Sunday, November 10, 2013

Some picture books of note:

Mustache Baby (Clarion Books; 2013): Writer Bridget Heos and artist Joy Ang tell the story of Billy, a little baby born with an unusual feature: A full head of gingery hair. Oh, and a matching mustache. Alarmed, Billys parent's looked to the nearby nurse, who told them they'll have to wait and see "whether it is a good-guy mustache or a bad-guy mustache," and Ang draws a bushy gray, cookie-duster style mustache with a halo floating over it and a long, dark mustache curled up at the ends, bearing red devil horns and a red, spaded tale emanating from it.

It sure looks like a good-guy mustache, and Billy's behavior is determined by the style of his mustache. At first, he plays cowboy for four pages. Then there's a two-page spread filled with pictures of Billy with various mustaches, each determining his temperament and style of play: circus ringleader, Spanish painter, etc (near the edges of the page, we get fragments of two pictures, one suggested mustache baby is a Mario-style plumber/adventurer, wearing a red shirt and blue coveralls and carrying a plunger, but we can't see if he's wearing a matching hat or not, the other showing him shirtless and in orange pants, with a long Fu Manchu mustache, suggesting he's a kung fu master). Then there's another sequence in which he plays cop, as his mustache changes shape into a policeman's mustache.

And then comes the first of the book's two strongest visuals. There's a five page sequence which begins with the words, "But a funny thing happened. As Billy got bigger..."

The page is dominated by an over-the-shoulder view of the right-half of Billy's head, his eyes facing away from us, and only the right edge of his mustache visible  peeking around his cheek. The background is a bright, pale green field.

Turn the page, and a two-page spread is revealed, the "camera" seemignly zooming in on Billy's face, so we see him in the same angle, but now the mustache has grown longer, and the background is a darker orange. Turn the page again, and there's another two-page spread, this one even closer up, and the edges of his still-longer mustache has curled up, while the background bleeds from a dark red to a darker and darker shadowed red, becoming black in the upper right corner.

"His parents' worst fears were realized. Billy had a..." turn the page for the dramatic reveal, "BAD-GUY mustache."

This leads him to misbehave for a while, but, like his other mustaches, it changes again, and his mother tells him, "There, there...Everybody has a bad-mustache day now and then."

I'm fairly fascinated by the premise of the book, that mustache style determines behavior, rather than the reverse, that people with particular occupations or outlooks might generally wear a particular style of mustache, that would then become associated with them. I kinda like the idea that a mustache style, like a new hairstyle for a woman, can determine not only the way you might be perceived, but your very behavior (I've never found this to be the case, having only worn about four different mustaches: A  thin cookie-duster, a Hitler/Chaplin (for an afternoon, spent entirely around the house and seen by no one but my roommates), a Chester A. Arthur mustache/muttonchops combo and a waxed, pointy, up-turned villainous mustache. At no point did I feel anti-semitic/like a little tramp, presidential or villainous.

Aside form that five-page, three "panel" sequence of mustache transformation, the book's other great gag comes on the last page, but I won't spoil it. Suffice it to say that Heos and Ang have some diverting ideas about the nature of facial hair, and even if one isn't amused by all of their gags, many of which failed to strike me, there are a few bits of execution that are easy to admire.

The Gunniwolf (E.P. Dutton; 1970): This is a very old book. The copyright on the illustrations, by William Wiesner, are copyright dated 1967. The text copyright date is 1918 and 1946, and I suspect the story is still older, as author Wilhelmina Harper's credit says "Retold by" rather than simply "by" or "written by."

A (very) little bit of online research seems to indicate that Harper did not invent the story, but that it was an older American folktale, sometimes said to be Appalachian in origin, at other times to be African-American, but I couldn't find a definitive answer to its origins. Harper was a librarian as well as a writer, and this version is apparently the one she used in her story times.

The story is quite simple. A little girl who lives alone with her mother near the jungle is one day left alone, with the instruction to never, ever go near the jungle. Picking flowers, the little girl keeps seeing more and more beautiful flowers closer and closer to the jungle, and, before she knows it, she's rather deep into the jungle and approached by The Gunniwolf, a large, quadrapedal predator animal/monster.

He demands she stay still and sing for him, and she does...until he falls asleep. At which point she bolts and, waking, he pursues, asking her why she's moved away. She denies doing so, and, again upon his demand, she sings again, and he falls asleep. This happens several times until she is safely home.

I was attracted to the book—which I had never encountered as a child myself—by the cover and the title. Wiesner's Gunniwolf, whatever exactly that is, looks like a very large wolf, but with a man and tail like a lion. Inside, where there are many more, clearer pictures of the Gunniwolf, we see that it also has tufts of fur about it's ankles (almost as if it were a very shaggy animal shaved somewhat like a large poodle), and that it's mane drapes rather far down.

I was curious about the animal, but there's no real information about him in the book: He lives in the jungle, he can talk, he likes the sound of a little girl singing and he seems to be pretty sleepy, perhaps even narcoleptic.

The appeal of the story, it seems, is in its sounds, and it is a book meant to be told aloud to children, as in addition to repeating bits of action—the sing, sleep, run, chase, catch and repeat cycle of events—nonsense-like, sing-songy words are repeated for certain actions.

The girl sings "Kum-kwa, khi-wa," she runs "pit-pat, pit-pat," and the Gunniwolf runs "hunker-cha, hunker-cha."

This telling makes the origins of the story seem older than American, but perhaps those elements were just the flourishes of the storytellers who told it before Harper, and, here choices made by Wiesner.
The action takes place near a jungle, rather than a woods or forest. The dark-haired girl looks like she might be Asian, and her mother wears a shawl that covers her head and carries a jug of water that seem to place her somewhere around the setting of The Jungle Book, I would have guessed as a child.

The syllables the girl sings certainly sound more Eastern than Western, and the way she and the Gunniwolf talk certainly isn't perfect English. "Little Girl, why for you move?" he asks her. And she responds, "I no move." And he responds, "Then you sing that guten sweeten song again."

Regardless of its origins, I really like Wiesner's artwork, particularly the design of the Gunniwolf, who seems as playful and mischievous as he does scary, particularly when he falls asleep, and grows particularly anthropomorphic.

Halloween (Little, Brown and Company; 2002): Well, this is a weird little book. Written by Jerry Seinfeld and illustrated by James Bennett, it reads very much like a kid-friendly stretch of a Seinfeld stand-up routine*, focusing on Halloween (And by "kid-friendly" I mean not only is it not blue—does Seinfeld even ever work blue?—it doesn't concern itself with the social mores of the adult world that seems to be Seinfeld's comedy at its most Seinfeldian).

It's therefore not entirely a story, at least not as much as it is a series of anecdotes, with an introduction/conclusion structure based on the somewhat dubious assertion that children being able to consume a great deal of candy is something extraordinary enough to bear comparison to Superman (and/or be worthy of a story book at all).

So Seinfeld discusses how much he loved candy as a child, and how all-consuming his passion for consuming it was, and the joy of originally discovering the concept of trick-or-treating ("What is this? What did you say? Someone's giving out candy? Who's giving out candy? Everyone we know is just giving out candy?"). He talks a bit about costumes, and I wondered after a passage in which he discusses the sorts that came with the hard plastic face masks and plastic cellophane smocks, of a sort that only parents of a certain age would be able to relate to (Although his complaints about having to cover up his Superman costume with a coat are perhaps something more relatable to today's kids).

Superman figures rather prominently in the story, so much so that the small print includes a Superman created by  Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster credit, a copyright and trademark notation that he is DC Comics', and that he is here being "Used with permission."

Artist James Bennett, a prolific illustrator who has had his work published in Mad magazine, gets a few chances to draw Superman, appearing in a store display advertising Superman Halloween costumes, and in a pair of fantasy sequences, through young Jerry Seinfeld's imagination.

Bennett is good at what he does, but his isn't a style I'm particularly fond of. Here it's something between that of a caricature artist and a fine painter, and I found his Jerry Seinfeld-as-a-little boy rather disturbing, given how much it looks like Seinfeld, but not, like some sort of cloned, homunculus version of the comedian.

Halloween: Is It For Real? (Tommy Nelson; 1997): It was the title that got me on this one. I just liked the sound of it. It made me laugh. Like, what exactly is it asking? Is Halloween a real holiday? Yes, obviously it is. Is everything people say about Halloween for real? Uh, I don't know; does anyone say much of anything about Halloween?

The confused looking little kid on illustrator Jane Kurisu's cover sure looks confused about something. Is she or he wondering if that ghost and that witch are real? Or if He or she is really a cat now?

The "note to parents" from author Harold Myra on the first page only made me more interested:
Halloween is an odd mixture of creepy creatures, costume parties, and harvest fetivals. It is a confusing holiday for Christians.
Okay, sold. I checked it out of the library and took it home for me. I understand that "Halloween" has a somewhat shaky reputation in some public spaces and places now, specifically because some Christian faiths object to it. I'm not particularly well-traveled, but even I've been around more than a few institutions that forbid its celebration in any way, or at least have done away with the word, using things like "Fall Festival" or "Harvest Party" to describe a day of events that might include, say, dressing up in costumes and trick-or-treating.

I was raised in the Catholic faith, attending Catholic schools from Kindergarten through my last year of college,  but the tradition I grew up in has always been a very post-Vatican II one, so I am often both intrigued and bewildered by certain beliefs and practices of certain Christian sects or groups, particularly since "Christians" are generally referred to monolithically when discussed in the press.

Heck, even that intro—Halloween is a confusing holiday for Christians? Is it? I've lived my whole life around Christians, and I've never heard anyone express even the slightest bit of confusion regarding this wholly secular holiday (The closest I've come is in discussing holidays with a friend who was raised in the faith of the Jehovah's Witnesses; they don't celebrate any holidays, save an annual one around the time of Easter, not even their own birthdays).

So—Halloween, real or unreal?

Here's the rest of Myra's introduction:
Should parents encourage the celebration of a holiday that traces its roots to pagan practices and beliefs?
What, you mean like Christmas and Easter...?
The challenge for Christian parents is to each our children to use this holiday to celebrate God's victory over evil and evil spirits. It is my hope that this book will help.
That's a noble sentiment, really, and if the extremely devout can find a way to balance celebration of a fun, kids holiday with their faith that doesn't mean simply forbidding them to join in the innocent fun of the rest of the world, well, more power to them.

I was also kind of excited when I read that second-to-last sentence, as I wondered if this kids book might feature a section on The Harrowing of Hell, something I never heard of until reading about medieval legends and suchlike as a college student (That's the semi-apocryphal belief that, between dying on the cross on Good Friday and being resurrected on Easter Sunday, Jesus descended into hell, kicked Satan's ass, and freed all the virtuous pagans and/or everyone who had died up until that point, allowing them to ascend into heaven or purgatory or wherever. In some versions, Jesus even chains up Satan in hell, and hands governorship over to one of Satan's lieutenants or to angels. It's an awesome story that exists only as potential one in my imagination, really, as I've seen no real fleshed-out, dramatic version of it before. It's a story, but not a very detailed one, I guess).

Myra's story starts with a family—mom, dad and kids Greg, Todd and Michelle—discussing the fun parts of Halloween. On the second page, one of the kids ask why anyone celebrates it, and another chimes in that "Ive heard that it is called the devil's holiday."

"It all started long ago, before Christ was born," Dad explained. "People believed that a lord of death sent evil spirits into animals to play terrible tricks on people. To escape them, people wore disguises."

There aren't any sources listed at the back of the book (This is a 24-page picture book for children, rather than a scholarly work, I guess), so I can't really check on that. Personally, I always dated the pagan practices associated with Halloween—many of which I think are a sort of invented tradition, or at least partially invented to justify or explain traditions that the explainers don't really know the origins of anymore—to after the death of Christ, but I suppose that's simply my ignorance, born of a Western-centric understanding of world history.  The story of human history I've always been taught moves from the middle east to Greece and Rome before moving northward to Europe.

Dad explains that "Christians tried to change the holiday into a festival of joy" and that Halloween comes from All Hallow' Eve, with "All Hallows" meaning all holies or all the saints.

When one of the boys interjects that he thought the holiday was about ghosts, the parents explain that "It's about people who have died...But saints aren't ghosts. They're alive with Jesus, who rose from the dead and has a real body."

The kids host a Halloween party, and when the kids get talking to their friends, the subject of death comes up, and mom brings up heaven, "We miss our loved ones...But they're not sad. They're happy in a different world."

Man, I hope I have my hair back in heaven, and won't be as jowly as grandpa in that picture. I'd kinda like to be 19 again, physically, if that's alright.

When the party ends, everyone sings "Amazing Grace," and when the kids go to bed, they talk about feeling scared, and ask why people tell scary stories. Mom answers in a way that I sure as hell wouldn't want my mother to have answered any questions I might have had about monsters, Bigfoots, aliens, owl men and the other sorts of things I was scared of as a child:
"Most stories are told in fun," said Mom. "But there is a supernatural world."

"Evil spirits do exist. And temptations."
Temptations? No big deal. But what's all this about evil spirits? You mean to tell me that creaking sound right outside my bedroom window that dad said is just the tree branch rubbing against the phone line in the wind is definitely not a dinosaur or monster, but it might be an evil spirit?

The parents then teach the kids a Bible verse, 2 Timothy 1:7, "God did not give us a spirit that makes us afraid. He gave us a spirit of power and love." "If you memorize the verse, you can say it to yourself when you get scared," Dad tells the kids.

I'm not in love with that verse, and don't know if it woulda helped me when I was a terrified child trying to go to sleep at night, but I bet psychologically having a spell or mantra-like phrase to repeat over and over might have helped.

And that's pretty much the end, save for the happy ending last page.

Personally, I found the book a little over-preachy—I prefer my Christian messages to be more Chronicles of Narnia style than as overt as this—and don't think I would have dug it as a child, but I think the solution Myra comes up with is probably the best one: Embrace the fun parts of Halloween, but it, like anything else in the secular world, can be used as a springboard to remember or meditate on aspects of your faith.

Kurisu's art didn't do anything for me, and I don't think the book had to look as generic as it does, but then, this was a message-first, art-second sort of book, so it's not as surprising or disappointing as it is not what I would have most wanted to see in a book on the subject.

The Monsters' Monster (Little, Brown and Company; 2012): Cartoonist/children's author alert! This is the latest picture book from Patrick McDonnell, creator of Mutts, and therefore, likely the best cartoonist whose work is appearing on your local paper's funnies pages, depending on where you live and the exact roster of the cartoonists whose work is still appearing in your paper.

This particularly charming book, which steers clear of his Mutts characters and his usual animal cast, is a good book for the post-Halloween, pre-Thanksgiving part of fall, as it's contents and aesthetic are generally Halloween-esque, but it's moral more of a Thanksgiving-esque one.

A trio of cute little monsters named Grouch (a little devil in a red pair of long underwear, with a bulbous red nose and long, striated horns), Grump (a hairy, bean-shaped creature evocative of Captain Caveman, with horns and a spaded tail) and little Gloom 'n' Doom (the smallest monster, who looks a bit like a two-headed mime) all though they were the most monstrous monsters.

As it reads on McDonnel's first two-page spread, of a castle emanating exclamation points, swirls, lighning bolts and little swirls of angry emotion, on a barren hill above a peaceful, six-building town emanating sweat drops and exclamation points:
They lived in a dark monster castle, high atop a dark monster mountain, overlooking a monster-fearing village.
They're days were mostly occupied with being monstrous, and occasionally their monstering would get competitive, with the three fighting over who was the most monstrous. To settle the argument once and for all, they decide to build their own monster, a monster to end all monster.

They essentially build their own Frankenstein's monster, who dwarfs them all in size (he can lift all three in a single hug, and have room for another three monsters of their size in his arms). To their surprise, he's polite and kind and showed no inclination towards monstrosity:
"But Monster didn't think he was a monster," the text reads. "He didn't think he was anything...but thankful to be alive!"
After a suspenseful final act, Monster's disposition proves contagious, and he is able to convert the little monsters to his point of view, with the help of doughnuts and the beauty of the natural world.

It's always a treat to see McDonnell working so big, in the great big size and color that picture books allow him, and his beautiful, present line is on perfect display here. It's an additional treat to see him drawing monsters instead of cats and dogs and people, just for a refreshing change of pace.

Sally Gets A Job (Abrams; 2008): Another of  the late, Columbus-born Stephen Huneck's many Sally books, which also include Sally Goes to the Beach, Sally Goes to the Farm and so on, this one finds the titular Labrador retriever watching her family go off to work and school and wishing she could go to.

"Maybe I should get a job," Sally thinks. That's pages one and two. Most of the remainder of the book consists of Sally imagining different jobs she might like to do, and what might be good and bad about them; some of these are based on her interests (She likes digging, so perhaps she could be an archaeologist; on the other paw, she really likes bones, so maybe she should just focus on them and become a paleontologist).

Each occupation is generally accompanied by an image of Sally performing it, and many of these are quite humorous, thanks to Huneck's deadpan presentation of a perfectly normal, not-at-all anthropomorphized dog in a setting or performing an activity that a dog cannot. Like looking at the want ads, as she does on the cover, or, for example, driving a tractor:
Huneck's artwork is accomplished through the creation of woodblocks and, in the case of this particular book, colored pencil. Despite the obvious artifice involved—note the white lines in Sally's black coat approximating her hairiness—Huneck's style is very realistic in its portrayal of the character and settings, which gives the book much of its humor.

For example, at one point she thinks, "Though I have never seen one, I think it would be fun to be a hip-hop star." This is the picture that accompanies that page of text:
Yes Sally, that is exactly what a hip hop star is.

Ultimately, Sally realizes she already has the very best job of all.


No, no it's not children's book star.

Unicorn Things He's Pretty Great (Hyperion; 2013): EDILW favorite Bob Shea's latest is a great one. How great, well, the cover pretty much tells you everything you need to know about it: The characters, the conflict, the look and the brilliant colors (What an online image might not reveal is the twinkly glitter in the frosting on those cupcakes, the cover image reflecting a scene in the book when Unicorn literally makes it rain cupcakes, the silver ink on the little sparkles and the dotted motion lines, and the fact that cupcakes and title are slightly raised, giving the book a pleasing tactile feel).

The story is told by Goat, whose life is turned upside down upon the arrival of Unicorn, who, despite having one less horn than Goat, seemingly has a lot more going for him, like all of his magical powers, his wonderful prancing ability and the fact that he emanates rainbows.
Shea's Unicorn is basically a big, thick, white capital P with details drawn on, intimating a simple, even child-like drawing style. The other characters follow suit, although Goat is a little more complex in his basic body shape (Their friends/classmates consist of anthropomorphic versions of a puppy, a kitty, a slice of bread, an piece of fruit and a bear. Each is infinitely more simple than the stars, essentially being a colored shape with details drawn on; both he puppy and the kitty, for example, are mushroom shapes of color, with cat or dog ears, paws, tails and faces drawn on).

After repeatedly (and seemingly inadvertently) showing up Goat, one day Unicorn notices Goat eating pizza, and is shocked and delighted to discover goat cheese.

"What?! Goats have cheese? Unicorns don't have cheese." Unicorn continues to discover things about Goat of which he is jealous ("Whoa! What is up with your hooves? Those things are out of control!" "Oh, these? These bad boys are 'cloven.'"). Meanwhile, Unicorn reveals what he feels are his own shortcomings.
Naturally, the two discover that, for all of their apparent differences, they actually have a lot in common  and become friends.

Shea's artwork, is as simple and charming as ever, and the more careful use of color makes its sudden bursts—the bulk of which accompany Unicorn—all the more powerful. Adding to the contrast, Goat's dialogue is rendered in what looks like a generic type-writer font, usually black in color, with stress words rendered in blue or something appropriate (When he uses the word "gold, " for instance, the word is presented in gold type). Unicorn starts off all of his dialogue with a big, fancy font, each letter a different color, and surrounded my sparkles of magic.

This is probably my favorite children's book at the moment, and, of Shea's, I think it may be my favorite, although Cheetah Can't Lose is hard to beat, and I did so enjoy Dinosaur Vs. Bedtime...

Well, whether or not its Shea's best, it's safe to say that Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great is indeed pretty great. 

Up in Heaven (Doubleday; 2003): Hey, anyone who has ever had a pet die! Do you feel like bawling today? Well have I got a book for you!

Cynthia Rylant's Dog Heaven has long been my go-to comfort book when thinking about the loss of a dog, and/or as a way to comfort someone who has just lost their dog, and Emma Chichester Clark's Up In Heaven covers some similar ground, although there's more of a story to it, and Clark's book is set both on earth and in heaven.

I lost Yogi, my mother's dog from the time I was in college until last year or so (and who was my housemate for about a year near the end of her life; I drew her in a few comics from that time, as you can see here and here), to complications related to extremely old dog-age (She was pushing 18 when she died), and my nieces lost their beloved shih tzu to a horrible car accident a few months back, so, um, the death of dogs has unfortunately been on my mind too much of late.

So Clark's book started working on me immediately, as it shows a happy but now too-old dog in the park with the little boy she lived with:
Daisy was devoted to Arthur, but she couldn't keep up with him anymore.

She was slowing down because she was very, very old. And she didn't always feel well.

One night, she went to sleep as usual, but when she woke up...she was in heaven!
So I was bawling by page four; that is exactly how I used to wish and pray Yogi would go, but, unfortunately, there was a trip to the vet involved before she (hopefully) woke up in heaven.

Daisy finds herself in a bright, beautiful world not unlike Rylant's dog heaven, and she's as young and full of energy and free of pain as when she was younger. There are all sorts of other dogs up there that she befriends, and while the environment is all trees and fields and flowers, there are at least a few signs of human life: Furniture the dogs can sit on.

As happy as Daisy is, she continues to look in on poor Arthur, who is having a really rough time without his dog with him anymore. Daisy is able to try and comfort him though, by sending him dreams  of where she is, and how much fun she's having there, and while these comfort him for a while each morning, his melancholy soon returns. Finally, Daisy sends him a dream of her bringing him a puppy and, after thus showing him its okay with her if he gets another dog, he does, and names it Maisy after Daisy.

So in addition to imagining a heaven specifically suited for dogs, this book also imagines a continued relationship between the dead dog and her living humans. That is, in fact, the real thrust and drama of the book.
I really liked Clark's artwork, which is somewhat flat and cartoony or comic book-y in its design and rendering, although thoroughly fleshed out in generally bright and warm colors (Earth and heaven actually look much the same). While much of the story is told in regular prose-style sentences hovering above or within the images, she gives the characters dialogue balloons occasionally, and I like how heaven seems to exist in a sort of expanded, comic book thought bubble atop the images, as if it were an entire realm of character thought bubbles.

*Oh. No wonder it seems like a stretch of a Seinfeld stand-up routine. It's essentially an edited, illustrated version of a Halloween-themed routine.

1 comment:

Aki Alaraatikka said...

Well, these are always cool.

My condolences on your loss.

Yogi lived to be at least 126 years old.