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I was fortunate enough to be in the crowd when the Tamaki sisters’ This One Summer was announced as a Caldecott Honor book (at the Youth Media Awards, where the Coretta Scott King, Caldecott, Newbery, etc. are announced) this past January. I remember hearing more than a few audible gasps in the theater, and with good reason: not since The Invention of Hugo Cabret had a book for the older end (what I’d consider ages 10-14) of the Caldecott age range been recognized. (Incidentally, This One Summer was arguably the most controversial pick of last year’s award winners, as evidenced by the lively discussion found here.) Admittedly, this year’s committee members don’t have anything to do with last year’s books, but at the same time the fifteen folks on the 2016 Caldecott committee do not live in a vacuum. They are no doubt aware of books for older kids, probably more so than any other committee BT (Before Tamaki).
But what about the actual books? Have there really been any graphic novels for older readers that have a chance this year? Absolutely, and to my mind, Drowned City heads the list. Don Brown’s second full-length graphic novel is brilliant in its conciseness, both textually and visually, and is certainly one of my top three Caldecott-eligible books this year.
The reader’s first glimpse of New Orleans is iconic and terrifying: an eagle’s eye–view of the city in the distance with a foreboding gray-black mass of … SOMETHING … in the foreground. The menacing cloud obscures the borders of the large panel. An inset above the faraway skyline shows a FEMA staffer claiming, “When I have a nightmare, it’s a hurricane in New Orleans.” It’s a brilliant bit of storytelling and design, with text and graphics combining to create a palpable feeling of dread.
When Katrina “crashes ashore” in the nearby town of Buras, Brown uses four panels stacked top-to-bottom to show the storm’s destruction in sequence. This is not the only time panels are laid out to maximum effect: at one point later in the book, two wordless panels follow a textbox which reads, “Swollen dead bodies lie in streets and float in the water.” The illustrations show just that: stark depictions of death over which additional words truly would have been intrusive. This gruesome, yet brutally effective, montage effect would fit perfectly in a war documentary.
But as chilling as Brown’s artwork is, it can also be quite beautiful. In one illustration, Brown depicts the storm as a sort of buzzsaw with a hole in it (the eye of the hurricane). The water being churned up by the monster storm is a gorgeous blue-green, the kind of water you’d expect to see at a resort in Cancun or off the coast of some Greek island. His people aren’t exactly pretty (they never are in any of his work; Kadir Nelson, he ain’t), but the messy lines, the imperfect humans with poorly defined features … they fit this subject perfectly.
Many from the children’s book world will question why the Caldecott committee would seriously consider graphic novels: thankfully, Elisa and Pat Gall have covered this. But for an award given to a book that “essentially provides the child with a visual experience,” why wouldn’t graphic novels get a look? Of course the committee will consider this book, and hopefully several other graphic novels (Jessie Hartland’s Steve Jobs: Insanely Great is another one that’s high on my list), but the real question is: will graphic novel–loving committee members be able to build consensus around one or more of them? Fingers crossed: I do so love those gasps of disbelief when certain award winners are announced.
Publisher’s synopsis: Tuesday, September 11, seemed like any other day at Stuyvesant High School, only a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. The semester was just beginning, and the students, faculty, and staff were ready to start a new year.
Within a few hours that Tuesday morning, they would experience an event that transformed all their lives completely.
Here, in their own words, are the firsthand stories of a day none of us will ever forget.
Publisher’s synopsis: On the ten year anniversary of the September 11 tragedy, a straightforward and sensitive book for a generation of readers too young to remember that terrible day.
The events of September 11, 2001 changed the world forever. In the fourth installment of the Actual Times series, Don Brown narrates the events of the day in a way that is both accessible and understandable for young readers. Straightforward and honest, this account moves chronologically through the morning, from the plane hijackings to the crashes at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania; from the rescue operations at the WTC site to the collapse of the buildings. Vivid watercolor illustrations capture the emotion and pathos of the tragedy making this an important book about an unforgettable day in American history.
Tomorrow’s blog would write itself; the inauguration of America’s first Black president is ripe with meaning and historical parallels would beg to be told. But here I am, assigned this entry, a day shy of the big event. (Writing about the inauguration now would be like shooting fireworks on the 3rd of July: it’s more about noise than celebration.)
So, as a kind of counterpoint to tomorrow’s shining moment, let me offer a distinctly grubbier instance from our past: NYC at the turn of the last century.
Machine politics ran the City, Tammany Hall ran the Machine, and (mostly) Irish Democratic politicians ran Tammany Hall. (The City was so pervasively Celtic that Italian and Jewish crooks felt compelled to take on Irish monikers to get ahead. On the other side of the law was a police department that was ¾ Irish.)
Among the Tammany Hall “stars” were:
Big Tim Sullivan who collected tribute from gambling halls and shook down honest business people, using the money to buy votes. His realm, lower Manhattan, was solidly Democratic. Despite his crooked ways, he was known for his generosity, setting out, for example, Christmas dinner for 5000 Bowery bums.
Big Bill Devery was Chief of Police who sold police protection to crooks. His corrupt behavior inspired the NY legislature to abolish his office. To this day, there is no NYPD Police Chief. Deverey and a couple of his cronies brought the baseball Yankees to New York.
Boss Croker dealt in graft, enriching Tammany Hall and himself. Ostensibly only a humble civil servant, he accumulated two NYC houses, another in Tennessee, three in England, and mansions in Palm Beach and Ireland. His lavish life style included raising thoroughbreds. He stipulated that Orby, his favorite racehorse, should be buried next to him.
And my point?
First, is to remind us that we’ve managed to come from Boss Croker to Barack Obama. Of course, the path hasn’t been straight; the last 8 years have certainly been a costly detour. But we still managed to get here.
Secondly – and perhaps more apropos to this blog – is that villains can still make great stories.
To learn more read Luc Sante’s Lowlife and Mike Dash’s Satan’s Circus.
Are some subjects off base, unwanted and unwelcome? In other words, taboo?
Something in me believed it so, convincing myself, for example, that the intersection of sex and religion is so fraught with incendiary passion that children’s books about them must barely exist.
Well, I was wrong. Or right.
Using Amazon as a database, I searched the children’s section for books about controversial subjects Roe versus Wade (abortion), Margaret Sanger (birth control), and the Scottsboro Boys (race and sex.)
The resulting titles were of modest number, and few of recent publication.
Still, they were there.
I am unsure of my original supposition and wonder: Are the relatively few books a reflection of the modest place the subjects hold in comparison to the larger themes of, say, the Civil War, Immigration, or Westward Expansion. Or do they represent a de facto taboo?
All Stations! Distress! about the Titanic and Let It Begin Here! about the Battle of Lexington and Concord are departures from my usual biographical-picture-books-for-younger-readers fare. Instead, they are longer format books aimed squarely at nine to twelve-year-old readers.
Whereas my picture books are studies in “reduction” – What can I leave out without damaging the narrative arc of the story or, worse, skewing historical accuracy – The longer text in the new books allowed me to explore details of the story as well as employ more complex sentences. (Even so, I’m still a sucker for the straight-forward declarative sentence.) And I could indulge in art more appropriate for an older audience, specifically of the ‘blood and guts’ variety.
All Stations! Distress! received starred reviews from the Horn Book and School Library Journal. SLJ also awarded Let It Begin Here! a starred review.
Do you have a movie buff on your hands? How about reading Mack Made Movies to show how old movies were made? This picture book biography of Mack Sennett, an American movie genius who pioneered the slapstick comedies of the silent era, tells how Sennett's Keystone Kops became the king of silent pictures. Mack was even the one who introduced Charlie Chaplin to the world. The book starts off explaining how Mack wanted to be a star.
"In 1900, twenty-year-old Mack Sennett was a horse's rear end."
Unfortunately, Mack's stardom would be gained elsewhere. He landed a job with a movie company and eventually talked a couple of others into helping him produce slapstick comedies. The result was a lot of pies in the face and his journey to becoming the King of Comedy.
I came to children’s literature through reading to my two daughters. The Oxcart Man, In the Night Kitchen, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Owl Moon, among others, thrilled me. But it was the difficulty of finding compelling books about real people who accomplished real things that set me to the task of creating a biographical picture book myself.
I loved history, had read endless volumes of it, and was a professional cartoon illustrator with oodles of experience. Still, I worried that my light illustration style was inappropriate, and that only realistic art could be the handmaiden to non-fiction.
Then I found 3 non-fiction books that simply brushed the problem aside:
The Glorious Flight, Alice and Martin Provensen’s lighter-than-air tale of Louis Bleriot and the first flight across the English Channel in1909, employed cartoon-like illustrations and won the Caldicott. War Boy by Michael Foreman and October ’45 by Jean Louis Besson. Both are memoirs of growing up during World War Two. Each is illustrated in light cartoon styles, yet the images of Foreman under the German’s bombs in England, and Besson under the German’s thumb in France, are as compelling and poignant as any photograph.
I love history, always have, and I’m astonished that other people–most others!–don’t.
History is life and death, war and peace, courage and betrayal, sex and violence…a lot of sex and violence!
What’s not to like?
But dislike it they do, and from that distaste ignorance has grown.
“We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate,” popular historian David McCullough has warned.
Evidence of that illiteracy is rampant…and hilarious.
Dr. Anders Henriksson, a history professor, has collected college students’ history bloopers in a book, Non Campus Mentis. Among many other hysterical things, you will find that some students think:
Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.
Gothic cathedrals were held up by flying buttocks.
At the end of World War Two, Hitler had his wife Evita put to sleep, and then shot himself in the bonker.
Yet another professor, Sam Wineburg, insists we shouldn’t be too, surprised or upset. Testing that dates back to 1917 has show American students have always had a tenuous grasp of history. He further notes that “ when historians trained at Stanford, Berkeley and Harvard answered questions from a leading high school textbook, they scored a mere 35 percent – in some cases lower than a comparison group of high school students taking Advanced Placement U.S. History.”
Geez, Prof, that’s supposed to make me feel better?
Most disturbingly, though, is a study in which people “were asked to "pick one word or phrase to describe your experience with history classes in elementary or high school.”
"Boring" was the most frequent answer.
David McCullough is not surprised, saying, “The textbooks are dreary, they’re done by committee, they’re often hilariously politically correct and they’re not doing any good.”
But there is a solution and it comes from famed historian Barbara Tuchman: “Tell stories.”
“That’s what history is: a story,” McCullough explains. A story “calls for empathy on the part of the teller…and of the reader or listener to the story…. (Children) should not have to read anything that we, you and I, wouldn’t want to read ourselves. And there are wonderful books, past and present. There is literature in history.”
For a writer of history, they’re not bad words to hang a career on.
It’s election season, so how about some Presidential Election History?
Candidate Thomas Jefferson described opponent John Adams as a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
During the 1828 election, John Quincy Adams and his Federalist Party called Andrew Jackson’ wife: a “dirty…wench”, a “convicted adulteress” who was prone to “open and notorious lewdness.”
(For the record, she was a perfectly respectable woman. It’s been said that the accusations killed the unwell Mrs. Jackson.)
While campaigning for President, Stephen Douglas called Abraham Lincoln: a “horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman,” and “the leanest, lankest, most ungainly mass of legs and arms and hatchet face ever strung on a single frame.”
Lincoln returned the favor and described the diminutive Douglas as “about five feet nothing in height and about the same in diameter the other way.”
In the 1884 Blaine vs. Cleveland contest, news of Cleveland’s support of child he had fathered during his bachelorhood, led to opponents’ taunt of “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa?”
During the 1804 election, detractors of Thomas Jefferson reprised the outrageous claim that Jefferson, "kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves…Her name is Sally," and that Jefferson had "several children" by her.”
…Of course, the outrageous claim ultimately proved to be true.
It reminds us that there is more than “Spin” on the the campaign trail; An important lesson for the hypocritical SOBs of the (Insert Party Name Here.)