Theseus and the Minotaur

theseus and the minotaurTheseus and the Minotaur

by Yvan Pommaux

Toon, 2014

I grew up with ancient mythology. My parents met in graduate school, themselves 1/2 of the first cohort of Classics PhD students at the University of Washington (three men and one woman–my mom used to joke that my dad “won” the contest) and our childhoods were steeped in the stories of ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed, the ancient world was everywhere, in the pictures on the walls, the statues on the tabletops, the books on the shelves, even the secretive Latin conversations at the dinner table. And the myths were our bedtime stories. Think about that for a minute. I remember being five years old and feeling plainly terrified that if I looked my mother square in the face I’d be turned to stone. I got past it, of course, but these stories will always feel very close to me.

I also remember struggling with the definition of mythology as organic, adaptive story that grows and mutates in different cultural iterations. I wanted to know the real, official account of Medea, and resented my father’s challenging assertion that all of the versions are equally valid, right up to the contemporary reimaginings (perhaps my students, themselves occasionally frustrated by my refusal to offer a straight answer to anything, now know whom to blame). But I have come to love the idea that these ancient stories represent deeply resonant foundations on which all manner of human interaction can be explored. And I am always on the lookout for new contemporary volumes to add to the canon.

This one does not disappoint.

Like all Toon books, the comic format relies on careful reading of the images to digest the story. Word balloons, and, in this case, some general narrative, further the account, but the large spreads and small detail images constitute the heart of the story. Pommaux’s simple pencil line drawings are easy to follow, yet display remarkable sophistication in their style and execution. Small details, like the family resemblance between King Aegeus and his son Theseus reinforce the bountiful mythology. The artist superimposes crisp, flat figures on smudged, sketchy grounds, establishing a sort of cinematic energy that propels the story along. Pommaux plays with the organization of the (often unframed) panels as well, stretching them across the top and/or bottom of both pages, effectively playing with the tropes of the comic canon in the same way bards and playwrights played with the stories themselves. There’s some terrific front and back matter here, too, including endpaper maps, character sketches for principle players, shorter definitions of people, places and things in a longer index, and suggestions for further investigation.

It’s easy to imagine kids reading these words and pictures, over and over. With any luck we can look forward to Perseus and the Gorgon coming up next!

Hug Machine

hug machine

Hug Machine

by Scott Campbell

Atheneum, 2014

I love this book. I love it up. Indeed, here is a place where one is glad one is blogging, and can set aside the more formal trappings of professional writing and just gush with abandon.

Ready? Here is a list of my impromptu enthusiasms:

1) The faces. Campbell does some good faces. His style is particularly loose and sketchy, but boy, howdy, he can capture emotion and attitude in a few watercolor gestures. From the resolute purpose of the hugger, expressed in his firm mouth and closed eyes, to the variety of surprise among those being hugged (catch the look on his dad’s face, and that turtle?! shut up!), the priceless range of emotion adds meaning and depth to what might have been one note mawkish.

2) The composition. Some spreads are open, and some are crowded. But whether it’s the ominous space between the hug machine and his intended porcupine, or the busy, serial hugging along the dotted line (a la Family Circus), the composition is never accidental and always effective.

3) The font. Everything is hand painted, with the same easy watercolors as the pictures, reinforcing the child-perspective and adding to the insouciance.

4) The arc. It’s not uncommon to happen upon a picture book whose words and images match its listeners. But I can’t remember the last time I encountered a book whose story arc was so well calibrated to its audience. The pagination, the pacing, the implicit pauses and inflections. Here is a book that will blossom when read aloud, over and over (and over).

5) The details. They got everything right here. The buff heavy stock feels delicious under your fingertips. The endpapers, with their empty and completed checklists, even the author flap of the dust jacket (with our hero hugging a fire hydrant while a curious dog looks on), all of it contributes to a cohesive, thorough, and endlessly appealing experience.

6) The edge. I’m not exactly allergic to sincerity, but I do like my earnest cut with a healthy dose of dry. This is an undeniably sweet outing, but between the bodacious humor and the appreciable astringency, it is anything but cloying.

7) The timing. Hug Machine did not come out in February (see above).

8) The gender expression. This is a book all about warmth, doused in pink and glowing with ardor, and the bearer of all of that fervent affection is a little boy. Boom.

I leave you with an instructional video on 90-second hugs by the author himself. I suggest you put in some practice, and then go out and get your hug on.

p.s. September 6-14, 2014 appears to be Hug a Book Week, so if you’re looking for a recipient, you might start at your local library.

Animals at war

Bunny the BraBunny the Brave War Horseve War Horse: Based on a True Story

by Elizabeth McLeod, illustrated by Marie Lafrance

Kids Can Press, 2014

Bunny, a magnificent horse, and two brothers, Bud and Tom, ship out to Europe in 1914 among a group of police horses and officers sent to fight on the battlefields of WWI. Bunny is initially assigned to Bud, and when he is killed he becomes Tom’s horse. The two form a close bond, and survive the conflict together, performing acts of heroism and sacrifice along the way. At war’s end, however, the two are separated; Tom returns to Canada, and Bunny is sold to a Flemish farmer. McLeod tells Bunny’s story with a combination of poetic license and narrative restraint. Her straightforward prose tells Bunny’s story simply, without drama or sentiment. We experience the hardships of war–the hunger and danger and death–but the matter-of-fact tone with which they are expressed establishes Bunny’s and Tom’s resolute, impenetrable bravery. Lafrance’s folk-like illustrations reinforce this sense of plain strength. Spread across double pages, the images are a bleak amalgam of murky greens and greys, setting a desperate tone broken only by the brilliant poppies immortalized in Dr. John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields.” McLeod includes an author’s note in which she explains just how much isn’t known about Bunny’s story (even “Bud,” the name given Tom’s brother, is an invention), and confirms the heartbreaking conclusion. The Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication assigns fiction subject headings to this title, and I’m inclined to agree. This is a fiction with roots in fact. But it is no less a powerful and touching evocation of the perpetual price of waging war.

stubby the war dogStubby the War Dog: The True Story of World War I’s Bravest Dog

by Ann Bausum

National Geographic, 2014

In stark contrast to Bunny, Stubby the War Dog is a presentation of a bodacious collection of scrupulously documented facts surrounding one formidable dog. Sergeant Stubby, as he was known, was a dog with a personality as outsized as his antics. He presented himself as a stray to the 102nd Infantry, training at Yale University in 1917, and so endeared himself to the soldiers that one Corporal Robert Conroy smuggled him onto their ship bound for the theater in Europe. From there Stubby’s infamy grew and grew. Bausum offers a series of almost unbelievable anecdotes–Stubby saluting the officer who discovers him as a stowaway, Stubby rescuing a French toddler from oncoming traffic, Stubby recovering from grievous injury sustained on the battlefield–which establish his irrepressible persona. She also surrounds Stubby’s own story with rich and extensive context, offering lots of information about the greater war and its impact on everyone it touched. The narrative follows Stubby back to the United States after the war, where he travels, parades, and generally contributes to the post-war effort, and even chronicles his story after death, and the eventual inclusion of his remains at the Smithsonian Institution. What is most striking about this masterful exposition, to me, is the journalistic integrity of Bausum’s language. She makes it crystal clear, at every juncture, what she knows and what she wonders, and how she knows the difference. At no time does the reader question the veracity of the facts being presented, yet the narrative’s careful precision never intrudes on the accessible flow of the story. It’s easy to imagine kids enthralled with Stubby’s bigger-than-life life. And it’s just as easy to imagine them fascinated by the curiosity that prompted the investigation and the research that followed. I consumed the story through the Recorded Books audiobook version, narrated by Andrea Gallo, and even the experience without a single image was riveting.

These two books differ from one another in interesting ways. One uses snippets of history as a foundation for a largely fictionalized story while the other offers a detailed account sourced from the (admittedly much more plentiful) historical record. Yet, almost counterintuitively, it is Stubby’s “true” story that brims with outlandish, colorful flourishes, while Bunny’s “imagined” account offers a much more reserved and stoic vision of the animals-at-war experience. And this juxtaposition, in a nutshell, is what I love so much about the work of librarianship for the young. It is not ours to determine which is the better, truer, more legitimate approach, We get to put these books on the self, together, and invite kids (metaphorically, or directly, too, if we want) to ponder them both.

William Wegman board books

321circus early rider3…2…1…Circus and Early Rider

by William Wegman

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014

When I was in Library School (that’s what we called it back then) fine-art photographer William Wegman began exploring the world of picture books as a medium for sharing his doctored photographs of his weimaraner dogs. He staged fantabulous vignettes with his dogs acting out famous fairy tales (like Red Riding Hood, pictured, from his book Little Red Riding Hood) or engaged in everyday activities (like harvesting, also pictured, from his book Farm Days). The results were weird and fascinating and beautifully child-centered; while some adults found them creepy, kids were captivated.

red riding hoodwegman tractorWegman’s children’s literature output has been spottier of late, though experiments with a new style, inserting digital images of the dogs into scribbly, painterly paintings, have produced some recent charmers, including two board books out this month. 3…2…1…Circus! sees the dogs in all manner of circus scenarios, beginning with ten and counting down to a literal, lone puppy blast-off. Early Rider sets the puppies to get about in all manner of transportation, from pogo stick to hot-air balloon, described in rhyming couplets. The production values here are pleasantly rough, with sketchy objects on even sketchier backgrounds, offering a pronounced contrast to the digital clarity of the puppy pics. And Wegman’s ability to interpret the puppies’ playful positions, painting them into cockpits and clown suits, adds lots of dynamic energy.

A successful board book speaks to its infant audience with color, content, and imagery. All too often we see popular picture books reformatted on board pages, to take advantage of some sort of classic status, forgetting that babies have special (literary) appetites. This pair does a great job combining raucous color, meaningful concepts, and adorable puppies into a chewable package just right for babies to devour.

Here are a few book trailers from Wegman’s YouTube channel, because puppies.




the paperboyPaperboy

by Vince Vawter

Delacorte, 2013

audiobook by Listening Library, narrated by Lincoln Hoppe and Vince Vawter

As 2014 ALA Annual approaches I find myself, as ever, catching up with the award-winning books of the year, in anticipation of the upcoming conference’s many festivities. I just finished listening to the affecting recording of Newbery Honor-winning Paperboy by Vince Vawter, a semi-autobiographical story of a boy with a stutter coming of age in Memphis, TN in 1959.

The entire novel takes place over the course of a few weeks in the summer before 7th grade. Our protagonist, whom we come to know as Vince at the end of the book, takes over his friend Rat’s paper route and though his interactions with the people he meets as a consequence learns about himself and his place in the world. I will leave the details to you (if you’ve read the book you already know them, and if you haven’t, I don’t want to spoil them) but I do want to look at a pivotal scene where Vince and his guardian find themselves in grave peril, due, to some degree, to Vince’s disobedience. There is risk of real bodily harm, death even, and yet in the moment of danger there is no guilt and no reproach, only devotion and commitment. I credit the author for his keen characterization and careful plotting. He telegraphs none of these feelings, focusing instead on the circumstances and allowing the emotions to course underneath, organically. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, successful for its simple clarity and for the well-crafted build-up before it.

The scene has been much with me of late. Beyond its own literary resonance, it speaks to my understanding of the news of the day, specifically the aggressive scrutiny of prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl negotiated release. There are some who proclaim Sgt. Bergdahl a deserter who besmirched his homeland’s good name. They see his exchange for five Guantanamo-detained members of the Taliban as an abominable expense of geopolitical capital. They call him a traitor and thereby invalidate any claim he might have for American support. But my recent experience with Paperboy reminds me that our relationships have value expressly because they are not dependent upon our perfect behavior. We are allowed mistakes. Those who love us and assume responsibility for us take care of us. No matter what. I would hope that a soldier putting himself or herself in harm’s way could expect no less of his or her government, regardless of whether or not that soldier had stepped afoul of the line. I imagine that the circumstances surrounding Sgt. Berghadl’s initial disappearance will be investigated, and that strikes me as wholly appropriate. But I’m thankful and proud that the United States Government negotiated his release based upon his citizenship, not his conduct.

We all make mistakes, and none of us would want to be defined by our worst ones. Life is so very complicated, and how lucky we are that we have fine books like Paperboy to help us make sense of it.

Where Diversity Lives

This week Mental Floss produced a video titled “47 Charming Facts About Children’s Books” hosted by one John Green, wherein the celebrated teen author shares interesting bits of trivia about a selection of iconic books for children and teens. And the video is undeniably charming. The facts themselves, an amalgam of sort of effervescent curiosities, delight with their bubbly humor. And John Green is himself the very embodiment of charm; his simultaneously off-hand and ingenuous relation of this bevy of “facts” is positively infectious. You can watch the video here.

corduroyAs charming as it is, though, this video is also white. Really white. Of the 47 books considered, exactly none of them is written or illustrated by a person of color. We do have Corduroy, by Don Freeman, which features an African American family (though the fact in question is about the stuffed bear). We have a translated book, in Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. But that’s about it. Perhaps there was a person of color among the stable of authors writing the Nancy Drew series under the Carolyn Keene pen name.

I find this lack of diversity troubling.

I hasten to say that John Green is one of the good guys. One of the best guys. He is warm and generous and an unfailing defender of broad, diverse reading. He is a brilliant writer and thinker. And he is single-handedly responsible for turning lots (and lots) of young people into young readers (I can’t point to a study that says this, but good luck convincing anybody in the know otherwise). Having been named one of the 100 most influential people by Time Magazine it is no stretch to suggest that his voice is particularly resonant, and in my experience he employs that influence, overwhelmingly, speaking out for justice.

But perhaps that’s what gives me pause. There is a missed opportunity here. Most of these books are undeniably iconic, and I imagine that many of them resonate deeply with the video’s audience. The caption beneath the video proclaims “In this week’s episode of mental_floss on YouTube, John Green looks at the fascinating stories behind the books from your childhood.” I suppose one could make the argument that the list, being  a collection of historical titles, simply reflects the historical lack of diversity in publishing for children. But I’m not buying it.

For, whether or not the video intends to represent a broader swath of children’s literature, it does. Some among us see it, we chuckle and grin, we glow in the nostalgia of our childhoods, and our memories are troublingly homogeneous. Whenever a group of books stands as a sampling of the canon, that collection needs to represent the breadth therein. This video uses its own irresistible charms to reflect the profound charms of the books it considers. It reminds us how deeply the roots of our earliest reading experiences extend. Should not everyone be able to share in that kind of recollection?

Yes, we need diversity on the shelves in libraries and bookstores and in children’s bedrooms. But if we want to find diversity there, we need to sow it, wherever books are told.



by Jenny Offill, illustrated by Chris Appelhans

Schwartz & Wade, 2014

Girl wants pet. Mother agrees, so long as pet is low maintenance. Sloth arrives via express post. The premise is simple enough, but Offill and Appelhans veer off script just enough to take what might have been simply charming and make it particularly funny, in an irresistibly peculiar way.

The story’s initial progression follows tropes as we might expect. The girl makes lots of plucky attempts to make Sparky into a perfect pet (or at least believe him to be), playing all manner of games at which she can beat him. But her smart, bespectacled frenemy isn’t having it. So our protagonist casts Sparky as the star of his very own talent show, and, on the day, he fails. Miserably. Frenemy departs in a fit of superiority, and all seems lost. Here’s where the script flips. What’s supposed to happen is the girl discovers some secret, sloth-specific talent Sparky has that rescues the day from some convenient cataclysm, shining on him a new and heroic light. Instead, he just sleeps in his tree and the girl engages him in a game of tag. “‘You’re it, Sparky’ I said. And for a long, long time, he was.”

Beyond the achingly sweet double meaning of that final phrase, the situation’s refusal to conform to our expectations adds a lovely meta-humor to the tale. The funny comes from dodging our expectations, as funny often does. But in this case those expectations are not part of the situation itself but come from the literary tradition surrounding it.

But funny is just the beginning. The earnest perspective of Offill’s first person narrative is enchanting. The girl is trying so hard to believe in Sparky’s wonders herself that she convinces us in the bargain. Appelhans’ muted watercolor sketches wring buckets of charm from the characters and circumstances in open, expansive compositions with plenty of laughing room. Even the typeface, based on Appelhans’ hand lettering, adds to the story’s soft and tender heart.

This is the sort of book that makes one long for a regular group of preschoolers to read it to, at least if that someone is me.