Monday, January 09, 2012

Some picture books of note:

Bear in Long Underwear (Blue Apple Books; 2011)

I was initially attracted to Todd H. Doodler’s book by its cover, which features (a) a bear, (b) a rhyming title, (c) long underwear of the sort I wear, (d) cute, bold, highly-abstracted cartoon-style art and (e) a special, multi-surface design, in which the area devoted to bear’s underwear is fuzzy to the touch, while the butt area of his underwear is of a third material, smooth and cushioned.

It’s a fun cover to look at, to touch and to poke at, and the image and the title promise an intriguing story involving, um, a bear. And his long underwear.

Bear and his friends— a variety of animals, mostly mammals, native to North America—are hanging out in the house, drinking hot cocoa. Bear is depicted wearing regular old short underwear, while the other animals, being animals, are naked.

Doodler draws them all in a similar square-bodied, boggle-eyed style, with little to know separation between their heads and bodies, depending on species.

The animals decide to play outside, and over the course of several pages, Doodler lists their various fun activities. Bear builds a snowman, and as he puts his hat on the snowman, various friends say “He looks cold,” so Bear strips down, giving the snowman his own clothes, until Bear is in his long underwear.

The animals all marvel at long underwear, having never seen it, and then Bear takes them back into the cabin and outfits them each with their own pair.

The story is as stark and declarative as Doodler’s brilliantly-bright art, but I liked it okay. Bears and underwear are, individually, inherently funny, right? So when you put the two together…?

What I was most intrigued about, however, was one of those friends of Bear’s, who goes unnamed. See if you can spot him in this image. Which of those animals is not like the other?That’s right, Doodler included a Bigfoot.

I read this one with Niece #1, and asked her what kind of animal that guy was. She didn’t know. Later, she asked me if I knew what it was, and I said that I thought it was supposed to be a Bigfoot. We didn’t talk too much about Bigfoot after that, but she did ask if he was real or not.

I liked seeing him in there, it was another thing that attracted me to the book (I’m more likely to consume any media that has a Bigfoot in it than I would be if said media lacked a Bigfoot. This has lead to me watching many, many terrible films).

Is it weird Doodler decided to include a cryptid among the definitely real animals in his book? I tried to imagine how I would have reacted as a little kid. I was only slightly less terrified of Bigfoot than I was interested in him as a child. Would seeing him in this context have desensitized me to him as something to fear? I mean, here he is sipping cocoa with a bunch of cute woodland creatures, is he really anything to be afraid of?

Would I have taken this as confirmation that he is real? Would I have asked my parents about it, found out the truth, and then been angry with Doodler for irresponsibly using Bigfoot in this story as if he were real?

I don’t know. I didn’t have any exposure to Bigfoot as a very young child—not before I could read, anyway—and the few places I might have encountered him didn’t really register on me. For example, there’s a Yeti in those Rankin-Bass stop-motion holiday specials, but I just assumed it was something akin to the Wampa on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back, and there was an episode of The New Scooby-Doo Movies where the Laurel and Hardy and the gang were chased around by The Ghost of Bigfoot, but that just turned out to be a man in a mask.

Do Lions Live on Lily Pads? (Houghton Mifflin; 2006)

No, don’t be silly Melanie Walsh. Lions don’t live on lily pads. They live in dens. Or at the zoo.

Just kidding. In addition to knowing how to draw an incredibly simple, incredibly cute animal, one that seems fairly natural doing something it wouldn’t normally do— a crocodile wearing a size-appropriate snail shell, a parakeet standing in a fishbowl, etc—Walsh has an excellent handle on who lives where in the animal kingdom.

The format of the book is fairly simple, with series of two, two-page spreads following this formula: We’ll see, say, a baby goat hanging out in a nest, and the words will ask, “Is this the nest of a goat?” and, on the following spread, we’ll see the image repeated, now with a bird where the goat was, and the text answering, “No, it belongs to a bird.”

The formula only breaks at the very end, for a mildly amusing gag ending.

The title question is never really answered, however.

Here’s another example of Walsh’s design skills. She even makes spiders look cute:

The Eensy Weensy Spider Freaks Out (Big Time) (Random House; 2010)

And speaking of cute spiders…

Artist Troy Cummings retells the sing-song story of the title character, sung and acted out with hands by anyone who has ever attended a storytime, on the first two pages. Then he adds a third page, in which Eensy freaks out (big time), and then the story really begins.

After surviving the trauma of being washed out the water spout, Eensy develops a sort of PTSD and decides to give up climbing forever.

Her friend, a ladybug she shows no interest in eating, encourages her to try again, and although she’s afraid to do so, Eensy takes eensy weensy steps to start climbing again, essentially practicing desensitization cognitive behavior therapy, climbing something very small, and then something slightly bigger, until she climbs higher than anything with more than two legs has ever climbed before.

This is pretty damn healthy. Kids should read this when they’re young, so they’ll already have internalized it by the time they reach young adulthood and start to develop their own anxieties and phobias.

(I never really thought of the Eensy Weensy Spider as an inspirational story before, but I guess that’s just what it is—once the rain is dried up, the EWS starts all over again, despite the set-back. Cummings expands on this story, without changing the essentials).

Cummings’ art is a real delight, blending masterful design with an affected, child-like application of slightly sketchy lines and rough coloring to achieve something that looks professional while suggesting something homemade.

Some of the design work just plain cracked me up.

I like this spider, a reporter for The Spider Insider: And this satellite is awesome: And I like this bit, where we see Eensy is biologically accurate in the number of eyes she possesses, but Cummings obscures six of ‘em under her hair, so she looks more human throughout the story. There are a few problems, scientifically speaking, with the conclusion, but I don’t think it will matter much, as it would be too difficult for any child to try and imitate Eensy’s final act of climbing and suffer the fate Cummings spared her.

The Good Little Bad Little Pig (Hyperion; 2002)

With this book, it was the title that initially grabbed me, but a quick glance on the cover provided more reasons: It is written by the legendary writer of classic children’s books, Margaret Wise Brown, although the style of illustration makes it evident that this was a cross-generation collaboration of some sort.

As it turns out, the story is from a 1939 collection, while the illustrations by Dan Yaccarino are new to this publication, in which the story is broken out into its own picture book. Yaccarino’s artwork is rather thoroughly modern, but he keeps elements of the artwork as timeless as possible.

One day, a little boy named Peter asks his mom if he can have a pet pig. His incredulous mother asks, “You want a dirty little bad little pig?” But the boy replies that no, he wants a clean little pig, “And I don’t want a bad little pig. I want a good little bad little pig.”

His mother attempts to fulfill this wish, and she sits down to write a poem to a farmer:
Farmer, farmer,
I want a pig—
Not too little
And not too big
Not too good
And not too bad—
The very best pig
Any boy ever had
The pig they get fits the bill. It’s not always good, and it’s not always bad. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s bad.

Just like children who will have this story read to them. Just like the grown-ups who will read the story to them. Just like everyone in the whole world.

Happy Pig Day! (Hyperion; 2011)

I strongly suspect Mo Willems wrote this book in his Elephant & Piggie series for the express purpose of giving youth librarians a good excuse to program around a particular book of his.

Happy Pig Day, you see, is, “the best day to have a pig party! It is the best day to sing pig songs! It is the best day to dance pig dances! It is the best day to eat pig foods! It is the best day to play pig games!”

See? The children’s programming practically programs itself!

I’m not entirely sure Willems played fair with the twist ending, but it’s a nice gag, and Happy Pig Day sure seems like a holiday worth celebrating. Mark your calendars.

Oh wait. Piggie neglected to say which day is Happy Pig Day…

The Legend of Ninja Cowboy Bear (Kids Can Press; 2009)

I feel somewhat sheepish admitting that I didn’t like this book more than I did. I feel like I should love it, given the high concept title and the fact that it stars a bear, a ninja and a cowboy.Certainly artist Hilary Leung’s art is great, and there are some neat ninja jokes within, and nice applications of comics language and visuals as verbal communication, but the Everyone Is Special In Their Own Way message is communicated somewhat haphazardly, given the specificity of the stars.

The story goes like this…
Once upon a time there were three friends: a ninja, a cowboy and a bear. They did everything together and enjoyed each other’s company. However, they were each different in their own way. One day those differences came between them, and here is what happened. The ninja and the bear started to quarrel. The ninja thought he was better than the bear. The bear disagreed.
They ask the cowboy to decide, and he responds by devising a contest. Once that’s decided, another disagreement breaks out, and another contest between friends is devised. And then there’s another disagreement, with another contest.

Essentially, each contest proves that each character is better than another at something.

The book concludes with a “Ninja Cowboy Bear” game, which is kinda like rock, paper scissors, only instead of just using your hands, kids face one another back-to-back, as in a duel, then walk three paces away from one another, and turn, assuming one of the three positions, winning or losing depending on which they pick in relationship to one another.

Operation Ghost (Harcourt Brace & Company; 1999)

Normally I would scan a page or two of art to use as an example when discussing Jacques Duquennoy’s funny little book about ghosts, but the fine print reads stricter than usual, not even having the “except for small portions for purposes of review” allowance one normally finds in it.

So I’ll try to describe it in words.

This is the story of a ghost named Henry, who has been suffering various medical problems, despite being dead.

Henry, like the other ghosts in the book, is depicted as a generic, sheet-like ghost, with a big black eyes and a black line for a mouth, and arms and hands extending from his sheet-like white body.

Henry suffers measles and jaundice. He falls out of a tree and gets covered in Band-Aids. He hurts his head, and then breaks his arm. When he starts behaving funny as well, his friends take him to the ghost hospital, where ghost surgeon Doctor Ouch performs a risky surgery that restores Henry to normal, save for a stitched up scar in the middle of his body/sheet.

The book is mostly noteworthy for all of the fun ways in which Duquennoy draws the ghosts. When Henry catches measles, for example, he’s covered in red dots; when he gets jaundice, he’s colored yellow. When he takes pills for the former, we see the pills floating around inside Henry’s ghost form. And when he takes medicine for the latter, he changes the color of the medicine.

As far as visual jokes involving ghosts go, there’s at least one on every page of this book.

The Retired Kid (Hyperion; 2008)

As any kid, including the one that stars in Jon Agee’s The Retired Kid, will tell you, it’s hard work being a kid.

So eight-year-old Brian decides to retire, flying to Florida to move into the Happy Sunset Retirement Community. There he befriends the other retirees and enjoys naps, golf, fishing and playing cards…but he soon discovers the downsides of hanging out with a bunch of old people in an old people’s home, and he begins to miss his old life. So he returns to it.

Agee’s art has a pencil-like drawn quality to it (I would guess it’s done in some sort of charcoal crayon…?), and the colors are light, bright and similarly sketchy, as if applied with watercolor.

His art is super simple, and has a nice, urgent, unfinished quality about it, allowing the originally chosen lines to have a great deal of impact, and convey the majority of the visual information. The story is pretty good, but it’s the way Agee draws something like kid Brian dancing with an old lady that I really found interesting and amusing about the book.

The Robot and the Bluebird (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2008)

David Lucas’ precious story of a robot with a broken heart seems to be aiming for something that appeals to adults as much as kids, and he largely succeeds. The tone is quite elegiac, though, and it’s a bit of a bummer to read.

The broken-hearted robot couldn’t be fixed, so the other robots send him to the scrap heap, where he sits amidst all the other, more broken robots, with whom he can’t communicate. He sits there for at least a year, exposed to the elements.

Eventually a bluebird arrives, and the robot gives the poor bird shelter in the space where his heart used to be. The bird needs to get south for the winter, so the robot decides to walk it there, carrying it in his heart cavity. They make it, but at the end the robot is rusted so solid it can no longer move.

The heart metaphors are a bit obvious, and as I read I couldn’t help but constantly compare it to Sara Varon’s Robot Dreams, with which it shares at least a few similarities. Varon's book about a robot has a happier ending, though, and was far more emotionally devastating than Lucas’, due, perhaps, to the fact that Varon’s robot was a character with real-feeling feelings and emotions, whereas Lucas’ is mostly a symbol.

He’s a nice looking one, though! The art throughout is quite gorgeous, form the storybook, timeless look of the various mechanical men to the unspecific, drawn from the imagination varieties of birds.

Should I Share My Ice Cream? (Hyperion; 2011)

Here’s yet another exceptionally strong entry in Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie series. Check out Gerald’s face on that cover. Each of these books allows a reader to see an Olympic level cartoonist do a sort of floor routine, as Willems spends around 50 pages or so drawing wildly expressive emotions on a pair of characters, at least one of which has a trunk and is thus a little harder to wring emotion out of than something more anthropomorphic (to stick with the Olympics analogy, the fact that Willems gets Gerald’s face to do all he does is like a gymnast doing his think with a hand tied behind his back).

This is a great one for Gerald faces. Gerald gets some ice cream, and then must decide whether to eat it himself for share it with Piggie, and he ping pongs from devious satisfaction at the prospect of eating it all to heroic determination to share, temporarily landing on every conceivable emotion in between.

Sugar Would Not Eat It (Random House; 2009)

This is the story of Leo, an exceptionally stupid young boy who has apparently never heard of cat food.

The day after his birthday, he discovers a kitten sitting on a stoop and decides to adopt it. (You would too if you saw it; look at it’s face on artist Giselle Potter’s cover!)

When the kitten, who Leo names Sugar, gets hungry, he tries to feed her the last piece of his chocolate birthday cake. But, as the titles says, she would not eat it.

Leo tries a couple of rhetorical strategies to get her to eat the cake, but she refuses. He begins soliciting friends and neighbors for advice, and each says something about how their parents used to try to convince them to eat. Leo would then adopt these to apply toward Sugar and the cake.

So, for example, when a man at a food cart tells Leo that his mom used to tell him she slaved all afternoon over a hot stove to guild him into eating, Leo tries to guilt Sugar into eating the cake by telling her “It took me two hours to bake this cake.”

After six attempts and two days, Leo gives up and goes to make himself a tuna fish sandwich and milk. And Sugar helped himself!

Stupid, Leo. Cats don’t eat cake. They eat cat food. That’s why cat food is called “cat food;” it is literally food for cats.

Okay, I kid. Writer Emily Jenkins’ story is kind of funny if you can get past the hurdle of believing in a kid who knew so little about cats—Jenkins does point out quite early one that Leo “didn’t know anything about kittens, and he didn’t know anything about cats”—and it’s interesting to see a kid put in the position of an adult, and a mute kitten cast in the kid role. There’s a certain absurdity to the neighbors’ interest in the problem as well, as the first night several of them sleep in the kitchen with Leo and Sugar, waiting to see if she will ever eat her cake.

Potter’s art is highly painterly–each page looks like a distinct painting, and wouldn’t look out of place in a frame on a wall—and the words and lettering are cleverly integrated into the pages, with different fonts and layouts for dialogue versus narration, and unique placements of certain words.

It’s an interesting exploration of rhetorical strategies for getting kids to eat when and what they don’t want to, although I’m not sure the message is ideal—your parents should just feed you what you like or want to eat, could be one way to read it.

But if it saves just one stupid kid in the real world from trying to feed a kitten cake for two days…

Unicorns! Unicorns! (Holiday House; 1997)

So where are all the unicorns these days? Writer Geraldine McCaughrean crafts a myth-like story of what became of the unicorns and grafts it onto the Genesis story of Noah.

As the rains started and the animals were gathered, Noah started calling for the unicorns, “Unicorns! Unicorns!”

They were late getting on the boat, because they kept stopping to help other animals who were having a hard time getting there—carrying tortoises over a puddle, extracting a deer stuck in the mud, scolding some playful monkeys who were fucking around in the trees instead of getting to the ark.

Noah’s wife, called, um, “Mrs. Noah” here, and the other animals repeat the call between each of the Unicorns’ stops, but eventually they miss their ride.

Everyone’s all broken up about it, until after they flood waters subside, they notice “how two waves rolled in towards them over the ocean: two green translucent waves with arching manes and prancing hooves of foam.”

The unicorns lived on as the sea foam atop the waves, and even now you can see them. As McCaughrean somewhat poetically ends her story,
Though they race for dry land, they somehow never reach it. Only their candy-twist horns and sugar-stranded tails melt on the wet sand amid the seaweed and shining shells.
The image of unicorns living as sea foam is probably familiar; that’s where all of the surviving unicorns but one were kept in 1982 film The Last Unicorn (and, presumably, the book it was based on and the comic book series that followed them both). I’m not sure where the origin of this metaphor comes from, as I’ve read a few non-fiction books about unicorns (Of them, I’d most highly recommend Chris Lavers’ The Natural History of Unicorns), and Last Unicorn and Unicorns! Unicorns! are the only places I’ve heard the sea foam story.

I found the connection to the Noah story in the Bible pretty interesting, in part because it’s a source of gags cartoonists occasionally turn to, and in part because of unicorns’ relationship with the Bible. They are actually mentioned in the Bible quite a bit. Not in stories—Moses doesn’t call down a plague of unicorns against Egypt, and Jesus doesn’t heal a man gored by a unicorn or anything—but they appear in metaphors and so forth. I guess it was a mistranslation of the name for the animal the “auroch,” large, now extinct relatives of the bull. Later, in medieval Europe, the unicorn was used as a symbol of Christ.

Sophie Windham’s artwork also called to mind medieval Europe, as there’s something quite bestiary-like about some of her depictions of the various animals. The style of the ark–like a large, dragon-headed, striped-sail Viking ship—and the style of Noah and family’s clothes are also more European than Middle Eastern or Biblical.

Like a lot of medieval and Renaissance art, she seemed to be updating the story to that time period, while filling it with symbolic filigree that, if read literally, would seem a strange, pagan intrusion (For example, drawing huge faces on the gray clouds, blowing down wind and rain, or a weeping sun being obscured by them, or giving the rainbow a woman’s head and long, feathery wings).

She packs the pages with imagery, so that the words appear in tight blocks of text on white squares, usually in the center of the pages, while pictures of animals run along the top of the page, the bottom of the page and, in some cases, up and down the sides.

It’s a really beautiful-looking book.

When Santa Turned Green (Thomas Nelson; 2007)

I was slightly surprised and disappointed to learn that by “green,” author Victoria Perla was talking about Santa’s energy policy rather than the color of his suit (although he does change that as well).

First clue? There’s a tiny little sticker on the front cover, right below Santa’s left foot, with a blurb from Al Gore (“When Santa Turned Green helps even the youngest child grasp the importance of caring for our planet and solving the climate crisis”), the border of which reads “Printed on 100% recycled paper with soy-based inks.”

Hey, I’m all for teaching kids to practice environmentalism—and to do so while explaining why—and recycled paper and soy-based ink (so long as it’s not taking soybeans out of my mouth; I practically live on soybeans), but there’s always something uncomfortable about a work that is meant primarily as a teaching tool or propaganda (depending on your political views regarding global warming; I know there’s still a shocking amount of people who don’t believe in it and would thus prefer the latter term to the former). Especially when it’s aimed at children.

That said, maybe it’s better that Perla is so upfront about it…? The book opens with a letter from her to Moms and Dads, so it’s not like she’s trying to sneak anything by anyone to secretly indoctrinate kids or anything.

The basic idea is a pretty smart one. One day Santa notices his roof is leaking and, going outside, sees the North Pole is getting warmer and warmer, and a whole lot less snowier and icier. He hops in his sleigh to find out what’s what, and learns about global warming.

To figure out what to do, he visits every single child on earth to ask them for ideas on what they can do to cut down on carbon emissions and, getting into the act himself, he decides to use solar and wind power at his toy factory (Weird; I assumed it all ran on “magic” and elf labor, not fossil fuels). Also, Mrs. Claus makes him some green suits; he wears these every night of the year except Christmas Eve, when he wears his traditional red.

Santa Claus is pretty uniquely geographically situated to notice the effects of global warming, and is probably even more beloved by children than charismatic mega-fauna polar bears, so it makes sense to cast him in the middle of a global warming story like this. I’m actually surprised no one thought to do so before.

Illustrator Mirna Kantarevic's art is superlative. Kantarevic does a wonderful version of the little lively and quick, jolly old elf version of Santa, and I really like the details of the elf designs……and the abstracted nature of her reindeer, which doesn’t commit them to a particular species of deer as so many modern Santa stories do. You know what would really cut down on the use of fossil fuel, though? If Santa shared the secret of flying reindeer and his moving so fast and/or slowing down time that allows him to travel the whole world in a single night. Then we could do away with ocean liners, airplanes and cars and simply all get around by magical flying sleds pulled by magical flying reindeer.

What gives, Claus?

1 comment:

Aki Alaraatikka said...

Maybe Santa thought of it after the books events. Or maybe the secret of his super-speed is far too dangerous for humans to use. Who knows?