Friday, October 14, 2011

Some more children's books of note:

The Boy Who Cried Ninja (Peachtree Publishers; 2011)

The cover of Alex Latimer’s debut children’s book tells you pretty much everything you need to know, and a glance at the back cover hints that it’s not simply a modern, hyperbolic update on “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” with the wolf swapped out for a ninja (As other, even more fantastic personages than a ninja are shown peering around the corner).

“Once there was a boy named Tim who no one believed,” the story begins, and when his mother asks him what happened to the last slice of cake, he truthfully told her it was a ninja who ate it.

When his father asks where his hammer was and his grandfather asks if he’s done his homework, Tim tells similar outrageous truths, and, since telling the truth only gets him in trouble, he decides to start taking the blame for the fantastical visitors who cause so many problems around his house—but that only gets him in the same amount of trouble, not less trouble.

Finally, Tim hatches a plan to prove to his family that a ninja really did eat the cake…and that he was actually innocent of all the other stuff he was blamed for, as the acts were committed by unbelievable characters and creatures (None of which I really want to reveal, given that the revelation of the increasingly silly responsible parties is one of the great joys of Latimer’s book).

Latimer’s artwork is extremely simple, consisting of large, roundish shapes for heads and bodies and spindly limbs terminating in tiny hands and feet. (According to the fine print, Latimer created the art using pencil, then digitizing and coloring it. That certainly explains the super-thin lines)

He leaves the images a lot of room to breathe, with a great deal of space surrounding them—sometimes it's all white space, sometime there are planes of color creating a comparatively complicated background, but the drawings always give the illusion of a small person in a big world.

The designs for the various creatures are all incredibly delightful, especially in the little details and idiosyncratic touches to their designs and their behaviors (how the ninja eats cake, or rakes leaves, for example).

Latimer makes great use of comics dialogue bubbles throughout. The dialogue and narration appear in lines or blocks of texts floating above or nestled below the pictures, but Latimer will fill dialogue bubbles with images, and occasionally give Tim gigantic, page-sized bubbles in which pictures and text appear, illustrating the story Tim is in the act of telling (For example, when his grandfather asks him about his homework, there’s a dialogue bubble near his grandpa’s head, and within it we see an open text book with addition and subtraction equations in it. When Tim responds, there’s a giant bubble that dominates the entire right page, featuring a one-sentence explanation, and two big drawings of what went down that prevented him from doing his homework).

I’d highly recommend this to any comics fan with a library card.

But Who Will Bell the Cats? ( Houghton Mifflin; 2009)

This is another cat-centric book from Cynthia von Buhler (whose lovely The Cat Who Wouldn’t Come Inside was discussed in this previous post on picture books).

It takes its title from the fable attributed to Aesop, in which a group of mice decide the best way to deal with a cat would be for one of them to take the great personal risk of attaching a bell to the cat. They all agree, although one old mouse points out a flaw in the plan: “That is all very well, but who will bell the cat?”

In Von Buhler’s story, Mouse will bell the cats…all eight of the pampered cats who live in great comfort in a castle with a doting princess, while he and his friend Brown Bat live in relative squalor in the basement.

Mouse may be braver than Aesop’s mice, but he is braver than he is smart, and his first attempt to bell the cats ends in dismal failure. As does his second. And third. And the fourth? Well, I hope I’m not spoiling things by noting that the story does indeed end rather happily, although not simply because Mouse meets his perhaps unrealistic and unnecessary goal.

The princess who owns the cats is kindhearted, and though the cats are quite rough with Mouse, they don’t kill or eat him or even seem to pose him too terrible a threat—they just play really, really, really roughly with him.

As with The Cat Who Wouldn’t Come Inside, the story is clever, but it’s the images that make the story truly exceptional.

Rather than the miniature models she used in that previous book, here Von Buhler has created a three-dimensional, dollhouse/diorama world—one evenly split between the ornate castle with its warm lighting and baroque decoration and elaborate outfits for the cats and the dark, scavenged and makeshift junkyard chic basement of Mouse and Bat—in which the characters themselves are all made of two-dimensional drawings that are then inserted into the “sets.” This allows for a great range of expressiveness in the characters, who are as free as those drawn to illustrate books in a more “normal” (“traditional”…?) style, but to allow von Buhler’s setting to remain spectacularly unique. The difference in rendering even helps the characters pop more, as there are differing levels of verisimilitude between them and their surroundings.

It also makes the book look different than von Buhler’s other picture book for children, which is quite a feat—producing two such extraordinarily individual looking books, and having them look so different form one another as well.

Cats’ Night Out (Simon & Schuster; 2010)

The verbal component of this delightful picture book written by Caroline Stutson is told in rhyming couplets, which is something that my grown-up ears are naturally resistant to, although it’s worth pointing out that Stutson does a pretty good job on the rhymes, which never feel forced or artificial, even if they naturally never feel quite natural either.

It’s J. Kalssen’s art work that caught my eye though, and which I enjoyed the most, although as with any good writer and artist collaboration, both components compliment one another to the point it’s hard to imagine enjoying the final work without one or the other.

The story begins:
From the alley, music drifts.
Shadows sawy to a trumpet riff…

Two cats samba, dressed in white,
On the rooftop Saturday night.
After several verses of such lines, there will be a full-page image of a window lighting up, and the words:
In the city,
Windows light.
How many cats
Will dance tonight?
That’s the basic structure of the piece, with increasing numbers of cats doing various types of dances in various urban locations (“Six cats tango in red capes/ up and down the fire escapes”; “Fourteen fox-trot nose to nose, dancing swiftly in evening clothes”), with a light going on and the chorus-like question being repeated (When reading this with my niece, she took the question as a prompt to hunt, find and count the cats).

Klassen’s vision of a city at night borders on the magical. The palette is limited…or at least seems to be, with a lot of soft grays and browns and charcols and bits of black here and there, but the cats themselves and their clothes especially contrast with the setting enough to announce their presence (the cats are all various cat colors, but “purer” than the other colors, which tend to have ink dribblings and smudges left on them, so the cats seem almost luminescent; their clothes are dancing costumes, so the line-dancers wear cowboy boots and vests, the boogie-ing cats wear poodle skirts and saddle shoes, etc).

I’m noticing much of this the second and fourth time through, though. What really killed me was the looks on the cats faces when they danced. They are all so…serious about dancing, whatever style of dance they might be doing.That all builds up to the climax, in which the people behind those lighted windows appear and tell the cats to knock it off, leading to a sharp contrast between serious, eyes closed, mouths frowning cats and these cats:After which point, the cats return to “normal”…At least until night falls again.

I’m A Shark (Balzer and Bray; 2011)

This is one of the latest from Bob Shea, an incredible artist whose drawings I love, although being 34-years-old, I sometimes don’t enjoy some of his stories (Like New Socks or Dinosaur Vs. The Potty or Dinosaur Vs. The Library) as much as I enjoy some of his other stories (Like Race You To Bed and Dinosaur Vs. Bedtime, both of which are pretty great).

I really dig this one, though, from the picture of the smiling shark—his smile so big it splits his whole head—waving a fin at the reader while the title and byline bob in the child-like hand-drawn water to the author photo on the back of the jacket, in which Shea and a little boy (presumably the Ryan the book is dedicated to, and who provides a sweet drawing on one of the early pages) run screaming out of the water while the same Shea-drawn shark waves at them from where it was inserted in the background. I’m A Shark stars a shark, who introduces himself thusly: “I’m a shark! Aren’t I awesome?”

(Yes, sharks are awesome, and I particularly like Shea’s bullet-shaped, all teeth and eyes version of a shark, with the thick, crayon-like lines).

The shark extols his own awesomeness, mostly pertaining to his fearlessness, throughout the book to two little friends, a crab and a yellow fish…although its clear very early on that the shark might be slightly less fearless than he advertises. Especially when the subject of spiders comes up. There’s a neat little lesson in here, even if the shark never quite seems to learn it, or at least admit that he’s learned it, but the crab and the first seem to get it as, I imagine, will young readers. And old readers.

Old readers will also get that Shea is a fantastic artist, his ability to wring emotions both huge and somewhat subtle out of a handful of lines and shapes per page reminding me of Mo Willems’ best work.

The Lonely Beast (Andersen Press; 2011)

At no point in Chris Judge’s debut book for children does he refer to the Beast as a Bigfoot, Yeti, Sasquatch or hairy humanoid, but that’s immediately what I thought of when I saw the cover…and the title page (depicting a huge, hairy beast hiding among a stand of pine trees)…and the opening two-page spread, in which Judge draws the globe as seen from space, with a bunch of pictures of identical beasts in pink circles, dotted lines connected these images to parts of the globe.

“The Beasts are very rare. Not many people have heard of them. In fact, they are so rare that there is only one Beast in each country…and they don’t even know one another.”

That sounds pretty Bigfoot-like, right? Kinda like how every place on earth seems to have their own version of one, right?

The description of the Beast and his daily activities, however, made me begin to doubt a bit…

As did his eventual integration into human life, and his search for other Beasts…I really like the way Judge draws the Beast though, which looks like a perfect Bigfoot drawing to me, in that it suggests one without offering any real details of it.

Judge’s art is incredible, with each and every image a perfectly smooth, uniform and brilliantly bright piece of art. Several times the images break into panels and the pages themselves into comics-like grids, as in the images above, but also in examples like thisor thisThis is Judge’s first picture book. I eagerly await his second.

The Lump of Coal ( Harper Collins; 2008) This is the aforementioned other Christmas book by Lemony Snicket, this one illustrated by Brett Helquist, who provided illustrations for Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events series.

Snicket’s familiar voice of a sardonic, cynical downer disguising an ultimately optimistic and bright tone tells this tale of miracles: “The holiday season is a time for storytelling, and whether you are hearing the story of a candleabra staying lit for more than a week, or a baby born in a barn without proper medical supervision, these stories often feature miracles.”

So does this one, although, as the narrator points out by the end, life is full of miracles, if you stop and think about them, and your everyday life is full of miracles too.

The fact that this story stars a lump of coal that can “think, talk, and move itself around”—and, in Helquist’s drawings if not in the text itself, also has arms and legs, a face and a pretty natty suit—is not the miracle. Rather, these facts are presented “for the sake of argument,” so that the story can be told.

“Like many people who dress in black, the lump of coal was interested in becoming an artist,” we’re told, and he dreams of someday drawing lines on canvas, “or, more likely, on a breast of chicken or salmon filet by participating in a barbeque.”

This is the story of that lump of coal pursuing that dream during the holiday season. It’s a rather good story, with several moving parts that synch up quite nicely by the stories end, and a pleasantly circular narrative that concludes with a somewhat touching callback. Helquist’s art is fine, but seems a bit at odds with details in the story, and, of the two Snicket-written Christmas picture books, I think I preferred the Christmas card-aesthetic of ‘s Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming art.

Where Are You Bear? (Owl Kids: 2010)

I had pretty high hopes for this book, billed as “A Canadian Alphabet Adventure,” based mostly on Sean L. Moore’s incredible cover, in which a shurging little black girl shares a tiny boat with a Mountie and a bunch of North American animals (throw a lumberjack and cartoonist in there, and you have a cross-section of My Understanding of Canada).

I love the Cartoon Network-style designs on it, and the broad but somewhat individualized expressions on their faces. What’s up with that moose, exactly?

So Sophie (the girl) is going to visit her grandmother in Vancouver. However, when packing, she can’t find Bear, drawn at first with button eyes and a stitched up mouth. Unable to find him, her dad makes her leave without him (What a terrible father!) Once left alone, the bear becomes “real,” the button eyes becoming just like Sophie’s eyes, the stitched mouth becoming one full of teeth, and everything able to move.

After the set up, each page features a letter, a vocabulary word, and some sort of commentary, while either Sophie or Bear frolic about doing something sort of Canadian, I guess, just missing one another as they adventure through Canada.

That’s the first word, by the way, for the letter A—Adventure. As in, “What a big adventure!”

B is Beluga whale. C is Chowder. And so on.

The artwork remains very impressive, but Frieda Wishinsky’s story didn’t do a whole lot for me. Probably because I learned the alphabet so long ago.

Where’s Walrus? (Scholastic Press; 2011)

Stephen Savage’s picture book Where’s Walrus? is about as pure as a pitcture book can get: It’s a book, and it’s all pictures, not a single word to be found.

The story is fairly simple, although Savage still adds some slowly increasing tension, a climax and an unexpected twist that changes the characters and their world from their status quo on page one.

So there’s this zoo, and one day while everyone there—including the zookeeper—is napping, Walrus hops out of little pool and makes a break for it.

The zookeeper gives chase, but the Walrus seems to be exceptionally adept at blending in with this surroundings, no doubt helped quite a bit by the prevalence of the color gray in the city, and Savage’s super-simple, icon-like character design.

Because each two-page spread features Walrus in a different disguise, it can be assumed that the zookeeper recognizes him in each and Walrus thus has to move on to the next one, although maybe Walrus is simply trying to stay one stop ahead, and is constantly on the move.

One can see how Walrus is able to lend in with people in a few places, like blending in with the gray-coated fireman, but if the keeper can’t find Walrus hiding in a line of can-can dancers, then I think he needs to spend a little less time at his zoo.

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