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.

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.