By Scott Campbell
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
On shelves August 26th
Do you remember that old Shel Silverstein poem “Hug O’ War”? This may be considered sacrilege but did you ever notice how the guy could do something brilliant one moment, like “Sister For Sale” and then turn around and do something just doggone maudlin like “Hug O’ War” the next? Here’s a taste of what I mean: “Where everyone hugs / Instead of tugs / Where everyone giggles / And rolls on the rug”. You get the picture. The trouble is that hugs are hard. Adults love ‘em. Kids love ‘em. But writing about them inevitably drops you into sad saccharine territory where even great men like Silverstein find themselves inextricably mired in goo. It takes a sure and steady hand to navigate such territory. For that reason I think you need to take a close look at what Scott Campbell’s done with Hug Machine. There’s nothing wrong with writing a sweet picture book so long as it’s smart and/or funny. It’s harder than just pouring sugar in there and hoping people go along for the ride, which may explain why the market is glutted with schmaltz. Forget the “cute” picture books that make obvious overtures for your heartstrings. Opt instead for something that comes by its adorableness honestly. Hug Machine, man. It’s just the best.
Just call this kid a hugaphiliac. If there’s something out there he can wrap his arms around, he’s going to hug it. In fact, he’s so incredibly good at hugging that he has dubbed himself a “Hug Machine”. “No one can resist my unbelievable hugging,” says he, and he’s right. And what does the Hug Machine do on an average day? Well, it might hug everyone on the street. It might hug animals that are easy (turtles) and animals that are hard (porcupines). What does it eat? Pizza. And what does it hug? Everything! But when the day is done and the Hug Machine can hug no more, it takes a special set of arms to get the Hug Machine back in business again.
Some folks just take to the picture book form like a duck to water. I wish I could say that every cartoonist out there has the knack, but it just ain’t so. Many’s the time I’ve picked up a book from an artist I admired, hoping against hope that the transfer from adult to children’s books was seamless, only to find they just didn’t have what it took to speak to the small fry. Now the nice thing about Scott Campbell is that he’s sort of eased his way into the form. Under the name “Scott C.” he has penned many a grand book for grown-ups, like The Great Showdowns. Now we see his picture book authorial debut in Hug Machine. The verdict? I’m happy to report that all is well and right with the world. Here is a man who knows how to pack humor and heart all within a scant 40 pages.
This isn’t Campbell’s first time at the rodeo, of course. The man has tackled the wide and wonderful world of picture books before. If he wasn’t drawing romance stricken zombies on the one hand (Kelly DiPucchio’s Zombie in Love) then it was Bob Dylan lyrics (If Dogs Run Free) or, my personal favorite, dragons with conflict resolution issues (Robyn Eversole’s East Dragon, West Dragon). What do these all have in common? Probably just the simple fact that Campbell was doing the art on these books. Not the writing. And in at least one or two cases the art clearly outshone the texts. So how does he fare when he’s doing his own book? Magnificently, I’m happy to report. Because while I loved the art here, it was the text that made it work. Consider, for example, the section where The Hug Machine (there really isn’t any better term for him) encounters a porcupine. The porcupine laments, “I am so spiky. No one ever hugs me.” Turn the page and the boy has outfitted himself in a catcher’s mask, pillow on the middle, and oven mitts. The text reads, “They are missing out!” It is a wonderful phrase and not one you’d necessarily expect to see in a picture book. For whatever reason it reminded me of the wonderful wordplay of fellow picture book author/illustrator Bob Shea. To my mind it takes a special kind of talent to pluck just the right words out of the ether and to apply them at the perfect moment.
I mentioned earlier that Campbell, under the name of “Scott C.” created such amusing fare as The Great Showdowns. A bit of that aesthetic comes to mind when you check out the endpapers of this book. It necessitated an explanation to my three-year-old about what exactly a checklist is. You see, on the front endpapers of Hug Machine you see a range of different characters, each next to a little box. Turn to the back of the book and on these endpapers each character has been checked off. A child reader could easily spend hours matching each character to its appearance in the book. By the same token, kids could also have a great deal of fun just counting the number of hugs in this book in total.
I’ve little doubt that there will be an adult out there who is disturbed by the notion of a kid hugging complete strangers. I would point out, though, that we don’t actually know whether or not the people he’s hugging are strangers or not. For all we know he lives in a small town and is knows every person’s name, from the picnickers to the joggers to the construction workers. And that pretty much encapsulates any possible objections I could possibly find to the book. It would be an ideal readaloud for storytime (I’m jealous of the librarians and booksellers who will get to use it) to say nothing of reading it one-on-one. A real keeper. Share it with your own resident hug machine today.
For ages 3-6.
On shelves August 26th
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
Other Reviews: The Early Career Committee of CBC
Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus
Illustrated by Evan Turk
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon and Schuster)
On shelves now.
Are you familiar with the concept of booktalking? It’s a technique librarians developed to get people interested in books they might otherwise not pick up. The whole concept is to develop a kind of movie trailer style talk that gives a sense of the book’s allure without giving up the plot. Typically booktalking is done for middle grade and young adult works of fiction, but enterprising souls have had a lot of luck with nonfiction as well. Now with an increased interest in nonfiction in our schools it’s more important than ever to make the books we hawk sound particularly good. It doesn’t hurt matters any when the books actually ARE good, though. Now let’s say I’m standing in front of a room of second and third graders with a copy of Grandfather Gandhi in my hands. How do I sell this book to them? Easy peasy. Some books practically booktalk themselves. Here’s how you sell it:
“Have any of you ever heard of Einstein? Yes? He’s the guy that was a total genius. Now imagine you’re his grandkid and you’re not that smart. Okay now, have any of you heard of the Beatles. Yes? Well imagine you’re one of THEIR grandkids . . . and you’re bad at music. Now here’s the big one. Has anyone heard of Gandhi? He was a great guy. He managed to free his country and stop a lot of oppression and he did it without any violence at all. Martin Luther King Jr. got some of his ideas from Gandhi about nonviolence. All right, well, now let’s image you are Gandhi, the most peaceful man IN THE WORLD’s grandson. What if you get mad? Can you imagine what it would be like to have everyone whispering every time you got a little steamed about something?”
So there you go. Quick. Simple. To the point. I’ve met a fair number of picture book memoirs in my day, but Grandfather Gandhi may well be my favorite. Smartly written with an unusual hook and art that will just knock your socks off, this is one title you are going to have to see firsthand for yourself.
When young Arun and his family first arrive in his grandfather Mahatma Gandhi’s village, he’s mighty shy around his incredibly famous relative. Yet right away Grandfather is warm and welcoming to them, and when he praises Arun for walking the distance from the train station the boy swells with pride. Unfortunately, having Gandhi as your grandpa means having to share him with the 350 followers who also live in the village. Arun struggles with his lessons in Gujarati and the fact that there are no movie theaters around, but there are upsides to village life too. He’s pretty good at soccer with the other kids, and occasionally Grandfather will take him for a walk just mano a mano. But then, one fateful day, Arun gets into a skirmish on the soccer field and his anger is overwhelming. Shamed that the grandson of Gandhi himself would react in anger he confesses to his Grandfather immediately, only to find the man isn’t angry or disappointed in him in the least. Anger, Gandhi explains, is like lightning. You can use it to destroy or you can use it to light the world, like a lamp. Which will you choose?
I think it’s fair to say that there have been a fair number of children’s picture books from family and relatives of famous peacemakers. Most notable would be Martin Luther King Jr.’s clan, where it sometimes seems like every son, daughter, niece, and nephew has his or her own spin on their infinitely famous relative. Gandhi’s a bit different. One wouldn’t expect his own descendants to have much in the way of access to the American publishing industry, so biographies of his life in picture book form have concentrated occasionally on his life and occasionally on The Great Salt March. When I saw that this book was co-authored by his fifth grandson I expected the same sort of story. A kind of mix of “this guy was fantastic” with “and I knew him!”. Instead, Hegedus and Gandhi have formulated a much more accessible narrative. Few children can relate to having a famous relative. But what about controlling their anger in the face of injustice? What’s fascinating about this book is that the authors have taken a seemingly complex historical issue and put it into terms so child-friendly that a five-year-old could get the gist of it. That Gandhi’s anger went on to become what spurned him to make lasting, important changes for his people is the key point of the book, but it takes a child’s p.o.v. to drill the issue home.
Above and beyond all that, this is a book that advocates quite strongly for peace in all its myriad forms. Hardly surprising when you consider the subject matter but just the same I sometimes feel like “peace” is one of those difficult concepts without a proper picture book advocate. I went to a Quaker college where PAGS (Peace and Global Studies) was a popular major, and it was in making Quaker friends that I learned about picture books dedicated to the concepts embraced by that particular religion. Books like The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, The Table Where Rich People Sit by Byrd Baylor, Thy Friend, Obadiah by Brinton Turkle, and more. I’m sure that many is the Quaker household, or really any household that believes that peace is a practical and attainable solution, that will embrace Grandfather Gandhi as one of their own.
It’s been a long time since I ran across a picture book with as long and lengthy a list of materials used in the illustrations as I have here. On the publication page it reads, “The illustrations for this book are rendered in watercolor, paper collage, cotton fabric, cotton, yarn, gouache, pencil, tea, and tin foil. Cotton hand spun on an Indian book charkha by Eileen Hallman.” Phew! You might think that all that “stuff” might yield something clogged up or messy, but that would be doing Mr. Turk a disservice. Observing how well he gives his pictures depth and texture, life and vitality, you might be shocked to learn that Grandfather Gandhi is his first picture book. From the spinning wheel endpapers to montages of sheer explosive anger, Turk makes a point of not only adhering to some of the more metaphorical aspects of the text, but finding new and creative ways to bring them to visual life. To my mind, the materials an artist uses in his or her art must, in the case of mixed media, have a reason for their existence. If you’re going to use “cotton fabric, cotton” and “yarn” then there should be a reason. But Turk clearly did his homework prior to doing the art on this book. He doesn’t just slap the images together. He incorporates the fibers Gandhi knew so well and turns them into an essential aspect of the book’s art. The art doesn’t just support the text here. It weaves itself into the story, becoming impossible to separate from the story.
It’s Arun’s anger that proved to be the most visually interesting aspect, to me, in the book. Turk deftly contrasts the calm white thread produced by Gandhi’s spinning with the tangled black ones that surround and engulf his grandson whenever his feelings threaten to break free. The scene where he’s tempted to throw a rock at the boy who shoved him down is filled with thread, Arun’s magnificently clenched teeth, and black shadow figures that reach out across the field to the soccer net, dwarfing the three other little figures below. Later you can see the negative space found in cut paper turning from a representation of lightning into a thread of cotton in the hands of Gandhi illuminating a passage about making your anger useful. Yet Turk doesn’t just rely on clever techniques. He’s remarkably skilled at faces too. Arun’s expressions when he gets to see his grandfather alone or makes him proud are just filled with wide-eyed eager hope. And his frustrations and anger pulse off the page from his features alone.
Picture books for kids about dealing with their anger tend towards the fictional. There’s Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry . . . Really Really Angry and Robie H. Harris’s The Day Leo Said, “I Hate You”. These are two of the good ones. Others veer towards the preachy and paternalistic. Imagine if you started using something like Grandfather Gandhi instead. More than just a memoir, the book offers a broad look at the benefits of channeling your anger. Better still, it’s a true story. Kids respect the true. They’ll also respect young Arun and his uncomfortable position. Fair play to author Bethany Hegedus for hearing him speak more than 13 years ago about this moment in his life, knowing that not only was there a picture book story to be had here, but a lesson kids today can grasp. As she says in her “Note from the Authors” at the end, “We world we live in needs to heal – to heal from the wars that are fought, to the bullying epidemic, to mass killings by lone gunmen, to poverty, to hunger, and to issues that contribute to internal anger being outwardly expressed in violent actions.” Gandhi’s message never grows old. Now we’ve a book that helps to continue his work for the youngest of readers. A necessary purchase then.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
Other Blog Reviews:
- ReaderKidZ speaks with Ms. Hegedus about the book.
- Meanwhile Kirkus interviewed the two authors and the illustrator here.
Misc: This is a book with a very nicely maintained and updated website of its own. Some of my favorite posts include this one from Evan Turk on how he got access to the spun cotton fiber featured in the book. I also light his piece on Light & Shadow and this one on how he chose his art. Arun even has posts up containing family Gandhi stories that would make an excellent follow up books should the need arise. Be sure to read the one on pumpkins and eggs when you get a chance.
One of the top best book trailers I’ve seen in a really long time. Accomplished and it does a brilliant job of highlighting Turk’s art.
llustration & Animation by Evan Turk
Voices: Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus
East Dragon, West Dragon
By Robyn Eversole
Illustrated by Scott Campbell
Atheneum Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
On shelves now
Sometimes the obvious can also be the impossible. Take dragons, for example. Now say you’re a children’s librarian and a five-year-old approaches your desk and asks you for “a dragon story”. And not one of those two-bit cheapo dragon titles either. Nuh-uh. An honest-to-goodness straight up dragon tale with scales and fire and knights. The whole shebang. Now logically, what with dragons being this eternal bit of subject matter that’s just as popular with the kids now as they were 100 years ago, you should be able to instantly name ten great dragon picture books off the top of your head. Maybe you can too. Maybe you’re particularly gifted in that way. For my part, though, it’s hard to think of iconic dragon-related picture books. The Reluctant Dragon? A great story but a bit long for a tot. The Knight and the Dragon? Wonderful but wordless. The Paper Bag Princess? Awesome story but can we work that word “dragon” into the title somewhere? No, as ridiculous as this may sound it can be really hard to think up dragon stories. The idea that you might give one to the kid that contains not one but TEN cool looking dragons alongside a fun story, an acknowledgement that dragons mean different things in different cultures, plenty of action and plenty of humor . . . well basically just sign me up for some of that! In East Dragon, West Dragon, author Robyn Eversole and illustrator Scott Campbell give kids and adults alike something we have needed, whether we knew it or not, for a very long time.
Our two heroes in this story are East Dragon and West Dragon. East Dragon is our Felix and West Dragon our Oscar. While East Dragon lives a clean and tidy life with lots of dragon siblings and an emperor who truly appreciates dragon culture, West Dragon lives a single messy life dealing with a pesky local king and his equally pesky knights. The two dragons know of one another but each is sure that the other is the more fearsome of the two. One day, West Dragon can’t take the marauding knights a second longer (they interrupted his nap) so he gives them a map that will lead them to adventures. In their travels they run across the emperor who is extremely nice and offers them all his hospitality. Yet what do the pesky knights do in return? They take one look at the local dragon population and attack! Not thrilled at his rude guests, the emperor has the whole lot of them thrown into prison. West Dragon, hearing of their plight, resigns himself to saving them and along the way encounters (and is himself saved by) East Dragon. After much thought the two realize that neither dragon is any better than the other and the dragons, knights, and even the emperor himself all head over the sea to West Dragon’s place for food, fun, and maybe even a little karaoke.
0 Comments on Review of the Day: East Dragon, West Dragon by Robyn Eversole as of 5/10/2012 11:20:00 PM