Ghost in the House

ghostGhost in the House

by Ammi-Joan Paquette

illustrated by Adam Record

Candlewick 2013

I love Halloween, and I love things that are creepy…but oddly enough I don’t like to be scared.  Haunted houses?  Forget it!  So it’s no wonder that I’ve fallen in love with Ghost in the House written by Ammi-Joan Paquette and illustrated by Adam Record. This is a haunted house I’d actually like to visit.

The story starts off on a black page with the simple exclamation “Boo!”  On the next page a ghost appears—the most adorable ghost you’ve ever seen (yes, even more than Casper).  This structure continues, enunciating the creepy sounds the house makes and breaking tension with a collection of friendly creatures: a mummy, a monster, a skeleton, and a witch.  Finally the creatures stumble upon something that really frightens them—a human boy.

This book somehow manages to maintain the traditional eeriness we associate with haunted houses, which includes striped wall paper, creaking stairs, and shadows at every turn.  Yet its full of bright and contrasting colors.  The creatures themselves are vibrant, even as they wander down dark and gray hallways.  You might even wonder what this cheery bunch is doing in such a spooky place.

I love how simply and effectively the illustrations reflect the text.  Two eyes on a black background and the ghost’s worried expression reveal the characters’ unease.  Possibly my favorite page features the human boy, with a wide-eyed look that conveys his bafflement.  As the creatures run away, the boy looks straight at the reader and shrugs, as if to say, “What can you do?”

As you’re visiting haunted houses, or perhaps haunting them yourself, “on this dark, spooky night,” it’s always good to remember that there isn’t a creature scarier than a human.  Have a Happy Halloween!

KP

The results are in

As part of the fifth annual Dominican University Caritas Veritas Symposium the Butler Center staged a Book Identity Project through which we solicited from members of the university community a book (or six) from childhood that contributed to their identity. Participants were given an old-school check-out card asking for the book and we lined the front door and window of the center with old-school check-out card pockets to receive them. We had a tremendous response, with 101 books listed on 86 different cards.

identity cardsThe submissions are fascinating, with a surprising variety. To be sure, the collection includes some well-loved, to be expected titles. Where the Wild Things Are gets three mentions, and Dr. Seuss shows up six times, twice for The Cat in the Hat, twice for Green Eggs and Ham, and once each for Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. I’m not surprised to see Louisa May Alcott or A.A. Milne, C.S. Lewis or Lewis Carroll (or Robert Louis Stevenson) in the mix. The single most-cited title is Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, with four mentions, which is something of a surprise, not because it’s a book I don’t care for (indeed, I don’t care for it) but because it seems to have the sort of nostalgic perspective that I never thought spoke strongly to children. Consider me schooled. I was somewhat surprised, too, to find books outside the children’s canon, by the likes of Hemingway and Steinbeck and Dwight D. Eisenhower. We didn’t specify that the book needed to be a book written expressly for children, just that it resonated in the participant’s childhood, so it makes perfect sense that books like these would show up. It’s a great reminder of my own myopia, that I automatically understand young people’s reading through my deep engagement with the body of literature I study. Schooled again!

Quite a few series made the cut, including Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, The Chronicles of Narnia, and, of course, Harry Potter (I was 32 when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published, and it’s just a little sobering to realize how many of our students read it as children). Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day got two mentions (I wonder if those folks saw the movie) as did The Runaway Bunny. Andrew Clements’ Things Not Seen, published in 2004, is the youngest book mentioned, and the oldest is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, first published in 1855.

Here’s the complete list. Check it out. Are you surprised by what you see? And while you’re at it, let us know if you can identify the authors of any of the first few books listed, unfamiliar to us.

stephan and karaHere are Butler Center Student Assistant Kara Pauley and LISSA President Stephan Licitra collecting entires (and passing out candy). It sure is great to have such friendly, diligent assistance.

 

Oh, and for the record, my choice was Spectacles, by Ellen Raskin. It’s a great book. You should check it out.spectacles

Here is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays

here is the worldHere is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays

written by Lesléa Newman

illustrated by Susan Gal

Abrams, 2014

Sometimes I love a book on sight. It’s not fair, I know, or smart, really, to offer up my affection before I have really gotten to know the book a little, but sometimes I can’t help it. I had just such a reaction to this book. And I’m happy to report that deeper study and familiarity prove that my instincts were right. It’s splendid. And this, Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish year, seems the perfect day to sing its praises.

My affection began with the images. They are bright and cheerful and immediately arresting, but that basic appeal is just the beginning of their wonder. Susan Gal is a master of composition and shape. Every spread exhibits ordered balance and movement, reinforcing the sense of celebration with steady energy. And her figure work is just exquisite, with impeccable proportion and individual consistency. This seems a small thing, perhaps, but I can think of plenty of illustrators, some of them household names, who don’t approach the skillful grace of this warm, vital portraiture.

The color work enjoys the same sense of energy and balance, with rich, saturated jewel tones humming beside one another, glowing with naturalistic light. Indeed, whether lit by sunlight or stars, every spread elicits a sense of presence, so immediate is the setting.

And Gal employs all of this skill and style to a cumulative visual story that threads the family’s experience through the year. These holidays are not abstract, isolated festivities, but the real and meaningful celebrations of a close family.

For her part, Newman’s rhythmic verse scans beautifully (would that all rhyming text scan this well!), inviting, even imploring to be read aloud. But, just like the pictures, there’s substance behind the style, with family as the central theme.

This wonderful book will find its way to many libraries because of its useful and  accessible treatment of important cultural information, but I sure hope it has a chance to extend beyond its simple utility and has a chance to delight with its profound and handsome charms.

Shanah tovah.

What book from your childhood contributed to your identity?

photoOn September 23rd, Dominican University will be holding its fifth annual Caritas et Veritas Symposium, and the Butler Center will be taking part in the festivities.  We’ve created library date-due cards with space for members of the Dominican Community to answer a single question: what book from your childhood contributed to your identity?  Participants are encouraged to bring their cards to the Butler Center on the second floor of Rebecca Crown Library, room 214, where we will collect your responses.

But for now, a preview: what book contributed to my identity?  To answer this question, I first had to ask myself, how exactly do I identify?  In the most basic terms, I classify myself as a reader, a writer, a geek.  If there was one work really started me down the path to becoming what I am today, it was Kevin J. Anderson’s and Rebecca Moesta’s Young Jedi Knights series.

Prior to reading this series I would not have identified as a reader.  I remember reading being a struggle for me until middle school.  But after reading the Young Jedi Knights series (more commonly known among fans as the YJK books) I suddenly wanted all the Star Wars literature I could get my hands on.  And since LucasFilm continually publishes Star Wars novels, there are always more Star Wars books to read.

The YJK books made me a reader first, but the writer and the geek followed in quick succession.  By the time I reached high school, I was writing and posting Star Wars fan fiction online, which led me to pursue a major in Creative Writing as an undergraduate student.  Eventually, I began writing original stories.  Reading the Star Wars books also steered me toward other science fiction works, such as Ender’s Game1984, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  I steadily became indoctrinated in other fandoms, making me the geek I am today.

The YJK also had a specific effect on the way I viewed myself as a young girl.  While it could be argued that although all five main characters were equally important, Jaina Solo (the daughter of Princess Leia and Han Solo) acted as the leader of the group.  She was introduced as an inquisitive, mechanically-minded girl who preferred grease stains to makeup.  She was always the character to stay cool when a situation heated up, and has continues to be my favorite character in the Star Wars universe.  The YJK books also featured Tenel Ka, an athletic, rustic girl from a backwards planet with a no-nonsense attitude.  Like Jaina, she wasn’t worried about her appearance, but rather about developing her abilities.  Four books into the series, however, she lost her left arm in a lightsaber training accident, and as she recovered it was revealed that she has a somewhat secret identity: she was really the princess of a 36-planet cluster.  Both girls were able to become strong characters without losing their their femininity and were displayed in leadership roles more prominently than the three boys who made up the rest main cast.

The YJK was a series filled with great role models, fast pacing, and valuable lessons.  Best of all, it was easy to read.  These were definitely high-interest, low-level books.  Although the characters began at the age of fourteen, the series was really written at a fourth grade reading level, which is just another reason why they were able to pull me in when I was a struggling reader.  Without it, I wouldn’t have become the reader, writer, and geek that I am today.

So what book from your childhood contributed to your identity?  Stop by the Butler Center next Tuesday and let us know, or fill out the form below!

KP

PicWits!

picwits instructionsThis week we wrapped up our consideration of picture books in the Children’s Literature course I’m teaching, and we began class with a rousing game of PicWits! Do you know PicWits!? It’s a party game, much like Apples to Apples, that has players matching cards in their hand to a single phrase, with individuals taking turns choosing which card best represents the phrase in question. What’s unique about PicWits! is that the phrase is a “caption” and the cards in people’s hands are all photographs. You earn points when the chooser chooses the picture you matched to the caption. So, the game’s central point is the visual interpretation of the text. See where I’m going with this?

To begin with, the game is lots of fun. The images themselves represent a huge variety of theme and execution, and are often bizarre, leading to plentiful opportunities for provocative, sometimes outrageous pairings. But beyond the hilarity, our experience gave rise to some really interesting and illuminating thoughts about how picture books function, and what we can and should make of the symbiotic relationships between words and text. Here are some of our ideas:

Possibilities are endless. No matter how clearly you see and understand a phrase, others will see and understand it differently. Even given the limitations of having only a few cards to match from at any given time, there’s still remarkable variety in the relationships established between the single caption and the many visual interpretations offered. Indeed, no matter what picture you match with a phrase, there will be some relationship, even if it is one of tension or discord. Picture book illustrations can take advantage of that same infinite possibility, affecting just as many different responses.

Know your audience. We learned pretty rapidly that different people respond differently to different images. Martina* likes pictures of cute kids. Lynne* hates squirrels (HATES). before too long one learns to play to the chooser, making the match accordingly. We saw a direct parallel between that sort of play, and an illustrator’s attention to audience/age range.

Some pictures are just cute. Some pictures are just cute, and will be chosen, regardless of their interpretation of the caption in question. It’s the way of the world. Similarly, some picture books will find a broad audience due to their visual appeal, irrespective of how well they do (or do not) interpret the text in question or deliver any other literary element. That’s OK. It doesn’t make those bad books. But it is something to remember as we examine large numbers of picture books and parse their success.

The pairing that works is the pairing that works. It can be difficult to predict which pairing is going to capture someone’s attention. Literal is not necessarily best, but neither is ironic. So much depends upon the context, and the players. In terms of connections to picture book evaluation, this reminded us that the only thing we have to judge is the picture book in front of us, and that gives us plenty to talk about!

picwitsHere are a few students going to PicWits! town.

*names have been changed to protect the innocent.

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.