A Review of Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say

This is one of the most remarkably affecting books I have ever read. When a baby is born, he or she doesn’t know s/he is deaf, autistic, or any different from anyone else; it is positively heartbreaking to read about this one’s introduction to a world that was almost unfailingly cruel.

Born in in 1899 in rural Idaho, James Castle was deaf, unable to speak, and autistic. Through straightforward narration, his nephew attempts to show the world through baby James’ eyes: “James opened his eyes to the world and saw things that moved and things that were still. Anything that moved seemed to scare him. He cried as his parents bobbed around him with darting eyes and flapping mouths. But James couldn’t hear himself shrieking. For him the world would always be silent.” It is truly the stuff of nightmares, interpreted hauntingly by Say’s mixed-media art, some in smudgy grayscale and some in color. Images of young James engaged by various scraps of paper, charcoal, and other “found” art materials are almost peaceful; they are juxtaposed by harrowing scenes of him holding his arms around his ears while other children scream taunts at him.

SilentDaysSilentDreams

Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 2017)

James’ own parents were no doubt as terrified and perplexed by their son as he was by the world; unfortunately, they were ill-equipped, or unable or unwilling, to figure out how best to rear him. At first, they gave him old paper or other throwaway items, since those things seemed to keep him entertained or at least occupied. They sent him to a school where he appears to have found some level of engagement: looking books and printed materials in the library, although he could not read; watching teachers sew books together; and doing “well in shoe repair class.” But the school considered him a failure because he could not learn to speak. There is no judgement made explicit in the text on the principal who advised James’ parents “…not to give James and drawing materials at home. He said James should learn to read and write and not waste time on drawings.” Readers will come to their own conclusions about the humanity, or lack thereof, in this approach.

As an adult, James became extremely isolated, essentially living in a barn where he had his “studio” and a mattress on the floor. Continually tormented by kids stealing his artwork, and called names such as “Dummy” and “Crazy Jimmy,” he nonetheless persisted in doing the only thing that seemed to give him any pleasure: using whatever he could find (soot with spit, charred sticks, and the like) to create art. Say’s portrayal of the type of illustrations James was creating at this time show eerie pictures of people with boxes or blank circles where faces should be, as well as quotidian images of small wooden houses and little puppets of dolls, farm animals and birds. We’ll never really know, but it’s possible James was expressing his wishes, desires, and silent dreams for home and companionship in the only way he knew how.

There is some redemption to James’ story with an art show organized by his nephew’s teacher in art school, and an eventual trailer in which he could live that was a big step up from the shacks he’d inhabited for most of his life. Nowadays, “found” or “naïve” art is a recognized genre, and James Castle is a respected contributor to it. Say’s closing portrait shows James as an adult, standing in front of his “Dream House,” with what might be a hint of a smile. The text reads “I think he was happy.”

An author’s note, bibliography, and photos of some of the found materials Say used to create the art round out this haunting picture book biography for older readers.

Commonalities, Not Competition: Newbery 2014

It gets to be this time of the year in the children’s publishing world and my anxiety starts to bubble to the surface of my being. Blogs are buzzing with reviews of novels, analysis of illustrations, and comparison of genres. Librarians ask each other, “What are your favorites this year?” Patrons ask, “So who do you think is going to win?” And while I love love love the ALSC awards, I want to take a step back and reflect upon what a few of these buzzing books have in common, rather than the spirit of competition that my air bubble is currently filled with. This perfectly fits with The Butler Center’s mission to encourage imagination and wonder through literature.

I generated the following list of books randomly from several sources. This is simply for observation’s sake, so if a book isn’t included, there is no intention or reason behind it (and I have had a chance to READ THESE!) Let’s check out some of the books:

  • Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
  • One Came Home by Amy Timberlake
  • The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata
  • Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo
  • The Center of Everything by Linda Urban
  •  A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
  • Far Far Away by Tom McNeal

Okay, so let’s the get obvious ones out of the way– most of these authors are women and they are all fiction choices. But this says more about me as a reader than about the Newbery contenders this year.

But let’s look at what’s underneath. When I take a close look, this is what I see:

1) They all ask important questions. Why are we here? How do I discover my own voice? What is the best way to make decisions? Where do I fit in? Can I change my own destiny, or is it just up to luck? Whether it is Georgie who is trying to navigate her own world amidst feelings of loss and coming-of-age discoveries or Flora going on adventures with a magic squirrel, these characters search, seek, and only sometimes find the answer. In other words, they make us think.

2) They are filled with important relationships. I think we know that humans instinctually want to connect with others, but each of these books explores friendship and family relationships with distinguished and dynamic depth. Cady searches for her long-lost parent. Willow loses everything she has and then finds family in a patchwork quilt of interesting human beings. The ghost of Jacob Grimm protects young Jacob Johnson Johnson, forming a kind of intimate bond between male characters. This level of authenticity is, in my opinion, rare in middle grade/YA novels.

3) They leave us with more questions, rather than answers. These books don’t tell us the way to live. There is no black and white, right or wrong. They explore questions along the way, but they leave the answers up to the reader. And isn’t that what great books are all about? Some of the best books I’ve read, I’ve finished the last page and thought, “Hmmm,” or “….huh….?” But then I think. I talk to other readers. I wait for it to sink in. And all of these books have sunk in because they don’t “fix” or “solve” anything. They explore, ignite, and wonder.

What Newbery buzz books are you excited about this year? What do they have in common with each other? How do the books inform each other when you compare them in the aggregate rather than in direct competition with each other?

Tommysaurus Rex

Tommysaurus RexTommysaurus Rex
by Doug TenNapel
Graphix, 2013

Opening the pages of one of Doug TenNapel’s book is a bit like pressing play for a David Lynch film: you feel the certainty in your gut that it’s going to be a surprising and unique experience, an hour or two of bizarre, sometimes even disturbing images you’ll never forget seeing. The difference is, with Lynch’s work, I’d usually prefer to look away; with TenNapel, I can’t tear my eyes from the page.

Before the warped worlds of Bad Island and Ghostopolis, before the philosophical minefield of Cardboard, Doug TenNapel wrote Tommysaurus Rex, now beautifully republished in full color (contributed by Katherine Garner). In this middle grade graphic novel, a boy named Ely loses a pet dog and gains a pet dinosaur. Ely knows in his heart that the tyrannosaurus – playful, good-natured, and in need of training – is some manifestation of his old dog Tommy, despite its also having memories of Cretaceous life (and death). The mechanisms for the dinosaur’s rebirth and reincarnation are largely unstated, and blissfully so; TenNapel’s masterful storytelling presents a confident, fantastical logic that shrugs off the dull necessities of reality. The reader is happy to shrug them off, too.

In Tommysaurus Rex, TenNapel nods to fellow monster creators: Ray Harryhausen, visual effects artist who innovated new stop-motion animation techniques in the 1950s and ‘60s, makes a cameo appearance in Ely’s story. Bill Watterson was a clear influence on the artist; like Calvin and Hobbes, Ely and his fellow humans are drawn with occasionally zany stylistic expressions, while Tommysaurus is almost frighteningly realistic. Yet despite its allusions and tributes, the style and story stand alone. Calvin and Hobbes cuts with wit and cynicism, but through its perfectly messy imagery and fantastical conceit, Tommysaurus Rex rings loudly and truly with heart. One moment you might recoil from the image of a tyrannosaurus digging into a bloody feast of a cow carcass; the next, you’re holding back tears as a bully expresses regret or a friend says good-bye forever. TenNapel always surprises me somehow, except I always know I need to hold on for dear life (and keep the tissues within reach).

One for the Murphys

One for the Murphys

One for the Murphys
by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2012

For a dog owner, it’s always a fascinating exercise to see what your pet notices. You pick up the house keys and she’s at the door; simply raise your eyebrows and her ears are pricked up in anticipation. A dog’s job is above all observing her humans, and we’re amazed by what she notices.

Yet nothing tops our own species as the reigning champions of observation. When we’re paying attention, we see everything: the slight tightness in a boss’s face, or the averted eyes of a suspicious stranger. The key is the paying attention part. In psychology experiments, a subject might be “primed” for a test by viewing significant words or images. In life, our past experiences teach us what to look out for.

One for the Murphys is a story about seeing. Twelve-year-old Carley Connors keeps much to herself, but the reader sees she’s a pro at observation, especially of her foster family:

“Michael Eric comes in with his hand tucked into his armpit. His mother drops to the floor like someone has kicked her behind the knees, but she lands gently, holding out her arms, and he melts into them.”

From smiling photos, neatly arranged pantry supplies, and especially the warm gestures and touches exchanged between the Murphys, Carley sees she doesn’t belong. She sees other things, too: moments of tension, worry, and anger. To another’s eyes, these might be normal moments of stress for a family, especially a new foster family. But to Carley, every frown is evidence that she is unwanted. Every hand reaching out is a potential slap, and she reflexively flinches. Although she has a keen eye for observation, her perception is skewed.

Through fragments of memory, the reader starts to see why: the last thing Carley saw before she woke up in the hospital was her stepfather raising his fists to beat her, and her mother holding her down. Carley, believing strength and emotion are mutually exclusive, doesn’t share this information readily with the people she encounters. Without all the facts, these other characters make their own judgments: a police officer sees her as an instigator; a classmate, seeing only the new clothes Mrs. Murphy has purchase for Carley, thinks she’s a mindless clone of any other kid. But the reader is granted the most accurate view. In seeing each person’s mistakes in perception, including Carley’s, we start to wonder about the people we see and the judgments we make. There’s almost always more to the story – in One for the Murphys and in life – and it isn’t always something that we great observers can clearly see.

A Tangle of Knots, by Lisa Graff

9780399255175

I pick up a book for a number of reasons—good reviews, a fabulous cover, or because a friend or colleague gives a recommendation. Rarely does a book’s title encourage me to dive in. Even though A Tangle of Knots has all of the aforementioned things, its title is what really struck me.

Tangles and knots both suggest tension, complexity, and stress. I don’t know about anyone else out there, but the world has seemed to be a tangle of knots lately. I’m not sure when the tangle of knots began for me—maybe 9/11 was the first time I truly  comprehended catastrophe. Since then, and very recently, it feels like they just keep coming– the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut. The Boston Marathon bombings. The tornado. The daily violence here in Chicago.

That’s just the United States. If I start thinking about the terrorism in Mogadishu or the violence in Syria, the knots get thicker and the tangles more snarly.

So what does this difficult stuff have to do with a middle grade novel? Well, I picked up this book in the middle of one of those really tangly, knotty weeks. I had read first-person accounts from the families affected by the Newtown, CT shootings at my doctor’s appointment. The Boston Marathon bombings happened. Then the tornado came. Yet, as I read Graff’s novel, a number of things changed for me. First of all, I let myself sink into the world of the novel and was distracted from my sensitivity for little while. Graff’s eloquent, imaginative story weaving and her sophisticated, third-person writer’s voice made it impossible not to be encapsulated by the book. Secondly, I laughed, probably for the first time that week. Lastly, the book was a window and a mirror.  I thought about the book’s tangle of knots, my own tangle of knots, and the world’s tangle of knots, and I accepted them all.

This acceptance probably has to do with the fact that the book is all about cake, and there is no way I can be in a bad mood when I am reading about cake. The protagonist, Cady, is an orphan searching for her place in the world. She has her own special Talent—she can meet someone and instantly know his or her favorite cake. I love Cady. The novel is rich with a puzzle of characters, but what I love about Cady is that she has lost almost everything, and she is not bitter. By the end of the book, I realized that Cady’s magic had nothing to do with her cake making—it is all about her heart. Add in a whimsical family, an old woman who has lost her ability to speak, a boy who has a Talent for spitting, a thief, several real cake recipes, and some blue suitcases–we’ve got a winner.

As I turned the last page, I stopped thinking about the horrific parts of past tragedies and turned toward the small miracles. The police workers on 9/11. The Boston marathoners who crossed the finish line and ran to the local hospitals to give blood. The interview with the woman who had lost her dog in the rubble of Oklahoma’s tornado (see attached video). I know people talk about the small stuff, but it truly is everywhere. And it’s written all over Graff’s novel. A ferret. Peanut butter cake.  A missing dinosaur bone.

And then I thought: tangles and knots. Yes, both suggest tension. But put in a different light, they suggest stability, support, strength. We tie knots when we want something to stay together. When my hair tangles, it comes together in clumps, and each individual hair is indistinguishable. Maybe sometimes we need to be individuals, to be untangled and free. But other times, especially hard times, we need to tie knots with each other, and learn to lean on each other for support and strength. Cady does.

Graff writes, “Cady was one of the biggest-hearted people Marigold had ever met—she tried harder than anybody else to make others happy…If Marigold had learned anything that week, it was that trying hard and being a good person didn’t always mean that good things would happen to you.”

We all know that bad things happen. But that fact doesn’t make Cady lose her sensitive heart or her willingness to stay positive, so it won’t make me lose mine, either.

I think my favorite cake would be a chocolate one; almost brownie-like, with a really rich, dense texture and chocolate frosting, warmed up with ice cream on the side.

What’s your favorite?