult consumer but kid-friendly enough to pass the fearful readaloud-to-a-large-group test, this is the rare book that pleases highbrow and lowbrow alike. Fun and fanciful and far and away one of the best little picture books of the year. You’d do well to make its acquaintance.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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And check out this cool cover of the same book from what I believe to be the UK!Add a Comment