Thursday, August 25, 2011

Some picture books of note:

The Composer Is Dead (Harper Collins; 2009)

This is a children’s picture book by writer Lemony Snicket, the author of The Lump of Coal (and probably some other books too) and artist Carson Ellis, but it’s not just a picture book—it’s also an audiobook, the CD coming along with the book-book, on which the text is performed, with music composed by a Nathaniel Stookey adding a bit of demonstration of the various instruments one might hear in an orchestra.

“The Composer is dead,” is not only the title, but the first four words of the story, which takes the form of a murder mystery. An inspector, referred to as The Inspector, is called in to investigate, and the handsome, vain inspector has quite a large pool of potential suspects, consisting of all of the instruments in the orchestra.

He interrogates them section by section, instrument by instrument, and while each has a good excuse or a good alibi, each also casts aspersions on another instrument, and so the inspector moves on to the next.

It’s essentially a very clever introduction to and overview of orchestral and classical music; it’s an “educational” book that’s actually quite fun and funny. And that’s where the audiobook portion comes in; while Snicket describes the various instruments and their uses, it’s better to actually hear those instruments, as one does in relatively long stretches between interrogations on the CD version of The Composer Is Dead.

There’s an exceedingly clever couple of twists, jokes really, at the end of the book, so it has a nice punchline ending (It’s actually bookended by jokes; when the composer is first found dead, Snicket’s matter-of-fact narration declares “This is called decomposing,” above a big illustration of a fat, red-eyed fly).

I’m reluctant of sharing, or even hinting at, the joke, for fear of spoiling it, but after the talk of the instruments, there’s a nice litany naming a score or so f famous composers, as The Inspector suddenly realizes orchestras are littered with dead composers:
And so on for two text-heavy pages, while gray-ish, light brown and white men with beards, wigs or messy hair in formal wear are shown, eyes closed, floating like balloons above gray clouds.

I wonder about the suggested age group for the book, as I liked it quite a bit, but Niece #1 wasn't that interested. Reading the title aloud, she asked me what a composer was, and when I told her to read the first page to find out, she encountered a typical Snicket joke:
“Composer” is a word which here means “a person who sits in a room, muttering and humming and figuring out what notes the orchestra is to play.”
She wasn’t amused, and instead shut the book, re-read the cover and then asked me why the writer was named “Lemony,” if Lemony was a boy or girl, if it was a stage name, if Snicket was really his last name and so on.

She didn’t seem all that interested, but I think you, dear reader, will like it.

The First Pup: The Real Story of How Bo Got to the White House (Feiwel and Friends; 2010)

It’s been a couple of years since I had checked out the children’s books of Bob Staake, so one day at the library I punched his name into the catalog to see if I could track down any books he might have published, or that I might have missed, since the original post I wrote on him.

I found a handful, including the beautifully illustrated but otherwise hardly worthwhile We Planted a Tree, with writer Diane Muldrow, and Look! A Book!, a big, huge Where’s Waldo-like search and find book, in which Staake creates sprawling, Bosch-like images in which kids are encouraged to find various things (Niece #1 thoroughly enjoyed it; I didn’t take quite as much pleasure in finding things, but I did drool over the art).

The one I figured was most worth sharing, and easier to scan than Look! A Book!, was Staake’s First Pup, on what has proven to be a rather popular subject among children’s book artists.

Staake’s story isn’t told in rhyme, but in straightforward, fairly simple—but not too simple—narration.

“Once upon a time, a man named Barack Obama decided to run for president of the United States,” the book begins, “and the most amazing thing happened… he won!There’s a wonderful picture of a Staake-ified Obama, a brown, skull-shaped head with big ears atop a tightfitting suit, striding down a red carpet toward a podium on Eledction Night, an extremely abstracted Michelle Obama and two doll-like daughters in the background and, behind them, a magical-looking Chicago skyline constructed of Staake’s simple shapes, the skyscrapers emerging from the cloudy white night sky.

“He then made another big announcement,” the text continues below this image, “Once his family had moved to their new home in Washington, D.C., his daughters, Sasha and Malia, would get…a puppy!!!

Those last two words appear on page three, so that the first two-page spread ends with the elispis, and the readers turns the page to see a closeup image of Staake’s Obama behind a podium, his hands outstretched above his head, with the words “a puppy!!! floating above him. (It’s an interesting contrast to the way Jules Feiffer drew the same moment in Which Puppy? .

From there, the book is devoted to explaining how the Obamas moved into the White House, the events of the night of inauguration balls, and the family’s research for the perfect dog, with a “Meanwhile” cutaway to a farm in Texas, a poor puppy who needed a home and didn’t get along in the first one he was sent to.

Naturally, that’s Bo, and you probably know how it all works out.

It’s a nice enough story, if not exactly full of suspense or surprises. What mainly attracted me to the book was seeing how an artist with as accomplished and singular a style as Staake might approach the cute little dog’s family, and I was not disappointed.

I have a fascination with seeing multiple artists render the same subjects in their own styles, which is a large part of what I find so attractive about comic books (Like, everyone has their own Batman, you know?), and that’s an aspect of political cartooning I really enjoy, even if I rarely find political cartoons that I find engaging in their politics or humor.

Anyway, here’s Staake’s Obama family, including Bo's late Uncle Ted:

The art in general is quite nice though, from the inside covers in which we see Bo and a couple dozen other dogs of all shapes, sizes and colors running in a wrapping-paper/wallpaper like pattern, to Staake’s children’s book illustrator version of a few historical moments and life in and around the White House and Washington DC, to an extremely well-constructed page lay-out about Bo’s farm life, in which the block of text is neatly fenced in by a rolling hill, a perfectly straight field of corn, and the illustration on the pages.

The Cat Who Wouldn’t Come Inside (Houghton Mifflin; 2006)

This is one of those book that I picked up simply because of how unusual and how beautiful it looked. It’s a bit taller and a bit skinnier than your average children’s picture book, and designed to resemble an old-fashioned, leather bound book.

Open the cover, and the end-pages look like wallpaper in a very old home, with cat scratches in them. Turn another page and you see the paper, painted to look like ancient, yellowed paper, so much so that it’s a surprise to touch it and feel that its smooth and glossy rather than dry and rough on the fingertips, and that when one turns the pages they don’t creak and the edges don’t atomize a bit and give off little clouds of pungent dust.

And the art!

Writer/artist Cynthia von Buhler is an accomplished visual artist turning to children’s books, which is reflected not only in the packaging and aesthetic of the book, but in the illustrations as well, although the image are actually incredible photographs of incredible sculptures.

There’s a little dollhouse-like house, with a little doll-like woman who lives in it, and a little cat who visits her snowy porch.

The work is difficult to describe really, much more difficult than it is to simply show you——although even then, I’m not sure a single image gives an accurate depiction.

The book looks and reads a bit like it was made from stills from a stop-motion animated film, the sets lovingly created out of dollhouse furniture, hours and obsessive attention to detail.

The story, based on a true one, is charming in its believability and universality, and more charming still in the romantic lead into slight exaggeration and the punch of an ending, although as a grown-up I should note the repeating formula of the narration was a bit tiresome to me personally; it works quite well, but I found my eyes tempted to skim the repeating list-like elements to get to the new information.

If you have some time to kill, I’d highly recommend spending some time clicking around Von Buhler’s beautiful website and checking out her other kids books, her paintings and sculptures.

Here Comes Jack Frost (Roaring Press Books; 2009)

This is the other book from Kazuno Kohara, whose Ghosts In the House! we discussed the other day.

It’s done in the same style as the other book, and, like it, it’s a rather seasonal work, this time focusing on winter instead of fall.

The color scheme is a little more complex, beginning with “ a boy who lived in a house in the woods,” who is sad and lonely because its winter and “all his friends were hibernating” (all of ‘em except his dog, who, like the cat in Ghosts in the House, is the human protagonists constant, silent companion).

Here the colors are a rather dull light blue and black, but then, one morning strange patterns appeared on the window, and when the boy (and his dog), go outside to investigate, the colors change to a bright, bright white and a rich blue, which is dark at the top of the page, but then gets gradually lighter the closer to the bottom of the page it gets.

There waiting for them is “a white figure covering his house with frost and ice.” He has spindly limbs, the legs terminating in a curly-toed shoes, a long pointy nose and super-simple face of two round-eyes and a smile, and the rest of him is covered in a hood and robe that sticks out in all directions, evoking a snowflake.

The two become friends, and the little boy learns how fun winter can be.

The story isn’t quite as strong as that of Ghosts, but the art is quite lovely, and it’s a nice companion book.

Nothing At All (Smithmark; 1991)

That’s the publication date of the edition I read, but this picture book by Wanda Gág was first published way back in 1941, and was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1942. That’s how old a book it is, but it’s worth noting that of all of the books in this post, it was the one Niece #1 was most interested in—she read it repeatedly, and asked to borrow it to bring home and read a few more times, including once with her mom.

(Now that I live in the same corner of Ohio as my nieces, when I get children’s books from the library, I set them up like Christmas presents, leaning face out against the bottom of the entertainment center when I’m done reading them, so they can pick and choose which ones they like and give them a read—I usually pick ones that I want to read, as well as a few pertaining to their interests in puppies, sea mammals, gargoyles, holidays, skunks and so on).

Gág’s is an interesting name, instilling me some curiosity about her, which was one of the things that attracted me to the book (She and I share a birthday, although she was born in 1893, and her ethnicity is "Bohemian," according to the Internet. I've since gotten a few other books about her and a biography of her aimed at kids, so I'll be talking a bit more about G'ag at greater length later on).

I also liked the old-looking artwork, which had a whimsical, drawn-from-imagination-rather-than-life sense of design and was rendered in a rather ornate, illustrative style, although the colors were all soft and warm.

And I also liked the old-looking font of the text, which looks hand-lettered, and appears in tight little paragraphs in the middle of pages, each with big, wide white speaces all around the border.

But the subject matter most of all, was what attracted me: Nothing-At-All is the name of a puppy who was born invisible.

As for the story, “Once upon a time there were three little orphan dogs. They were brothers. They lived in a far forgotten corner of an old forgotten farm in three forgotten kennels which stood there in a row.”

One day two little children find the puppies, and they take the curly-eared dog and the pointy-eared dog home with them to raise, ignoring the kennel that appeared empty.

Nothing-At-All tried to follow them, but his little puppy legs got tired, and when he stopped to rest, the kids outpaced him and he was left behind and lost, unable to find his way back to his kennel or where the children went with his brothers.

Eventually a proud Jackdaw discovers the crying Nothing-At-All, and tells him that as a jackdaw it is his “task to carry home everything I see.” One thing he carried home was a Book of Magic, and in there was a spell called “Nothingness and Somethingness,” explaining how “he who is Nothingy, yet wishes to be Somethingy” can do so.

It’s a daily ritual, and each time Nothing-at-all performs it he gains a little more shape.

G’ag depicts the Nothing-At-All as real nothingness, a space of un-illustrated paper in the midst of the illustrations, in the shape of a rough sphere. To the characters, he is invisible, but to the readers he is a white ball of air. After each ritual though, he takes on more and more dog-like characteristics.

First the shape of a dog, so that he is nothing with the outline of a dog...Then he gets a spot, then a few more spots, then some eyes and eventually he’s a whole dog, with each of the parts drawn in by Gág upon the white, dog-shaped space left in each illustration one at a time and, after the final day, he’s shaded in and given texture like the other characters.

Gág’s pages are big, but the drawing are all rather small and intimate, often appearing just above the paragraphs of text, and in tight little shapes with strict borders, framed and surrounded by plenty of white space.

I'm sort of in love with Gág's work right now, and delving into it as deep as I can as fast as I can. Expect another, longer post on her soon-ish.


Anthony Strand said...

Ooh, I can't wait for the Gag-centric post. Are you going to be covering "Millions of Cats"? That's one of the books I remember most strongly from childhood. I'd need to ask her to make sure, but it might be my mother's favorite children's book of all time.

Aki Alaraatikka said...

I feel happy after reading this. Thanks man.