Sunday, February 01, 2015

Some picture books of note:

The Animals' Merry Christmas (Western Publishing Company; 1950): I stumbled across some examples of art from this Big Little Golden Book in Diane Muldrow's recent Everything I Need to Know About Christmas I Learned From a Little Golden Book, a seasonal sequel to Muldrow's Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book that was apparently published as a gift to give this past Christmas season. I didn't read her first book, but the second is basically a semi-random sampling of pages of art from Little Golden Books, repurposed and re-contextualized, with new prose by Muldrow dolloped out over the images, describing her innocuous understanding of Christmas, some of which I'm not entirely sure she did learn from Little Golden Books.

Each page of art is labeled in fine print, as to where it came from and who the artist was. And several pages were of course labeled The Animals' Merry Christmas and the artist was Richard Scarry. Scarry was a childhood favorite of mine, to the point that I can remember my aunt saying aloud, "Oh no, not Richard Scarry again!" when I was too small to read to myself (and didn't even know who Richard Scarry was yet, but his name struck me, as I knew what the word "scary" meant and certainly didn't associate it with his dog and pig people).

This particular book, which Scarry illustrated but was actually written by Kathryn B. Jackson, is from rather early in his career, from before he point where his artwork became so unmistakably his, back when he was still perfecting and refining his anthropomorphic animal people, but they hadn't yet come to take their final form.

Such instantly recognizabley Scarry animal-people populate many of these stories, but so too do normal animals...and there are even a few human beings, subject matter hardly associated with Scarry.

The slim book contains a half-dozen distinct pieces, ranging in length from two to six pages and all, of course, dealing with the subject matter of Christmas and animals.

There are a pair of poems, written in rhyming couplets. The first, "Green Christmas," contrasts the reactions of "the woodland creatures" to a lack of snow at Christmas time (a good thing, letting them leave their homes and search for food longer) with that of the reactions of "the townsfolk" to that same lack of snow (a bad thing, as they prefer the aesthetics of a white Christmas).  The second, "A Very Small Christmas," wonders hypothetically if or how a family of chipmunks might celebrate Christmas, while Scarry's illustrations render the hypothetical real.

The remaining four pieces are prose ones, two featuring anthropomorphic animals—"Mr. Hedgehog's Christmas Present" and "The Cold Little Squirrel"—and two featuring regular animals, albeit ones who can still talk to one another.

It's these latter two that are the longest, the strongest and the best opportunity to see Scarry drawing the sorts of things he's least known for drawing. Of these, the first is "The Singing Christmas Tree," in which a fawn excitedly tells his mother about a Christmas tree he saw in the human town. When she tries to help him make their own deer version with a live pine tree in the woods—decorating it with berries and such—it doesn't quite achieve the desired effect. But then, a Christmas miracle of a sort transforms it into a beautiful singing Christmas tree with live ornaments. Take that, humans!

The second is "The Long-ago Donkey," in which a little donkey complains how he doesn't like the cold winter, and his mother responds by saying "Winter is beautiful...Winter is the best of all for donkeys, because of what happened to a little donkey long ago."

She tells her progeny about this "long-ago donkey," who is the donkey point-of-view character in a brief retelling of the nativity story, in which the barn Mary and Joseph took shelter in was the long-ago donkey's, the manger the infant was laid in was the little donkey's and the little donkey nuzzled against Mary to keep her warm and laid his head at the feet of the baby Jesus, no longer feeling as lonely as he did at the start of the story.

It's just a few paragraphs long, but it's a nice, gentle retelling of the high points of the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke, and Jackson manages some very evocative turns of phrase (I particularly liked the contrast between "the first Christmas" and the current one, in which "No angels sang, but there was a wonderful singing silence").

There were apparently various editions of this title published over the years, because some of the art Muldrow's art credits to this title—and some of the art I've seen online that comes from a book with the same title and also illustrated by Scarry—did not appear in the stories in this particular volume.

Bluebird (Random House; 2013): The strikingly airy cover, with the rich, bold blue of its title and title character standing-out sharply against the lighter sky-blue, gray and white of a city scape, is what drew my attention to this book, but it was the name in the lower left corner that made me bring it  home with me: Bob Staake, a favorite illustrator of mine who has produced many great picture books (most of which I've probably discussed in previous installments of this column).

This is by far Staake's most sophisticated, most mature and most heartbreaking work. It's completely silent, with no dialogue or narration, the only words in the story appearing on signage. It's told in comics form, with almost every page broken into panels. And the palette is the same as the cover: The world is a place of white and gray, under a light-blue sky, with the biggest, boldest, brightest color coming in the form of a little bluebird (This rule will be broken at the climax).

The story is that of a quiet, sad, lonely little school boy, picked on by his classmates. He, like all of the characters (and objects and settings) is rendered in Staake's familiar cartoonish-by-way-of-geometry style, everything reduced as close to basic shapes as possible without sacrificing their representational powers. One day after school, as he begins what seems like a very, very long walk through a pristinely clean, safe and uncrowded New York City, he's befriended by the little bluebird of the title. Finally, there's a little more color in the boy's life, and he is happy.

And then things go wrong...a little shockingly so, if I'm being honest to my initial reaction. The boy and bird meet the bullying classmates in a particularly dark, gray section of the park, and, when one of the bullies throws a stick at our protagonist, the bluebird heroically intercepts it, taking the blow meant for his friend.

He probably shouldn't have though, as human beings—even little ones—are in much less danger of being killed by sticks than birds are, and the bluebird dies. Frightened, the bullies run away. And then a red bird appears. And then a yellow. And then a green. Soon, a whole flock of little birds, each identical to the bluebird save for their color, arrive and, picking the boy up, they fly him high into the sky, carrying him just as he carries the dead bluebird in his hands. When they near a cloud, the bluebird flies from the boys hand to disappear into the cloud.

So this is the story of a lonely, bullied little boy who makes a friend, sees his friend get murdered and go to heaven. I called it heart-breaking earlier, by which I mean it's also...what's the word?...depressing. But beautifully so, so do read it. Just make sure you do so in a place you feel okay crying while you do.

Hug Machine (Atheneum; 2014): First, I'd just like to point out that the hug machine mentioned in the title is not the metallic object on the right being hugged; that's just a mailbox, painted a little lighter and more gray than your typical real-world mailbox. The hug machine is the little boy on the left, doing the actual hugging. This will be made quite clear on the first page, in which the boy appears crowning a hill, eyes and mouth wide, shouting "Whoa! Here I come! I am the Hug Machine!" But upon first seeing the cover, I just sort of assumed that the thing that most resembled a machine was, in fact, the machine mentioned in the title.

This is the latest picture book from artist Scott Campbell, who sometimes goes by Scott C. (Probably so fewer people mistake him for the Danger Girl guy who seems to have settled into a career of just drawing variant covers). If you haven't read his collaboration with Robyn Eversole East Dragon, West Dragon (although I did recommend that you do so), then you've likely seen his work in his "Great Showdowns" series, which has appeared online and in two book collections now (The Great Showdowns and Great Showdowns: The Return) or his contributions to comics anthologies like Flight and Project: Superior.

This book is all his, meaning he both wrote and illustrated it. The Hug Machine doesn't like to brag, but...well, that's not true. He loves to brag, almost as much as he loves hugging. The third and fourth pages feature him hugging various members of his family, narrating:
I am very good at hugging. The best at hugging. No one can resist my unbelievable hugging. I am the Hug Machine. 
From there, he's out on the town, hugging everyone he sees—most of whom respond by ignoring him or awkwardly staring straight ahead while he closes his eyes and very earnestly hugs them—and then, everything he sees:  The balloon of a little girl he's hugged, a fire hydrant, a park bench, a tree, a mailbox (see the cover).

A great deal of humor in the book—and there is a lot of humor in the book—involves the Hug Machine's hugging, and the contrast of his emotion with that of the hugees and/or onlookers, who stare blankly at him, with deadpan expressions similar to the "combatants" in the Great Showdowns. Campbell varies the formula pretty quickly though, presenting The Hug Machine with some serious challenges.

For example, right after claiming, "There's nothing the Hug Machine will not hug," he's faced with a porcupine ("I am so spiky"), and then a whale ("Surely I am too big for you to hug"). But the Hug Machine is nothing if not resourceful, and finds ways to pull off these extremely difficult hugs with ease and aplomb.

I guess they don't call him The Hug Machine for nothing. And by "they" I mean, of course, "he himself."

Hug Me (Flying Eye Books; 2014): Speaking of hugging...

This darling picture book by Simona Ciraolo is of the sort that perfectly conveys its premise and its charming qualities on its cover, with just the title and the cover image telling one everything they need to know about the book, as well as enticing them to read it to see how it ends.

The imperative title, Hug Me, is apparently being spoken by the little cactus on the front, who seems as blissfully and it is completely unaware of the fact that no one will want to hug it, nor why that might be the case.

It also demonstrates Ciraolo’s great art, rendered in the child-like medium of crayon (or something quite similar), and the style of the book. There’s quite representational drawings, which appear abstracted and somewhat sketchy, due in part to the medium, and a darling, cartoon of a design as the hero.

And the cactus is a hero, rather than a heroine. I assumed he was a she when looking at the cover myself, given the rosy cheeks and what looked like either a bow or a flower in his hair, but he is actually a he—or as much a he as a cactus can be, I guess. That is a flower atop his head but, well, he is a cactus, and we really shouldn’t enforce our gender stereotypes on plant-life, anthropomorphic or otherwise.

Felipe, for that’s the little cactus’ name, comes from “an old and famous family who liked to look good and always behaved properly…and they believed no one should never trespass into another’s personal space.”

They are all cactuses, you see.

Felipe was raised to be cactus-like, but was starved for affection. No one in his family realized that all he wanted was a hug.

His life take a turn for the worse when he makes a new friend—a balloon—and hugs him, with predictable results.

Planting himself in a pot, Felipe leaves his family—who are of course embarrassed and outrage by what his hugging has done—to wander in search of a friend, a friend he never finds.

Felipe learned to live on his own, as a grumpy Caleb of a cactus…
…and was terribly lonely, until one day he meets someone else who was lonely, and, the last line of narration, appearing opposite of a page revealing Felipe’s new, uniquely huggable friend in Felipe’s embrace, says, “Felipe knew just what to do.”

The back, inside cover shows a series of framed photos of Felipe and his new friend, apparently named Camilla, as they enjoy various activities together, apparently hanging on Felipe’s wall. They contrast the framed family photos that fill the inside front cover, hung on the prickles of a cactus.

It’s a quick read, but it’s as fun and funny as it is fast, and chances are adults in the reading audience will release an audible “aw” when they reach the end.

Laika: Astronaut Dog (Templar Books; 2013): There are few graphic novels as heart-breaking as Nick Abadzis' 2007 Laika, which told the story of the first Earth animal to make it into space, and a pivotal character in the 20th century space race between the rival superpowers. Of course, one of the reasons Abadzis' book was so heartbreaking was that it was based on a true story: There really was a little dog named Laika, they really did shoot her into space aboard Sputnik 2 and she really did die in space.

Owen Davey's picture book Laika: The Astronaut Dog tells the same basic story in its 17 illustrations, most of which spread across both pages to form a large, horizontal image. And all of the basic facts of the matter are truthfully reported and elegantly conveyed within Davey's sparse prose, with the only real departures for much of the book coming from his desire to tell the story from Laika's unknowable persepctive.

Where his telling departs sharply from fact into fancy is at its conclusion, and its a departure made for the best of reasons: To give Laika a happy ending. That makes this a pretty good chaser to Abadzis' book. It doesn't make that story of Laika, or the real story of the real Laika, any less sad, but it at least imagines the possibility of a happy ending, an ending that a reader can't prove didn't happen.

While the real Laika died within hours of the launch due to overheating, Davey depicts that pivotal moment as more mysterious. One spread features a map of the world, presented as a flattened globe, with large animals from every continent casting their eyes towards Laika's rocket. The text reads, "Then her rocket started making funny noises. Something had gone wrong." The very next image shows the men and one woman at mission control looking sad, the big monitor upon which they were just watching Lakia a few pages back now a solid black square dominating the pages: "Back at mission control, the screens went bank. Laika's rocket no longer showed any signs of life."

"Everyone thought Lika was lost," the text reads on the next page, and Davey explains and depicts many of the ways in which Laika has been honored, but then he provides the new ending of his own:
But Laika was not lost at all. Laika had been found. She had been rescued from the broken spaceship and taken far away fromt he lonely life she had a loving family that she had always dreamed of finding.
That loiving family is an alien one of some sort, and the very last pages show a happy Laika sitting next to a little green-skinned, red-haired girl in the lap of a green-skinned, red-haired man with pointy ears and an usual suit, while a woman of the same race stands next to them. Bright but strange foliage is all around them, an unusual house is in the background, and there's a three-eyed scarlet pigeon in the corner, paralleling the pigeon that watched over several of the important moments in Laika's life, as she went from a lonely, unwanted street dog to  an "astronaut dog."

Davey's artwork, created digitally, is gorgeous. His Laika is incredibly cute—too cute to suffer the fate the real Lakia did!—and wonderfully expressive. There are several images of Laika in this book—depressed on a gray Soviet street, happily running on a treadmill, placing a single paw on the porthole of her rocket as it lifts off, looking away from the reader as she enters space ("Now everyone knew Laika's name, but as her spaceship circled the earth, she felt more alone than ever")—that are really quite remarkable in the wide range of emotion wrung from a relatively simple design.

Davey's  use of space—as in page-space, not outer-space—is pretty brilliant, and he repeatedly shows Laika's extreme isolation, either emotionally as a resident of Earth or physically as an explorer of what was beyond Earth's atmosphere–by dialing down the details, or dropping them all together. The effect is all the more striking because of how crowded his artwork can be, particularly of the crowded, people-filled streets of Moscow, where buildings and figures pile atop one another in what is practically a collage.

It's also very simple in design, with the characters—human and animal alike—reduced to basic shapes, almost as much as the buildings and vehicles. It's a virtuoso demonstration of representational art being, at its core, no more than the quite precise arrangement of particular shapes. Davey's Laika: Astronaut Dog achieve its highly-stylized representation, but it's so stylized that a reader can see how his art works.

It's a wonderful introduction to the title character and a wonderfully constructed book, with an admirable application of fiction and art's ability to fulfill least within the little world that the author or artist creates.


Wait, shouldn't it be Laika: Cosmonaut Dog, rather than Laika: Astronaut Dog...?

Lily The Unicorn (Harper; 2014): There’s a lot to like about Dallas Clayton’s book, in which the titular unicorn—a vaguely dog-shaped pink and blue unicorn with a Lavern De Fazio-like letter L on her chest—befriends a dour gray-and-white penguin…against the penguin’s will.

I can’t say that I personally count Clayton’s particular drawing style among those things, though. It gets the job done, and its highly doodle-esque style fits the spirit of the book and even the personality of the heroine, but it’s just not my aesthetic cup of tea.

The style the story is told in, however, is pretty engaging. On just about every page or every spread of two pages, big letters of text will make a statement of some kind. For example, the first two pages read:
My name is Lily! I’m a unicorn. I like to make things.
There will be a large-ish illustration of the character, here Lily, knitting, and then the rest of the page or spread is filled to the borders with examples of some sort. So on this first spread of pages, Clayton draws about 25 different things that Lily has made, each of them labeled (butterfly meter, magic bugcycle, battle telescope, etc).

Through these next few pages, we learn quite a bit about Lily, and outgoing, imaginative and adventurous unicorn, and her hobbies, foremost of which is making friends (the spread showing the friends names them all, and Clayton creatively names them; while some are alliterative, like Jessica Giraffe or Cortez The Cat, some are not, like Alligator Bill, and others aren’t identified by their species at all, like the snake Wilfredo or the monkey named Jeremy Joe).

Then she meets the aforementioned penguin, Roger, who is the polar opposite of Lily (South Polar, I would imagine), and Clayton’s list talking about Roger is particularly funny (“His favorite dance is sitting down,” “His favorite sport is resting,” “His favorite time of day is ‘Not right now.’”…Guys, I have a lot in common with this Roger character).

After several pages of Lily trying to draw Roger out and Roger not biting, she eventually asks what’s wrong and tries to diagnose it; he responds with two pages of saying “The problem?” over and over again before telling Lily off and, in the book’s climax, Clayton drops the drawing cluttered pages to a sequence of four practically empty spreads, where the pair exchange relationship defining bits of dialogue with one another in an empty white vacuum.

It’s a pretty great story, told in a pretty great way, and one I wish I would have read 10, 20, and 29 years ago.

Penguin and Pumpkin (Walker Books; 2014): The latest entry in artist Salina Yoon’s Penguin series of books—which began with the perfect Penguin and Pinecone: A Story of Friendship—is also probably the weakest.

It’s fall “on the ice,” and everything is very white, “as always.” Penguin and Bootsy, his soulmate from Penguin In Love, decide to go to “the farm” (?) to see what fall is really like, and Penguin’s little brother, coincidentally named Pumpkin (presumably because his orange knit cap with a green tassel atop it looks pumpkin-like, in the same way that Bootsy is named after her clothing of choice) wants to go with.

Penguin forbids him, however, as it’s too far for a fledgling. Every other penguin save Pumpkin and Grandpa seem to go, however, as Penguin, Bootsy and five other penguins—a few of which have Smurf-like one-quality characterizations—mount an ice floe and head for the farm, swimming the rest of the way in.

They see colorful leaves and lots of pumpkins, and bring as much “fall” back as they can for Pumpkin.

And, um, that’s it. That’s the whole story.

Please, Mr. Panda (Scholastic; 2014): I love this cover so much that I felt fairly certain that I could judge the book by it: A grumpy-looking, particularly fat and fuzzy looking panda bear holding a box of brilliantly-colored, almost gem-like doughnuts, and wearing a little hat that reads "Doughnuts," suggesting this highly-endangered, bamboo-eating animal works at a dougnut shop...? What's not to love about it?

Author/artist Steve Antony's story has a lovely rhythm of weird behavior to it, as Mr. Panda confronts animal after animal, each of which has the same basic black-and-white coloration that he does (a penguin, a skunk, an orca, an ostrich and a lemur). With his deadpan expression, he approaches an animal, asks if the animal would like a doughnut and, when the animal responds (generally in the affirmative), Mr. Panda walks away without giving the animal a doughnut, saying only that he's changed his mind.

What's wrong with Mr. Panda? Is he insane? (The fact that he and his doughnuts get in a rowboat to go out to the ocean just to ask an orca if it would like a doughnut, only to then deny the orca a doughnut and row all the way back to shore makes me think yes, yes Mr. Panda is indeed quite insane).

Finally, the lemur responds to the offer correctly, and gets not just one, but all of the the doughnuts.

I'm not sure I agree with Mr. Panda's behavior, although his rationale for who gets doughnuts and who does not is clearly evident by book's end. It might have worked better if the other animals approached him, but then it wouldn't have been funny, nor would there have been quite so much suspense. Oh, and not only does Mr. Panda give the lemur the entire box of doughnuts, he even gives him his little doughnut hat, saying that he himself does not even like doughnuts.

I'm guessing the back-story here involves a panda who just quit his job at a doughnut shop, which he hated for a variety of reasons, but mostly because he was sick of rude customers demanding things of him, and walking out of work for the last day, with his uniform hat, his last box of complimentary doughnuts and a dead-eyed, angry expression, he sought to rid himself of his last vestiges of his past life in the bakery before going off to fulfill his panda dreams of sleeping and eating bamboo.

And hopefully knocking up some panda ladies; reproduce faster, you damn endangered pandas!

Waiting Is Not Easy! (Hyperion; 2014): I’m beginning to find it quite troubling that every single time I do one of these columns, there’s a new entry in Mo Willems’ long-running Elephant & Piggie series of books to cover. That means either Willems is incredibly prolific, pumping these masterfully-cartooned books out quickly in addition to his other work—or I’m really slow and wasting my life. Like, in the time it takes me to put together a half-dozen or so reviews of picture books, Willems releases a new picture book.

In this one, Piggie (the pig) cartwheels up to Gerald (the elephant) to tell him that she has a surprise for him. He’s very excited about this, but much less excited about the fact that he will have to wait for the surprise. Waiting is, after all, not easy (as you may have heard).

Gerald expresses his displeasure through groans big enough to fill most of the two pages devoted to each image, groans that get bigger each time until they bury Piggie.

The surprise—which I won’t tell you, given that it is a surprise—turns out to be well worth the wait, and is rendered particularly spectacular by Willems' choice to render it in a completely different style than the simple drawings that precede it and, when it arrives, contrast with it sharply.

What There Is Before There Is Anything There (Groundwood Books; 2014): Parenthetically sub-titled “A Scary Story” on the cover and title page, the publishers aren’t kidding—this is one hell of a scary story, probably too scary for a kids book. At least, it would have scared the hell out of me as a kid, although I guess I was a pretty easily frightened child.

This book is the work of “world-famous cartoonist Liniers,” an Argentinian artist whose work I am wholly unfamiliar with. It was in his home country that this was originally published eight years ago prior to this translated English release, under the title “Lo que hay antes de que haya algo.”

The story is simple, but scary. Every night, a little boy's parents wish him good night and turn out his light, his ceiling disappearing, only to be replaced by nothingness. “He could see the ceiling with his very own eyes,” the narration appears in a cloud of empty page space carved out from the cross-hatched darkness, “Now there’s only a black hole…black and infinite.”

That’s a pretty accurate description of what happens when the lights go out at first. Then a little, scary something comes out of that black hole, and perches on the foot of the boy’s bed, staring silently at him.
Again, a pretty good description of what happens during the phenomenon of waking dreams, as is what happens next: More and more creatures drift down like snow, and surround his bed. They don’t say or do anything, they just stand all around it, and stare at him.

Some of the scariness of this sequence is alleviated by how cute and funny most of the nightmares or monsters are. In addition to that first little guy, for example, one is just a kitty cat that looks like a stuffed tiger; another’s only a few inches high. The most monstrous of them looks like a background character from Monsters, Inc. A few of them seem to reflect genuine fears, like a large-headed humanoid mole in a lab coat of the sort a doctor or dentist might wear, or one character who wears a mask like a burglar.

And then comes the most terrifying thing of all:

The thing from which the book takes it’s title, a cloud of crosshatching with pupil-liess white eyes, and empty white mouth, and reaching, searching, branching tendrils of darkness.

At this point, the little boy bolts for his parents room, where they assure him it was all in his imagination, and that he can sleep with them…but only for the night. And then the little guy with the umbrella floats down, presumably restarting the cycle, and contradicting his parents.

As a metaphor, it seems to be a solid one about the mounting of fear that one might experience, as it escalates from disturbing to scary, to scarier to too much to handle, but the way the cycle repeats once he’s in his parents room—or, at least, that Liniers indicates that it may be about to repeat—is the scariest bit of all. That even his parents can’t protect him from that fear…which isn’t usually the case with childhood fears of the dark, or any other type, does it?

There’s a hopeless note in that ending. It’s a clever twist, yes, but a scary one for an impressionable youngster, I would have to imagine. Hell, I’m pushing 40, and I’m kinda wishing I hadn’t read this so close to bedtime…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you enjoyed that final book, you should rent... THE BABADOOK.