Bemoaning Authorized Sequels

I'm not fond of "authorized sequels" of books.  Folks should leave excellence well enough alone without trying to scratch out a few more dollars from a household name in literature. (e.g. The original two Corduroy books were perfect, the authorized sequels inferior in a hundred ways.) I agree with Elizabeth Bluemle, president of the Association of Booksellers for Children, when she says:

"It’s just too much to hope that someone who isn’t the original writer will capture the voice, character, setting, pacing (and all the other elements of bookmaking) in the right measure."

There are exceptions. Many of the newer Curious George stories are okay for example (though still not as lovely as H.A. Rey's original seven); my kids certainly don't notice anything amiss anyway. 

Anyway, I knew right away that I was reading the complaints of a fellow bibliozealous when I read this piece about the "new Winnie-the-Pooh" book (an ominous phrase in itself since the world of Pooh and Piglet and Christopher Robin are immortalized outside of any time era we know in the real world).  I enjoyed her insights on why exactly The Hundred Acre Wood should've been left in peace; there really is no such thing as excellence needing an update.

"You sense the enthusiasm and good intentions, and can even appreciate the elaborate effort that went into the display, but in the end the anomalous female figure becomes an ever-present reminder that this is a superfluous imitation. "
 C. Rosen about Return to the Hundred Acre Wood

Tangent: My favorite new life-helps

2014 has brought some new items into my life that are excellent!  Because I don't do Facebook or personal blogging right now, I'm bursting at the seems to tell the world about my great finds.  So, I'll just hijack my book blog for a moment to showcase my newest, random life-helps:

 I've tried two other brands of waterproof mattress covers.  They are loud, unbreathing and don't hold up well after multiple washings.  Wet-Stop mattress covers are actually comfortable, quiet, and extremely well suited to many washings!  Every kid bed in the house is now covered with one!

 A $7 can opener.  Revolutionary.  You never realize how well something is supposed to work until you have an item that does it well.  My old, rusty can opener required mega force and precision to function.  This 4-in-1 item is rocking my world.
 If you have nice camera gear, protect your investment!  I am in love with the Ape Case brand of cases!  We have a smaller holster for grab & go situations but the medium case in the picture is what we use for traveling and holding our extra lenses, external flash and various other items.  The bright yellow interior is so great for seeing what's inside and the whole case is built tough!  Finally, something to withstand my rambunctious family!

 Okay, so a Celtic album is hardly a "life help" but I was delighted to listen to this particular collection of excellent music.  Of course, the title of The Brendan Voyage won me over immediately but I'm always a sucker for Irish sounds. (I have to say that this pairs nicely of course with the book: Saint Brendan and the Voyage Before Columbus and that March is pretty much the unofficial "Irish Appreciation Month" around here.)

 Don't knock these wool nursing pads 'til you try 'em.  I took the leap after reading great reviews from some other mamas.  And they are huge (my husband said "What are these tortilla thingies?" when they came in the mail —which actually prevents the "bullseye" look on your chest with normal pads!). So these are expensive. But they are hands-down the best new-baby item I've purchased in years!  I would fast for a week if I had to just to afford these!  I bought two pairs and that's all you need.  They are so soft, so comforting. The natural lanolin in the nursing pads helps ward off infections and the entire thing is designed to keep your breast warm (which actually helps avoid clogged ducts too)… so when it gets wet, it's not the cold, clammy wet from disposable or cotton pads, but a warm wet.  I wash them with very hot water… no need to get a special wool cleanser… just hot water to rinse out dried up milk and then air dry in a warm place.  So, so great...

 Bovine gelatin. Seriously.  I have 90 year old-lady knee joints.  They have been aching for almost a year now.  It hurts to genuflect, to keep my knees bent for long, to bend over, to sit on the toilet.  I have avoided the doctor because I don't like doctors and didn't want to pay tons for co-pays and MRIs and yadda, yadda, yadda.  So my sister told me about this stuff because she had a similar knee pain and all HER doctor visits didn't yield any good news except that "it's reversible." So here I am, 4 days after taking this stuff 2-3 times a day and the pain in my knees is significantly reduced so far!  It's unbelievable to be able to kneel down in Mass without being in agony.  I don't know how long this will last or if I can get totally pain free this way… after about a month, I'll taper down my serving to one a day and see how that goes. Then maybe I'll be able to stop completely.  All I know is that I'm grateful for a simple, natural and— comparatively speaking— cheap alternative to Big-Pharma.


So there you are!  I feel better now that I've shared the good news.  :-)

Spring Thaw

Winter isn't hard and drastic here in the Puget Sound region of Washington State, but I know many parts of the US, and obviously much of Canada are still blanketed in snow. Spring Thaw is a book for dwellers of these parts. Steven Schnur is an author I only associated with his lovely, seasonal acrostic books (e.g. Winter: An Alphabet Acrostic, Spring: An Alphabet Acrostic etc.) before coming across this title, bought cheaply second-hand (unfortunately, Amazon sellers are savvy to the seasonal demand of things and this is currently marked up on that market).  Was I in for a treat!  The text is reflective and evocative:
The sun climbs high into the blue sky. By mid-morning a thousand tiny streams run from the roof like a curtain of crystal beads.
And the illustrations are an oil paint impasto that would be wonderful to see in person!  The story is very simple telling of the first day's break in snow and ends with a farmer enjoying the pale, warm sunset on his face.  It is an exquisite March book…  I think I need to update my Top Ten Spring booklist and divide it into two categories! The fresh start of Spring/end of Winter books and then the general springtime list.  Anyway, I took a few photos of the inside of this book for you...

Who Are Picture Books For?

I don't know what's got me on this kick of reading picture book author's writings (oh wait, it's the
caffeine buzz that's not allowing me to nap right now!) but I am chewing on some incredibly thought provoking words by the talented Shaun Tan now on the question of "Who are picture books for?"

The artists’ responsibility lies first and foremost with the work itself, trusting that it will invite the attention of others by the force of its conviction. So it’s really quite unusual to ask “who do you do it for?” 

And this especially is rather profound:

 The simplicity of a picture book in terms of narrative structure, visual appeal and often fable-like brevity might seem to suggest that it is indeed ideally suited to a juvenile readership. It’s about showing and telling, a window for learning to ‘read’ in a broad sense, exploring relationships between words, pictures and the world we experience every day. But is this an activity that ends with childhood, when at some point we are sufficiently qualified to graduate from one medium to another? Simplicity certainly does not exclude sophistication or complexity; we inherently know that the truth is otherwise. “Art,” as Einstein reminds us, “is the expression of the most profound thoughts in the simplest way.”

Good stuff here, and in the whole essay.  It's long and thoughtful, probably appreciated by only the most die-hard of bibliozealots.  Picture books are more than simply fun diversions to fill up a child's bookshelf. Much, much more. 

Wiesner on Tuesday

Speaking of wordless books, I was reading one of the Caldecott Acceptance speeches author/illustrator David Wiesner gave and I loved this context he offers on his book Tuesday:

"At least as often as people ask me where I came up with the idea for the book, they want to know, “Why Tuesday?” When I decided to punctuate the story with the times of the day, it became clear that the mysterious element had to do with the particular day of the week when these strange things happened. So I tried to decide what the funniest day of the week was. I immediately discounted the weekend; Saturday and Sunday had too many connotations, as did Friday. Monday was next to go, being the first day of the work week, which left Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Wednesday’s spelling had always bothered me, so it was out. Thursday was all right, but the more I said “T-u-e-s-d-a-y,” the more I like the “ooze” quality it had. It seemed to go with frogs.
A wordless book offers a different kind of an experience from one with text, for both the author and the reader. There is no author’s voice telling the story. Each viewer reads the book in his or her own way. The reader is an integral part of the storytelling process. As a result, there are as many versions of what happened that Tuesday night as there are readers. For some, the dog in the story is rightfully defending his territory against amphibian invaders, and their sympathy lies with the dog when the frogs get the best of him. For others, the dog is a humorless bully who gets his comeuppance. As the author of a wordless book, I don’t have to concern myself about whether the reader’s interpretation of each and every detail is the same as mine. My own view has no more, and no less, validity than that of any other viewer. Since my intent was for the book, as a whole, to make people laugh, all that matters is that the pictures are funny.
A series of individually funny pictures, however, does not necessarily add up to a successful story. The book was very carefully plotted, and details were developed in ways that move the story forward as logically as possible, from the full moon that rises slowly in the sky that first Tuesday night, to the gibbous moon that appears a week later at the end. By placing my characters in the context of a familiar reality, I hoped to entice readers to take that great leap of faith and believe that frogs, and perhaps pigs, too, could fly—if the conditions were just right."

Top 10 Wordless Picture Books

This article was originally written for and printed in the Spring 2012 issue of Soul Gardening Journal. I have since substituted in two titles (listed at the end) that came to my attention and taken out the original listings for The Silver Pony about which I had this to say: "This is a sort of strange, magical book that might not be guaranteed to win everyone’s hearts... but its peculiarity won mine.  I love the old fashioned, black and white sketches here."  

And also I removed Rainstorm, originally saying this: "Barbara Lehman is more well known for her Caldecott honored The Red Book but this one tickles me just a bit more.  A young, well-to-do boy feels the restlessness and boredom of a rainy day before finding a magic key that offers him a magic portal into his imagination.  There’s something clean about Lehman’s illustrations that make her a refreshing read."

Finally, I gave a shout out to one of my very favorite Christmas books ever: A Small Miracle and would also add The Snowman.

Willfully Wandering Wordless: A Top Ten List

Some of my very favorite picture books are completely devoid of words.  I used to sort of smile and write (no pun intended) these kinds of books off as novelties without any real sort of lasting merit.  But as my bookshelf space shrunk and my exposure to children’s literature grew, I was proven wrong... very, very wrong.
Wordless picture books can be an excellent vehicle for pre-readers who want to “read” books like big brother/sister.  They can serve beautifully for creative narration prompts too.  Instead of playing the memory game and asking your child “Okay, what was the story about”... to which they promptly regurgitate a couple of quoted sections word-for-word to show that they’ve been listening, kid’s are forced to tell a story in entirely their own words.  In the wordless world, it’s all about attention to the details, to sequencing, to the art of what’s happening.  Many are written in comic book fashion which gets little ones used to the concept of left to right to down directional reading.  Teachers have often used wordless books for question prompts to creative thinking: “What do you think he’s looking for?”  “Why might she be feeling sad?” etc.  Since none of the answers are ‘given away’ with text, even shy children might open up with some interesting interpretations.
With regards to wordless books in this family, my children take a few different approaches that are refreshingly different from the reactions I get with traditional picture books. My five year old son likes to take a wordless book off to a corner by himself and study it through.  Then he asks me to “read a story with him” which entails us sitting on the couch together while he tells me everything that’s going to happen on the next page.  He gets a giddy delight out of finally being the one in the know with a book, while I am simply the willing audience to his interpretation.  My seven year old boy does a great deal of personification in his life.  If he sees an image he likes with just enough figures for our family, he promptly names us all.  I am honored to have been labeled an ant, a banana, a Chinese spinster, and a flying frog among other things.  With wordless books, he’s in hog heaven describing who’s who and bringing in all the people from his real world into the story with unnamed characters.  My nine year old boy is a bit more like me with the wordless books.  He just curls up somewhere with a blanket and reads it quietly to himself, slowly turning the pages and letting his eyes feast on the artwork. The canvas is totally blank when it comes to these kinds of stories and imaginations can run wild.  Here is a Top Ten list of my very favorite wordless books, though it really is cruel to limit myself in this wonderful genre:

 The Arrival by Shaun Tan. This book is stunning and the artwork will weave you right into its spell.  I spent the better part of an hour reading this book by myself; it is living proof that picture books aren’t just for kids. I’d happily keep this surrealistic story of an immigrant on my coffee table.  While it was fun to go through with my children, the message really can be quite profound for adults too.

 Peter Spier's RainA perfect springtime book full of lovely, poetic imagery.  Peter Spier is one of those wonderful authors that the world seems content to forget.  So many of his gems (some others are wordless also) are out of print and I curdle my nose in disgust sometimes to think of some the fodder that’s replacing his books at stores everywhere.

 Anno's Counting Book by Mitsumasa Anno.  Get all of Anno’s books; you won’t regret it!  This book doubles as a superb and innovative counting book with folky artwork that I adore. Anno's Journey is another title in this category that is a lot of fun to follow with children.

 Tuesday by David Wiesner. Wiesner is the master of the wordless genre.  While we love his Flotsam, Sector 7 and Free Fall too, this book about flying frogs (yep, that’s me!) on an adventure in the middle of the night wins my boys over every time.  These pictures are feast-worthy indeed.

 The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney. Now Pinkney was fortunate here in that the story was already provided for him-- remember that fable from Aesop about the mouse who helps out the lion?  Pinkney just happens to be an incredible artist who took this story for a beautiful spin in 2009 with the release of this book.

 A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog by Mercer Mayer. My very first introduction to wordless books was this one.  I love the size; I love the limited color scheme. I love all the sequels to this book. I have to admit that I came into it biased because Mercer Mayer illustrated my all-time, very favorite series of childhood chapter books--The Great Brain by John Fitzgerald-- and I was delighted to see this kind of art again. One way to sneak out of the limiting Top Ten is to throw out other titles to reference by the same author. In this case, I’d point you to a very recent fun title by Mayer called Octopus Soup.
 The Boy, The Bear, The Baron, The Bard by Gregory Rogers. How refreshing!  Are you studying Shakespeare?  Add this to your unit to round out all the romantic, poetic imagery of the man.  Here a contemporary boy gets lost on a stage hosting the Bard himself who becomes enraged at the interruption and chases the boy through old London.  The great thing about graphic novels is that you get lots of bonus perspectives to complete the comic book boxes... so an extreme close up of Shakespeare’s face or a panoramic bird’s eye view of the city fill out the pages quite nicely.

 Mirror by Jeannie Baker.  Baker is a collage artist and she uses an assortment of materials, fabric and natural foliage to construct this very novel book.  It is testament again that wordless stories aren’t just for preschoolers; in fact I think you’d really need to be about eight years old at least to really appreciate what’s going on here.  When you open this book you have two stories side by side on each side the outside covers, so you are flipping pages from the inside binding to show the daily lives of an Australian child and a Morrocan child.  It’s a beautiful social studies lesson on the uniqueness of two very different cultures but the same threads of family, meals, and home life bind us all together.  Jeannie Baker is also well known for her other wordless story called Home which will be one of the subjects for some other season in this Book Basket column as I explore a couple of books that reflect on urban relationships.

Magpie Magic: A Tale of Colorful Mischief by April Wilson is a gorgeous and fun tale of words coming to life. I wrote about it a couple years ago: "The book a feast of imagery from the first person perspective as we see artist's hands draw the magpie outside her window.  As any good story book would have it, the bird then comes to life and what happens next is a witty sort of duel between the bird and artist which ends in a very satisfactory way." 

 Journey by Aaron Becker is one of the very best books of 2013.  There is something about the wordless genre that lends itself perfectly to fanciful travels or surreal experiences.  This book is that. A girl goes on an incredible journey in a very similar way to Harold did in Harold and the Purple Crayon. Exquisite details in this thoughtful book.

The Lenten Void...

I suspect some of you are expecting to find a great Lenten picture book post here. Well, you won't. There are a couple Lent-focused books out there, but none that I find to be really amazing or great until you get toward Passiontide and Easter… So we'll postpone discussions until April at least. In the meantime, I hope you are having a perfectly miserable Lent!  Blessings!

ABC Animals: Pick of the Week

I didn't think I could get excited about any new alphabet books.  There are so many fabulous ones on the market already.  (See my Top 10 posts Part One and Part Two about that— which means I either need to amend these lists or start a Part Three!)  But this is like someone reinvented the wheel! Produced by the American Museum of Natural History, ABC Animals is a large board book that is one of the best alphabet books I've seen in a long time. What makes it so appealing?  The simplicity for one thing. It's printed on excellent, high glossy pages with incredibly engaging photographs of various animals.  The text is very brief too.  Many alphabet animal books act like encyclopedia entries and kids almost never take the time to read through the whole bit.  This one is perfect, just one or two sentences describing a fun fact about each animal.  And it succeeds on one of my most critical alphabet-book-judging-points!  They didn't cheat on the letter X!  (X-ray Tetra Fish indeed!) Considering that this was just a spontaneous grab at the library, I am highly impressed!  Now I have to go seek out the AMNH's other ABC books: ABC Dinosaurs and their new ABC Oceans which will release next month.


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