Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Weekly Haul: Memorial Day Week Special

It’s Wednesday evening as I write this, and usually that means I’m getting ready to post reviews of this week’s new comics releases. But because of the Monday Memorial Day holiday here in the states, new comics day was pushed back a day.

So I decided I’d review a haul of something other than comics this Wednesday—children’s picture books, which, like comics, rely on both words and pictures to tell a story. Unlike the comics reviews you usually read in the Weekly Hauls, this isn’t a haul of books I’ve personally purchased (they’re all library borrows), nor did they all get released this week. Some of these are indeed new-ish, but at least one is a couple years old.

The Lonesome Puppy (Chronicle Books) by Yoshitomo Nara Japanese fine artist Nara’s artwork will no doubt be familiar, even if you can’t place exactly where you’ve seen in before. Those of you who run in geek circles (and I’m assuming if you’re reading this, that’d be you) are probably familiar with it from Giant Robot magazine covers and coverage, and various products bearing Nara’s distinctive sense of character design.

This is Nara’s first children’s book, and it’s a beautiful looking one, with the individual paintings each looking more like the sort one would find in a gallery than illustrating a storybook. The format is that of a picture book—single images with prose text floating over or around them—but passages of it read like comics, if you take each full page to represent a panel. There are also several occasions where a single image acts like a piece of sequential art, with multiple images of the same little girl in different positions, implying movement.

It’s strongly enough told through the art that, even if you took out all the words, the story would be the same and very clear, although the moral might be more implied than blunt.

As for that story, it’s told by the lonesome puppy in the title. He is “all alone and lonesome,” and “always hoping for someone, somewhere to be my friend.”

The reason for this loneliness? He is very big. Very, very, very big. Like, you know Clifford the Big Red Dog? He’d be the size of one of this puppy’s fleas.

Well, exactly how big the lonesome puppy actually is is a little unclear. When he first shows us how big he is, his back paws are in Asia and his forepaws in North America. He’s big enough that you can see the curvature of the earth below him, and he would be easily visible from space. He seems somewhat smaller later, when a little girl is able to climb him, and she seems to be only slightly smaller than his nose.

At any rate, he’s too big for anyone to notice him. At least until one day, when a girl notices his back paw. She climbs up it until she reaches his back, then walks to his head, tumbles down the slope of his forehead, and crashes into the big, red nose at the end of his snout. They are equally surprised by one another, but quickly became friends. “Friends forever,” actually; “Though sometimes they fought, as friends do, they still had fun and played together.”

Then here’s the little moral of the story, which I must confess I found quite touching: “No matter how alone you are, there is always someone, somewhere, waiting to meet you. Just look and you will find them!”

Though written as if to address children, it really does sound like a message that a little kid wouldn’t need to hear in the same way an adolescent or grown-up might, as (most) children young enough to be reading picture books—or have them read to them—have family around them most of the time (or, at least, I hope they do).

It’s a really rather romantic story: Freakish, lonely creature no one seems to notice is finally noticed by a girl, and they become friends forever, and the creature finally finds happiness and companionship. It really sounds like a teenager finding their first love as much as it sounds like a giant puppy finding a human to notice it, doesn’t it?

Mr. Monkey’s Classroom (Harper Collins) by Jiwon Oh Here’s another children’s picture book that sensitive adults should steer clear of when feeling blue, as it’s potentially tear-inducing. It’s about two friends/housemates named Cat and Mouse who are a cat and a mouse, respectively. Mouse’s first day of school is coming up, and Cat, who’s already started school, helps her little friend get ready for the big day. But once they get there, Mouse is heartbroken to find Cat immediately begins to ignore him and start hanging out with the other, older kids she knew from last year. Mouse, meanwhile, is having a hard time adjusting to the stress of school, and it culminates in a little breakdown during lunch period, when Cat sits with her school friends and not Mouse.

It all ends happily, but Oh so perfectly captures the emotions of being a little kid in a strange new environment that reading it was a little like having one of those stressful dreams where you’re still in school and you, like forgot an assignment or something.

It’s hard to get a real sense of Oh’s artwork from seeing pictures of it online, as she uses a lot of little collage elements with vastly different textures to give the whole world of hers a very craft-like, hand-made feel. The buttons on the characters’ clothes and, in some cases, their eyes, look like photos of real buttons, and certain fabrics or objects look like scans or photos of real fabric; although the characters are clearly 2D drawings.

That world is one that looks like a sort of pan-Asian fantasy land assembled from bits of pieces of eastern design, with the white, Sanrio-proportioned cat in front of backgrounds of mountains, trees, temples and cranes that seem like they could be from a Japanese woodprint or a Chinese tapestry (Oh is Korean).

This is actually her second book featuring the characters. In 2003 Harper Collins published Cat & Mouse: A Delicious Tale. Oh’s design sensibility was similar—if anything, the previous book seemed more Asian in its visual themes, backgrounds and costuming—but the technique seemed much simpler, with the collage elements used more sparingly (and the influence of computers standing out more).

In this story, Cat and Mouse are best friends who live together, and do everything together. They are quite happy until one day Cat’s old friend Monkey came to visit here, and gave her a cookbook called “World’s Best Cookbook,” which made her realize “Mouse could be the most delicious meal in the world.” (A two-page spread shows Mouse picturing all the different ways her sleeping friend Mouse could be made into a dish, and Oh draws all these treats with mouse ears and/or tails sticking out of them. One shows the sleeping mouse encased in a green Jell-O mold, another has him on a plate, tucked under a piece of thinly sliced meat as if he were tucked into bed beneath a comforter, and so on.

With the thought in her head, she couldn’t help but get hunger every time she saw Mouse, so she moved far away to resist, doing things like meditating atop a mountain and under a waterfall and fasting until she became sick.

Mouse, meanwhile, looks for her, finds her, and drags her back home to nurse her back to health. They have a talk and, later, when playing at the beach, Cat thinks, “Mouse does look delicious, but how could I have thought of eating him? He’s my best friend.”

I’d highly recommend either of these books; they are both very visually rich, with a lot of little background characters and details for kids to pore over while waiting for whoever’s reading to them to finish the sentence and turn the page. But I’m not a parent or teacher or anything, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about: I just think these are nice-looking books that I enjoyed reading.

The Pigeon Wants a Puppy (Hyperion) by Mo Willems The original pigeon book, 2003’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. No lie, I laughed all the way through that thing, and read it over and over the first night I spent with it. The absurd situation—Why does the pigeon want to drive the bus? Why does the bus driver ask us to stop him from driving the bus? Why does the pigeon ask us to let him?—alone is such a random conflict, and Willems’ pigeon design is so perfect, looking hastily crayon drawn and fully-realized at the same time. I am literally in awe of how much emotion he gets out of the pigeon’s expressions, seeing how little he actually has to work with. Basically, just the pigeon’s eyes and wing gestures.

Well, this is the new pigeon book. Once again, the pigeon has a particular desire, as he has had in all the other pigeon books (not counting the board books for the littlest readers), and he spends the entire book pleading his case, until the twist ending. Like all of Willems’ pigeon books, it’s really well designed, and the art is brilliant. But this one’s not really all that good.

It might just be that the pigeon asking for stuff is getting a little old, or it could be the fact that the interactive nature of the book isn’t as formal as in the bus book. In that one, the driver specifically asks the reader not to let the pigeon do something, setting them into the conversation, so that every phrase the pigeon utters is directed at the reader, and with a turn of the page, he responds to the “no” answer that Willem intuits his audience will give.

I haven’t, like, focus-grouped this or anything, and only personally know one little kid who has read any pigeon books/had them read to her, and she loved it even more than me. The thing that she liked was yelling at the pigeon; when her mother would read what the pigeon said, the little girl would shout “No!” at the pigeon, while laughing at it.

In Bus, I got the impression that I was in the city, minding my own business, and got put in this extremely awkward position by first a random busdriver, and then a talking pigeon. Here, when the pigeon starts trying to convince me that he should have a puppy, I’m confused as to why he’ talking to me about it, or what he wants me to do about it exactly. Do I look like a puppy salesman or something?

So—not the best pigeon book. But it is still a pigeon book, and I could hang out with Willems’ pigeon (or his elephant and piggie) all day, every day, I think.

Given the simple formula of these things now—pigeon wants something, campaigns vigorously for it—I don’t understand why Willems doesn’t just crank one of these out every two weeks or so. I’d read ‘em. For more on the pigeon, you can check out his home page here. Also, Willems’ blog is a neat source of art, both by him and by children.

Woolvs in the Sitee (Boyd Mills Press/Front Street) by Margaret Wild and Anne Spudvilas Well, this book certainly could have benefited from a more skilled copy editor looking the text over before it went to print. Pretty much every word is spelled wrong, even “wolves” and “city” right there in the title! Okay, I’m just kidding; writer Wild did that on purpose. Her protagonist is a youngish boy named Ben, who writes the whole short book in that mostly-phonetic manner. He seems to live alone in a filthy basement, occasionally visiting his neighbor lady for clean water. He is very concerned about the “woolvs in the sitee,” and she isn’t; until one day she disappears and, fearing the woolvs got her, he prepares to go after her.

What the holy hell is going on here? I don’t know, but that too, seems to be intentional. The hints in Ben’s text indicate that the situation he’s now living in is rather recent, that he used to have a family, that the skies used to be blue and there weren’t always wolves to fear. It’s kind of an implied post-apocalyptic story, and I kept waiting for a resolution of some kind, where this would all be revealed to be a metaphor for some war or drug abuse or something, but it never comes.

This is basically an unnerving, distressing fucked-up book for teenagers and adults that simply looks and reads like a children’s picture book. I didn’t at all care for Spudvilas’ art; it’s fine and she’s competent, but it strikes a strange balance between creepy atmospherics and representational illustration that seems at odds with the misspelled, hand-scribbled looking text. The words look as if they are part of a document Ben himself has created and the reader is looking at, while the pictures look like the work of a professional illustrator.

1 comment:

Chance said...

well, I am a kindergarten teacher, and I think you're right on in your assessments. In fact, I think you've convinced me to buy the Cat and Mouse book for the first day of school next year.