Cautionary tales for kids who can’t do a darn thing about the original problem. It’s sort of a subgenre of its very own. As I hold this lovely littleCautionary tales for kids who can’t do a darn thing about the original problem. It’s sort of a subgenre of its very own. As I hold this lovely little book, Moletown, in my hands I am transported back in time to the moment I first encountered The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. A child of the 80s, my youth was a time when scaring kids straight was an accepted educational technique utilized in everything from environmental protection to saying no to drugs. The film version of The Lorax bore this out and gave me some nice little bite-sized psychological scars for years to come. These days we don’t usually go in for the whole learning-through-fear technique. Even picture books that sport a message are more prone to be mildly sad than anything else. What makes Moletown so very interesting then is its inclination to tap into popular tropes in our own history, then turn them ever so gently on their heads. The end result is a book where you might easily lose sight of the bigger picture, until that final moment when everything becomes horribly clear.
“The story of Moletown began many years ago.” A single solitary mole moves beneath a meadow to live. Not long thereafter he’s joined by other moles “And over time, life underground changed...” Before our eyes we see it. We see the vast construction projects taking place to make Moletown a livable community. We see the population explosion, the increased technological advances, and different transportation models. Life becomes busier for the moles, while outside in the meadow nature is taking a severe hit. The green is close to disappearing altogether, but turn to the last pages in the book and there we see evidence not just of change, but of the moles as a whole taking on the responsibility of their newly green again meadowlands.
Kuhlmann initially burst upon the American picture book scene with the highly detailed Lindbergh, a story of a mouse with a yen for flight. A little bit The Arrival, a little bit An American Tale and a little bit steampunk via Beatrix Potter, it was his hyper realistic animals placed in extraordinary circumstances that stayed with young readers. In Moletown that level of detail and attention is there, but the moles have a far more cartoonish feel to them. This is not to say that they don’t look like moles, every inch of them. Yet Kuhlmann has simplified his hyper-realistic renderings of animals and traded that attention in for set designs and landscapes. Here he plays with perspective, plunging us down into the heart of the moles’ mining operation, the scaffolding twisting around and around, down and down. Sharp eyed spotters will note other spreads where the stop signs are shaped like mole claws and the trains go vertically as well as horizontally. The details are there to an elegant degree, but the feel is different from Lindbergh certainly (as is the length of the piece).
One of the most amazing aspects of the book is the sense of time passing. In the early days of Moletown you see the immigrants arriving, looking very much like the European immigrants of the late 19th century. As time passes you see moles in Wright Brothers era caps, trench coats and fedoras of the 40s, a possible homage to the MTV image of the 80s (complete with Nintendo video game remotes), and finally the iPods and wind farms of the current age.
Many European artists find it difficult to break into the American market due to the fact that their art contains a distinctly “foreign” feel. Kuhlmann’s advantage here is that while it is easy enough to believe that the images in this story originated in Germany, there is nothing distinctly “other” about the book . . . at first. It’s only with multiple readings that you begin to notice the elements that probably could not have begun here in the States. For example, in more than one instance you’ll see a mole smoking. This is by no means the focus of the book, and you would have to look somewhat hard to find such moments, but I have seen American parents go ballistic over far lesser crimes in picture book illustration, so I’ve no doubt the occasional library patron will become incensed over what they believe to be the promotion of cigarettes. Other hints that the book is German? Well, I could be wrong but this may well be the only picture book you’ll find on the market today containing a two-page spread dedicated to accountancy.
One interesting thing about the book is the fact that the ending that we so deeply desire is embedded not in the book itself but in its endpapers. The final text in the book reads, “Many generations later, the moles’ green meadow had completely disappeared. Almost.” Turn the page and rather than provide a verbal explanation, the book gives us a glimpse of a series of photographs alongside an article from The Moletown Times which reads, “Agreement on Green”. The pictures show steps taken to preserve the environment and restore the meadow. I didn’t mind this method of summing up the steps taken to correct the past. Yet more interesting to me, by far, was how the book lets the reader reach their own slow realization that the seemingly inevitable trudge of technological advances and population increases are, in fact, detrimental. That picture at the beginning of the book of the immigrants arriving in Moletown, to an American reader, strikes you as a symbol of freedom from oppression and hardship. And because Kuhlmann keeps the book almost entirely wordless from start to finish, the glimpses of the meadow in its downward slide towards decay are shown without commentary. It’s up to the reader to realize that something has gone very wrong. How many will actually make that leap will be interesting to see.
Finding books to compare this one to can be difficult. The overall feeling I got was like the one in The Rabbits by John Marsden. But where that was a story of a culture being systematically destroyed, this has a sweeter if no less destructive feel. The Lorax hits the same environmental notes, but Moletown is the subtler of the two since it makes the reader implicit in the enjoyment one derives from Moletown’s culture (and from the fact that it’s a world that feels very much like our own). The best way to describe the story is to say that it’s a combination of the two, with a hopeful endnote all its own. Like all imports, it runs its greatest risk in becomes a forgotten piece since it can’t win many of our American children’s book awards. That said, I have faith that teachers, parents, and students will find in it a new approach to tackling the tricky subject of mass consumption vs. environmental action. Explicit in its message. Subtle in its presentation. In short, a beaut.
Why do I do this to myself? Let me tell you something about how I review. Board books? Pshaw. I can take one and write a nine-paragraph review parsingWhy do I do this to myself? Let me tell you something about how I review. Board books? Pshaw. I can take one and write a nine-paragraph review parsing precisely why it is that Bizzy Bear’s preferred companions are dogs and bunnies. Nonfiction? Lay it on me. I’ll take infinite pleasure in discussing the difference between informational texts when I was a child (long story short, they sucked) and our current golden age. But there is one book genre that lays me flat. Stops me short. Makes it exceedingly difficult for me to get my head in order. Truly, children’s poetry books are the hardest to review. I don’t know exactly why this is. They are the most unloved of the books for kids. No American Library Association accredited awards are made specifically for them. They get checked out of libraries one month a year (April = National Poetry Month) and then lie forgotten. Yet so many of them are bite-sized wallops of greatness. Hypnotize a Tiger by Calef Brown is one of these chosen few. Not many poetry books for kids sport blurbs from Daniel Pinkwater (who found a soul mate in Brown’s art) to Jack Gantos to The Book of Life director Jorge R. Gutierrez. And few author/illustrators are allowed to go as positively wacky and wild as Brown does here. From tomato ultimatums and loofah tortes to velocipede odes and dodgebull (rather than dodgeball) you honestly never know where the book is going next. And you're grateful for it.
So if it’s so great (and it is) why is reviewing a book of this sort the devil to do? There are any number of reasons. When reviewing a book with, say, a plot, it’s awfully easy for me to merely recap the plot, dish on the characters, bring up some single strange or scintillating point, then close it all down with a conclusion. Easy peasy. But poetry’s not really like that. There’s no plot to Hypnotize a Tiger. There’s not even a running gag that keeps cropping up throughout the pages. Each poem is its own little world. As a result, I’m stuck generalizing about the poems as a whole. And because we are dealing with 84-85 (depending on how you count) of them in total, I’m probably going to end up saying something about how some of the poems work and others don’t. This is kind of a cheat when you’re reviewing a collection of this sort because almost no children’s poetry book is absolutely perfect (Example A: The fact that Shel Silverstein wrote “Hug-a-War” . . . I rest my case). They will always consist of some verses that work and others that do not. In the end, the best I can hope for when reviewing poetry is to try to find something that makes it different from all the other poetry books published in a given year. Fortunately for me, Mr. Brown is consistently interesting. As Pinkwater said in his blurb, “He is a bulwark against mediocrity.”
I’m very interested in the question of how to get kids around to reading poetry. My own daughter is four at this time and we’ve found that Shel Silverstein’s poetry books make for good bedtime reading (though she’s still thrown off by the occasional grotesquerie). For many children, Silverstein is the gateway drug. But Calef Brown, though he swims in Shel’s surrealism soaked seas, is a different breed entirely from his predecessor. Where Shel went for the easy silly ideas, Brown layers his ridiculousness with a bit of sophistication. Anyone could write a poem about waking up to find a beehive attached to the underside of their chin. It takes a Calef Brown to go one step further and have the unfortunate soul consider the monetary implications. Or to consider the verbal capabilities of Hoboken-based gnomes. So Hypnotize a Tiger becomes a book meant for the kid with a bit of prior poetry knowledge under their belt. You wouldn’t hand this title to a reluctant reader. You’d give it to the kid who’d already devoured all the Silverstein and Prelutsky and came to you asking, “What else you got?” That kid might be ready.
It is useful to note that you need to read this book aloud as well. There should be a warning sticker on the cover that says as much. Not that Brown makes it easy for you. Take the poem “Hugh”, for example. Short and simple it reads, “Meet my Belgian friend / He lives near Bruges, on a farm. / His name is Hugh Jarm.” Then at the bottom one of the tiny interstitial poems reads, “I once had a dream I was visiting Bruges - / snacking on chocolates while riding a luge.” Now the correct pronunciation of “Bruges” isn’t really necessary in the first poem, though it helps. The little tiny poem, however, is interesting because while it works especially well when you pronounce it correctly, you could probably mangle the wordplay easy peasy and still end up with a successful poem. SLJ probably said it best when they mentioned in their review of the book that, “Though there is more than one line that does not roll easily off the tongue and awkward rhymes abound, it is easy to see this clumsiness as part of the spirit of the collection.”
The subtitle of the collection is “Poems About Just About Everything” and that’s a fairly accurate representation. It does not mean, however, that there isn’t an internal logic to what’s being included here. There’s a chapter of animal poems, of people, insects, vehicles, schools, food, and then more esoteric descriptions like “Facts Poetic”, “Word Crashes”, and “Miscellaneous Silliness.” No poem directly applies to another, but they still manage to work together in tandem fairly well.
I don’t think it’s a serious criticism of a book to say that it's not for all audiences. Calef Brown is an acquired taste. A taste best suited to the cleverest of the youngsters, absolutely, but acquired just the same. Not everyone is drawn to his style, and more fool they. To my mind, there is room enough in this world for any Calef Brown collection you can name. This book doesn’t have the widely popular feel of, say, a We Go Together but nor is the author writing poems simply to hear himself speak. Hypnotize a Tiger is a book built to please fans of creative curated silliness. Don’t know if you’ll like it? There’s only one way to find out. Pick this puppy up and read it to a kid. The book may surprise you (and so might the kid!).
So I’m a snob. A children’s literature snob. I accept this about myself. I do not embrace it, but I can at least acknowledge it and, at times, fight aSo I’m a snob. A children’s literature snob. I accept this about myself. I do not embrace it, but I can at least acknowledge it and, at times, fight against it as much as I am able. Truth be told, it’s a weird thing to get all snobby about. People are more inclined to understand your point of view when you’re a snob about fine china or wines or bone structure. They are somewhat confused when you scoff at their copy of Another Monster at the End of This Book since it is clearly a sad sequel of the original Jon Stone classic (and do NOT even try to convince me that he was the author of that Elmo-related monstrosity because I think better of him than that). Like I say. Kid book snobbery won’t get you all that far in this life. And that’s too bad because I’ve got LOADS of the stuff swimming between my corpuscles. Just take my initial reaction to Jessixa Bagley’s Boats for Papa. I took one glance at the cover and dismissed it, just like that. I’ll explain precisely why I did so in a minute, but right there it was my gut reaction at work. I have pretty good gut reactions and 99% of the time they’re on target. Not in this case, though. Because once I sat down and read it and watched other people read it, I realized that I had something very special on my hands. Free of overblown sentiment and crass pandering, this book's the real deal. Simultaneously wrenching and healing.
Buckley and his mama are just two little beavers squeaking out an existence in a small wooden house by the sea. Buckley loves working with his hands (paws?) and is particularly good at turning driftwood into boats. One day it occurs to him to send his best boats off into the sea with little notes that read, “For Papa. Love, Buckley”. Buckley misses his papa, you see, and this is the closest he can get to sending him some kind of a message. As Buckley gets better, the boats get more elaborate. Finally, one day a year later, he runs into his house to write a note for papa, when he notices that his mother has left her desk open. Inside is every single boat he ever sent to his papa. Realizing what has happened, Buckley makes a significant choice with this latest seagoing vessel. One that his mama is sure to see and understand.
The danger with this book is determining whether or not it slips into Love You Forever territory. Which is to say, does it speak more to adults than to kids. You get a fair number of picture books with varying degrees of sentimentality out there every year. On the low end of the spectrum is Love You Forever, on the high end Blueberry Girl and somewhere in the middle are books like Someday by Alison McGhee. Some of these can be great books, but they’re so clearly not for kids. And when I realized that Boats for Papa was a weeper my alarm bells went off. If adults are falling over themselves to grab handkerchiefs when they get to the story’s end, surely children would be distinctly uninterested. Yet Bagley isn’t addressing adults with this story. The focus is on how one deals with life after someone beloved is gone. Adults get this instantly because they know precisely what it is to lose someone (or they can guess). Kids, on the other hand, may sometimes have that understanding but a lot of the time it’s foreign to them. And so Buckley’s hobbies are just the marks of a good story. I suspect few kids would walk away from this saying the book was uninteresting to them. It seems to strike just the right chord.
It is also a book that meets multiple needs. For some adult readers, this is a dead daddy book. But upon closer inspection you realize that it’s far broader than that. This could be a book about a father serving his time overseas. It could be about divorced parents (it mentions that mama misses papa, and that’s not an untrue sentiment in some family divorce situations). It could have said outright that Buckley’s father had passed away (ala Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas which this keeps reminding me of) but by keeping it purposefully vague we are allowed to read far more into the book’s message than we could have if it was just another dead parent title.
Finally, it is Bagley’s writing that wins the reader over. Look at how economical she is with her wordplay. The very first sentences in the book reads, “Buckley and his mama lived in a small wooden house by the sea. They didn’t have much, but they always had each other.” There’s not a syllable wasted there. Not a letter out of place. That succinct quality carries throughout the rest of the book. There is one moment late in the game where Buckley says, “And thank you for making every day so wonderful too” that strains against the bonds of sentimentality, but it never quite topples over. That’s Bagley’s secret. We get the most emotionally involved in those picture books that give us space to fill in our own lives, backgrounds, understandings and baggage. The single note reading, “For Mama / Love, Buckley” works because those are the only words on the page. We don’t need anything else after that.
As I age I’ve grown very interested in picture books that touch on the nature of grace. “Grace” is, in this case, defined as a state of being that forgives absolutely. Picture books capable of conjuring up very real feelings of resentment in their young readers only to diffuse the issue with a moment of pure forgiveness are, needless to say, rare. Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan was one of the few I could mention off the top of my head. I shall now add Boats for Papa to that enormously short list. You see, (and here I’m going to call out “SPOILER ALERT” for those of you who care about that sort of thing) for me the moment when Buckley finds his boats in his mother’s desk and realizes that she has kept this secret from him is a moment of truth. Bagley is setting you up to assume that there will be a reckoning of some sort when she writes, “They had never reached Papa”. And it is here that the young reader can stop and pause and consider how they would react in this case. I’d wager quite a few of them would be incensed. I mean, this is a clear-cut case of an adult lying to a child, right? But Bagley has placed Buckley on a precipice and given him a bit of perspective. Maybe I read too much into this scene, but I think that if Buckley had discovered these boats when he was first launching them, almost a full year before, then yes he would have been angry. But after a year of sending them to his Papa, he has grown. He realizes that his mother has been taking care of him all this time. For once, he has a chance to take care of her, even if it is in a very childlike manner. He’s telling her point blank that he knows that she’s been trying to protect him and that he loves her. Grace.
Now my adult friends pointed out that one could read Buckley’s note as a sting. That he sent it to say “GOTCHA!” They say that once a book is outside of an author’s hands, it can be interpreted by the readership in any number of ways never intended by the original writer. For my part, I think that kind of a reading is very adult. I could be wrong but I think kids will read the ending with the loving feel that was intended from the start.
When I showed this book to a friend who was a recent Seattle transplant, he pointed out to me that the coastline appearing in this book is entirely Pacific Northwest based. I think that was the moment I realized that I had done a 180 on the art. Remember when I mentioned that I didn’t much care for the cover when I first saw it? Well, fortunately I have instituted a system whereby I read every single picture book I am sent on my lunch breaks. Once I got past the cover I realized that it was the book jacket that was the entire problem. There’s something about it that looks oddly cheap. Inside, Bagley’s watercolors take on a life of their own. Notice how the driftwood on the front endpapers mirrors the image of Buckley displaying his driftwood boats on the back endpapers. See how Buckley manages to use her watercolors to their best advantage, from the tide hungry sand on the beach to the slate colored sky to the waves breaking repeatedly onto the shore. Perspective shifts constantly. You might be staring at a beach covered in the detritus of the waves on one two-page spread, only to have the images scale back and exist in a sea of white space on the next. The best image, by far, is the last though. That’s when Bagley makes the calculated step of turning YOU, the reader, into Mama. You are holding the boat. You are holding the note. And you know. You know.
I like it when a picture book wins me over. When I can get past my own personal bugaboos and see it for what it really is. Emotional resonance in literature for little kids is difficult to attain. It requires a certain amount of talent, both on the part of the author and their editor. In Boats for Papa we’ve a picture book that doesn’t go for the cheap emotional tug. It comes by its tears honestly. There’s some kind of deep and abiding truth to it. Give me a couple more years and maybe I’ll get to the bottom of what’s really going on here. But before that occurs, I’m going to read it with my kids. Even children who have never experienced the loss of a parent will understand what’s going on in this story on some level. Uncomplicated and wholly original, this is one debut that shoots out of the starting gate full throttle, never looking back. A winner.
When the Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2015 that same-sex couples could marry in all fifty states, I found myself, like many parents of young childrWhen the Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2015 that same-sex couples could marry in all fifty states, I found myself, like many parents of young children, in the position of trying to explain the ramifications to my offspring. Newly turned four, my daughter needed a bit of context. After all, as far as she was concerned gay people had always had the right to marry so what exactly was the big deal here? In times of change, my back up tends to be children’s books that discuss similar, but not identical, situations. And what book do I own that covers a court case involving the legality of people marrying? Why, none other than The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by creative couple Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. It’s almost too perfect that the book has come out the same year as this momentous court decision. Discussing the legal process, as well as the prejudices of the time, the book offers to parents like myself not just a window to the past, but a way of discussing present and future court cases that involve the personal lives of everyday people. Really, when you take all that into consideration, the fact that the book is also an amazing testament to the power of love itself . . . well, that’s just the icing on the cake.
In 1958 Richard Loving, a white man, fell in love with Mildred Jeter, a black/Native American woman. Residents of Virginia, they could not marry in their home state so they did so in Washington D.C. instead. Then they turned right around and went home to Virginia. Not long after they were interrupted in the night by a police invasion. They were charged with “unlawful cohabitation” and were told in no uncertain terms that if they were going to continue living together then they needed to leave Virginia. They did, but they also hired lawyers to plead their case. By 1967 the Lovings made it all the way to The Supreme Court where their lawyers read a prepared statement from Richard. It said, “Tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.” In a unanimous ruling, the laws restricting such marriages were struck down. The couple returned to Virginia, found a new house, and lived “happily (and legally) ever after.” An Author’s Note about her marriage to Sean Qualls (she is white and he is black) as well as a note about the art, Sources, and Suggestions for Further Reading appear at the end of the book.
“How do you sue someone?” Here’s a challenge. Explain the concept of suing the government to a four-year-old brain. To do so, you may have to explain a lot of connected concepts along the way. What is a lawyer? And a court? And, for that matter, why are the laws (and cops) sometimes wrong? So when I pick up a book like The Case for Loving as a parent, I’m desperately hoping on some level that the authors have figured out how to break down these complex questions into something small children can understand and possibly even accept. In the case of this book, the legal process is explained as simply as possible. “They wanted to return to Virginia for good, so they hired lawyers to help fight for what was right.” And then later, “It was time to take the Loving case all the way to The Supreme Court.” Now the book doesn’t explain what The Supreme Court was necessarily, and that’s where the art comes in. Much of the heavy lifting is done by the illustrations, which show the judges sitting in a row, allowing parents like myself the chance to explain their role. Here you will not find a deep explanation of the legal process, but at least it shows a process and allows you to fill in the gaps for the young and curious.
It was very interesting to me to see how Alko and Qualls handled the art in this book. I’ve often noticed that editors like to choose Sean as an artist when they want an illustrator that can offset some of the darker aspects of a work. For example, take Margarita Engle’s magnificently sordid Pura Belpre Medal winner The Poet Slave of Cuba. A tale of torture, gore, and hope, Qualls’ art managed to represent the darkness with a lighter touch, while never taking away from the important story at hand. In The Case for Loving he has scaled the story down a bit and given it a simpler edge. His characters are a bit broader and more cartoonlike than those in, say, Dizzy. This is due in part to Alko’s contributions. As they say in their “About the Art” section at the back of the book, Alko’s art is all about bold colors and Sean’s is about subtle layers of color and texture. Together, they alleviate the tension in different scenes. Moments that could be particularly frightening, as when the police burst into the Lovings’ bedroom to arrest them, are cast instead as simply dramatic. I noticed too that characters were much smaller in this book than they tend to be in Sean's others. It was interesting to note the moments when that illustrators made the faces of Richard and Virginia large. The page early in the book where Richard and Mildred look at one another over the book’s gutter pairs well with the page later in the book where their faces appear on posters behind bars against the words “Unlawful Cohabitation”. But aside from those two double spreads the family is small, often seen just outside their different respective homes. It seemed to be important to Qualls and Alko to show them as a family unit as often as possible.
Few books are perfect, and Loving has its off-kilter moments from time to time. For example, it describes darker skin tones in terms of food. That’s not a crime, of course, but you rarely hear white skin described as “white as aged cheese” or “the color of creamy mayonnaise” so why is dark colored skin always edible? In this book Mildred is “a creamy caramel” and she lives where people ranged from “the color of chamomile tea” to darker shades. A side issue has arisen concerning Mildred’s identification as Native American and whether or not the original case made more of her African-American roots because it would build a stronger case in court. This is a far bigger issue than a picture book could hope to encompass, though I would be interested in a middle grade or young adult nonfiction book on the topic that went into the subject in a little more depth.
Recently I read my kid another nonfiction picture book chronicling injustice called Drum Dream Girl by the aforementioned Margarita Engle. In that book a young girl isn’t allowed to drum because of her gender. My daughter was absolutely flabbergasted by the notion. When I read her The Case for Loving she was similarly baffled. And when, someday, someone writes a book about the landmark decision made by The Supreme Court to allow gay couples to wed, so too will some future child be just as floored by what seems completely normal to them. Until then, this is certainly a book written and published at just the right time. Informative and heartfelt all at once, it works beyond the immediate need. Context is not an easy thing to come by when we discuss complex subjects with our kids. It takes a book like this to give us the words we so desperately need. Many thanks then for that.
We talk a lot about wanting a diverse selection of picture books on our library, bookstore, and home shelves, but it seems to me that the key to givinWe talk a lot about wanting a diverse selection of picture books on our library, bookstore, and home shelves, but it seems to me that the key to giving kids a broad view of the wider world (which is the ultimate effect of reading literature about people outside your immediate social, economic, and racial circle) is finding books that go into formerly familiar territory and then give the final product an original spin. For example, I was just telling a colleague the other day that true diverse literature for kids will never come to pass until we’ve a wide variety of gross out books about kids of different races, abilities, genders, etc. That’s one way of reaching parity. Another way would be to tackle that age old form so familiar to kids of centuries past; nursery rhymes. Now we’ve already seen the greatest nursery rhyme collection of the 21st century hit our shelves earlier this year (Over the Hills and Far Away, edited by Elizabeth Hammill) and that’s great. That’s swell. That’s super. But one single book does not a nursery rhyme collection make. Now I admit freely that Muon Van and April Chu’s In a Village by the Sea is not technically a nursery rhyme in the classic sense of the term. However, Merriam-Webster defines the form as “a short rhyme for children that often tells a story.” If that broad definition is allowed then I submit “In a Village by the Sea” as a true, remarkable, wonderful, evocative, modern, diverse, ultimately beautiful nursery rhyme for the new Millennium. Lord knows we could always use more. Lord knows this book deserves all the attention it can get.
On the title page a single brown cricket grabs a rolled piece of parchment, an array of watercolor paints and paintbrushes spread below her (to say nothing of two soon-to-be-necessary screws). Turn the page and there a fisherman loads his boat in the predawn hour of the day, his dog attentive but not following. As he pushes off, surrounded by other fishermen, and looks behind him to view his receding seaside home we read, “In a fishing village by the sea there is a small house.” We zoom in. “In that house high above the waves is a kitchen.” The dog is now walking into the house, bold as brass, and as the story continues we meet the woman and child inside. We also meet that same industrious cricket from the title page, painting a scene in which a fisherman combats the elements, comforted by the picture of his family he keeps beside him. And in another picture is his village, and his house, and in that house is his family, waiting to greet him safely home. Set in Vietnam, the book has all the rhythms and cadence of the most classic rhyme.
When it comes to rhymes, I feel that folks tend to be fairly familiar with the cumulative form. Best highlighted in nursery rhymes likes “The House That Jack Built” it’s the kind of storytelling that builds and builds, always repeating the elements that came before. Less celebrated, perhaps, is the nesting rhyme. Described in Using Poetry Across the Curriculum: A Whole Language Approach by Barbara Chatton, the author explains that children love patterns. “The simplest pattern is a series in which objects are placed in some kind of order. This order might be from smallest to largest, like the Russian nesting dolls, or a range of height, length, or width . . . A nursery rhyme using the ‘nesting’ pattern is ‘This Is the Key to My Kingdom’.” Indeed, it was that very poem I thought of first when I read In a Village by the Sea. In the story you keep going deeper and deeper into the narrative, an act that inevitably raises questions.
Part of what I like so much about the storytelling in this book is not just its nesting nature, but also the questions it inspires in the child reader. At first we’re working entirely in the realm of reality with a village, a fisherman, his wife, and their child. But then when we dive down into the cricket’s realm we see that it is painting a magnificent storm with vast waves that appear to be a kind of ode to that famous Japanese print, “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa”. When we get into that painting and find that our fisherman is there and in dire straits we begin to wonder what is and isn’t real. Artist April Chu runs with that uncertainty well. Notice that as the fisherman sits in his boat with the storm overhead, possibly worrying for his own safety, in his hands he holds a box. In that box is a photo of his wife and child, his village, and what appears to be a small wooden carving of a little cricket. The image of the village contains a house and (this isn’t mentioned in the text) we appear to zoom into that picture and that house where the sky is blue and the sea is calm. So what is going on precisely? Is it all a clever cricket’s imaginings or are each of these images true in some way? I love the conversation starter nature of this book. Younger kids might take the events at face value. Older kids might begin to enmesh themselves into the layered M.C. Escher-ness of the enterprise. Whatever draws them in, Van and Chu have created a melodic visual stunner. No mean feat.
For the record, the final image in this book is seemingly not of the cricket’s original painting but of the fisherman heading home on a calm sea to a distant home. What’s so interesting about the painting is that if you compare it to the cricket’s previous one (of the storm) you can see that the curls and folds of the paper are identical. This is the same canvass the cricket was working on before. Only the image has changed. How is this possible? The answer lies in what the cricket is signing on the painting’s lower right-hand corner. “AC”. April Chu. Artist as small brown cricket. I love it.
So who precisely is April Chu? Read her biography at the back and you see that she began her career as an architect, a fact that in part explains the sheer level of detail at work in tandem with this simple text. Let us be clear that while the writing in this book is engaging on a couple different levels, with the wrong artist it wouldn’t have worked half as well as it now does. Chu knows how to take a single story from a blue skied mellow to a wrath of the gods storm center and then back again to a sweet peach colored sunset. She also does a good dog. I’ll say it. The yellow lab in this book is practically the book’s hero as we follow it in and out of the house. He's even in his master's family photograph.
One question that occurred to me as I read the book was why I immediately thought of it as contemporary. No date accompanies the text. No elements that plant it firmly in one time or another. The text is lilting and lovely but doesn’t have anything so jarring as a 21st century iPhone or ear bud lurking in the corners. In Van’s Author’s Note at the end she mentions that much of the inspiration for the tale was based on both her family’s ancestral village in Central Vietnam and her father’s work, and mother’s experiences, after they immigrated to American shores. By logic, then, the book should have a bit of a historical bent to it. Yet people still fish in villages. Families still wait for the fisherman to return to shore. And when I looked at April Chu’s meticulous art I took in the clothing more than anything else. The mom’s rubber band in her hair. The cut of the neck of her shirt. The other fishermen and their shirts and the colors of the father’s. Then there was the way the dishes stack up next to the stove. I dunno. It sure looks like it’s set in a village today. But these things can be hard to judge.
There’s this real feeling that meta picture books that play with their format and turn the fourth wall into rubble are relatively new. But if we look at rhymes like “This Is the Key to the Kingdom”, we can see how they were toying with our notion of how to tell a story in a new way long long before old Stinky Cheese Man. I guess what I like most about “In a Village by the Sea” is how to deals with this duality. It manages to feel old and new all at the same time. It reads like something classic but it looks and feels like something entirely original. A great read aloud, beautifully illustrated, destined to become beloved of parents, librarians, and kids themselves for years to come. This is a book worth discovering.
Relentless cheer. You can use it for good. You can use it for evil. You can use it in the name of humor too, but that’s a trickier game to play. I’m nRelentless cheer. You can use it for good. You can use it for evil. You can use it in the name of humor too, but that’s a trickier game to play. I’m not saying it can’t be done. It just takes a certain level of finesse. Now I read a lot of graphic novels for kids in a given year that sell themselves as “funny”. And while I know that humor is subjective, I tell you plain that most of them aren’t of the laugh-out-loud variety. So when someone tries to sell me on the “funny” line with a comic I don’t actually expect that it’s gonna make me guffaw on the subway and embarrass me in front of the other riders. I guess I should be pretty peeved at you, Hilo for doing just exactly that, but how can I be mad at you? Your crazy positive outlook on life combined with your funny funny lines just makes you the most enjoyable hero to hit the library shelves in years. We get a lot of heroes around here but hardly any of them make us laugh. This guy, I like. This guy, your kids will like. This guy’s a keeper.
What if the one thing you were good at up and moved away and left you all alone? D.J. hasn’t the talents of the other people in his family and the way he figures it the only thing he was ever good at was being friends with his next door neighbor Gina. So when Gina moved away, so did the one thing that made him feel important. Three years pass, D.J.’s alone, and that’s when he spots something falling out of the sky. It’s small. It’s blond. And it’s wearing sparkly silver underpants. By all appearances the visitor is a small boy who calls himself Hilo. He doesn’t remember who he is or why he’s there or even what he is, but what he DOES love is discovering everything, and I mean everything, about the world. It looks like Hilo may be from another dimension, which is great. Except it looks like he's not the only one. And it looks like he’d better remember who he is and fast because someone, or some THING, is after him.
We hear a lot of talk about “likability” and whether or not you relate to a story’s hero. In terms of D.J., I think that even the most accomplished children out there can relate to a kid who feels like he isn’t good at anything at all. Hilo’s a little different. He has more than a smidgen of The Greatest American Hero in his make-up, alongside a bit of Mork from Mork and Mindy and Avatar (the Nickelodeon cartoon). First, you get someone with powers they don’t completely understand. Next, you get a otherworldly funny being with superpowers figuring out day-to-day life. And finally, he’s a kid who ran from his frightening responsibilities and is now trying to undo a great wrong. I really love that last trope a lot because it’s something we all suspect we’d do ourselves when under serious pressure. Plus, like Avatar, Hilo delivers its message with a diverse cast and more than a smidgen of the funny.
In his bio at the back of the book Winick mentions that amongst his various influences he grew up reading the comic strip Bloom County. He’s not the first children’s book author/cartoonist to cite Berkeley Breathed as an inspiration (by the way, I love that Winick's characters live in “Berke County”), but unlike the Bloom County imitators I’ve seen out there, Winick has managed to take the flavor and humor of the original strips and give them his own distinctive twist. Granted, the tighty whities and method of drawing toes look awfully similar to the feet and underwear of Milo Bloom, but there the direct correlations quit.
Actually, Winick’s artistic style is kind of fascinating. Particularly when it comes to characters’ eyes. A lot of the time he uses the old L’il Orphan Annie technique of keeping the pupils white and blank. But periodically, and for emphasis, small black pupils will appear. Then, in particularly emotional moments, full-color irises as well. Watching when precisely Winick chooses to use one kind of eye or another is a kind of mini lesson in comic drawing techniques in and of itself. Now Hilo is rendered in full-color glory, a fact that Winick uses to his advantage whenever he wants to create something like a portal to the Earth. But what I really liked watching, and the opening sequence is a brilliant example of this, is how he uses panels. The beginning of the book, which is a kind of flash forward into the future events to come, is a mix of action and visual humor. Even though you don’t know who these characters are, you are instantly on their side. Running from gigantic killer robots sort of cuts the “empathy” timeline in half, after all.
Now if I’ve learned anything from my time on this hallowed globe it’s that kids aren’t fans of true cliffhangers. The books where the hero is literally at the end of some screaming precipice or staring down certain death? It bugs them. They won’t stand for it. This isn’t to say that don’t like it when there’s the promise of another volume of their favorite series. But you’ve gotta ease into that, right? Leave them wanting more but solve the problem at hand. I won’t lie to you. Hilo ends on a cliffhanger. Fortunately, it’s the kind that isn’t going to make you mad when you get to it. Unless you can’t get the next book in the series. Then you’ll be furious.
I was trying to find equivalent kid comics to Hilo that know how to ratchet up the funny alongside the fast-paced. There’s a Jeff Smith blurb on this book so obviously Bone comes to mind. But I’d also be sure to mention Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado’s Giants Beware in the same breath. Any maybe Jeffrey Brown’s Star Wars: Jedi Academy just to be safe. All these books understand that while kids will follow an exciting, well-drawn comic to the ends of the earth, throw in a little humor there and they’ll go from merely enjoying it to loving it with some deep, buried part of their little comic-loving souls. That’s the fandom Hilo is poised to create. Good clean laser-beams-coming-outta-your-hands fun for the whole family. Now hand me #2, please. I have some more reading to do.
The fictionalized picture book memoir is a fairly new creation, when you get right down to it. It’s not as if Sendak was telling tales about a littleThe fictionalized picture book memoir is a fairly new creation, when you get right down to it. It’s not as if Sendak was telling tales about a little boy in Brooklyn or Margaret Wise Brown was penning nostalgic stories of a girl in a Swiss boarding school. But somewhere during the latter part of the 20th century, the form sort of took off. Tomie dePaola typified it with books like Oliver Button Is a Sissy. Michael Rosen took an adult perspective in The Sad Book. And Patricia Polacco has practically made a cottage industry out of it with stories like Thank You, Mr. Falker and Mr. Lincoln’s Way amongst others. They’re still relatively rare, though, so when you encounter a book like Billy’s Booger: A Memoir (Sorta) your first thought isn’t that this is going to have any bearing whatsoever on author William Joyce’s real life. Instead, you zero on in that word. “Booger”. Kinda hard to get away from. And you want to write the book off as gross based on that alone, but the image on the cover stops you. Not the small waving green guy, though he’s pretty cute (until you realize what exactly he is) but rather the bespectacled wide-eyed boy with the book. Get into the story and you encounter a tale that I can honestly say is unlike any other Joyce creation I’ve read before. Funny and relatable with more Bill Joyce in-jokes that you could shake a stick at, this is a picture book memoir that feels deeply personal. And all it took was a bit of fictional phlegm.
Let it be understood that even before the incidents involving the book, upon which I shall elucidate further in a moment, it was an undeniable fact that Billy was both a usual and unusual kiddo. Usual since he loved “monster movies and cartoons and comic books”. Unusual because he was the kind of child that liked to spice up things he regarded as too regular. This attitude was applied towards everything from homework to sports to the best possible way to eat your peas at dinner (for what it's worth, the trigonal form is to be recommended). Then, one day, the librarian Mrs. Pagely let Billy know about an upcoming book contest where kids would write and illustrate their very own creations. Billy was seriously psyched and pored his heart and soul into his magnum opus, Billy’s Booker: The memoirs of a little green nose buddy. Suffice to say, Billy did not receive any awards. Distraught and disheartened, he no longer had his former pep and verve. And then, one day, he saw something in the library that pretty much changed his entire life.
You know when you walk into a fictionalized picture memoir that what you are getting can’t possibly be all the facts surrounding a pivotal point in the author’s life. But truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a straight nonfiction picture book memoir in all my livelong days. So your job becomes figuring out what parts of a given storyline are true and which parts are exaggerations. With Joyce, the text is pretty straightforward. There’s nothing too wild, wacky, and out there involved. It’s the art where the man’s imagination soars. There are the natural exaggerations, like the fact that you never see Billy’s sister without her ear firmly attached to a phone receiver, or the way Billy’s book lights up as he writes in it. Then there are the set pieces. Joyce has always cultivated a true love of 1950s/60s nostalgia. Beehives, cat-eye glasses, buttoned up collars, and skirts replete with crinoline. In Billy’s Booger, Joyce creates for himself an idealized childhood. And in no better place is this visible than when Billy settles down to read the Sunday color comics.
Sharp-eyed spotters with a yen for classic newspaper comics will spend ungodly amounts of time poring over the panels that Joyce has painstakingly created here, trying to figure out what he’s referencing in one comic or another. For my part I was able to identify a Peanuts tribute (that one was pretty easy), a comic about the Shmoos of L’il Abner (only here they’re called “Smooks” and rather than "Al Capp" they’re written by "Al Hat"), a clear cut Little Nemo tribute, what appears to be a Terry and the Pirates homage, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracey (I love that the version here is called “Gunn”), The Gumps (maybe), what appears to be Dickie Dare, Bringing Up Father (no homage, that seems pretty straightforward), Yellow Kid, and Beadle’s Half-Dime Library (seriously, Bill?). These never actually existed all at the same time, of course. But Joyce’s original renderings, done with occasional shocking accuracy, are lovingly compiled. He knows perfectly well that kids reading this book aren’t going to get any of these references. Young parents will probably miss a good chunk of them as well. No, this is something Joyce is doing for himself and for the occasional comic enthusiasts out there who get their kicks out of shining iPhone flashlights on the pages trying like mad to make out the words on these teeny tiny panels.
Similarly, Joyce fills his pages to brimming with miniscule details that can only be considered true shout-outs to his fans. Elements of his future books pepper these pages. When Billy first starts writing his book, a little Dinosaur Bob sits on his desk, holding down papers that contain various Mischievians renderings. At the end of the book you can see his future characters flying through the air. Look closely and you’ll see George from George Shrinks. That floating head? It’s probably Ollie. More Mischievians, a possible robot from his movie Robots (remember that one?), and another Dinosaur Bob. And finally, just to go back to the comics for a second, it appears that Joyce has worked in a reference to Michael Chabon’s picture book The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man. At least that’s how I interpreted his “Jonny Trek” comic written in part by “Mikey Chaboing”. This makes a fair amount of sense, since Joyce once illustrated the cover of Chabon’s book Summerland while Chabon has blurbed various Joyce books over the years.
In the midst of all this fun it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that Joyce’s sense of design and layout are going wild. From the endpapers of kooky ideas to the title page drawn to resemble art from those insipid easy reader books of the 50s (think knock off Dick and Jane). The most ambitious element, however, is the small insert in the center of this book of the titular Billy’s Booger. Now on the bookflap of this title we learn that “William Joyce began writing books in the fourth grade. He’s done a bunch of books since, but this it the true story of his making that very first book. And that book is included in this book.” I understand that, but there is no guarantee that this is the original book itself rather than a modernized version of it. I did wonder, and then pored through it in search of any evidence one way or the other. In the end, I’ve no idea. Does it matter? Probably not. But it does make a reader wonder anyway. Kids, naturally, will take it for granted that it’s the original.
There are reviews I write that are so glowing that I feel compelled to come up with some kind of concern, just so I don’t appear to have fallen for its charms too completely. I'm a reviewer, not a cheerleader, after all. In this case, the best I can do is the fact that sometimes Billy’s sister is drawn in an inconsistent fashion, and his book Billy’s Booger uses that term “gypped” which some folks find offensive. For my part, I found it interesting that if this story is indeed true and Joyce did once submit a book called Billy’s Booger in a book contest then it is fascinating to think that the sole time I’ve seen him return to this kind of gross out humor in a literary form was when he created the aforementioned Mischievians. At the time it felt like an odd aberration in the Joyceian oeuvre. Now, not so much.
We might wonder, why now? Why at this point in his career has Bill Joyce chosen to return to this pivotal moment of his youth? As of 2015 the man is remarkably successful. A former New Yorker cover artist, animator, Academy Award winning filmmaker, app creator, you name it. Heck, the guy even has a statue he designed out there somewhere. In the midst of all this, it’s oddly refreshing to see a book of his that’s just a book. There’s no app tie-in or short film waiting in the wings. It’s a book for its own sake, telling a personal story, filled to brimming with fun and humor and teeny tiny details tailor made for picture book/funny page obsessives like myself. And kids? Let’s not forget the actual intended audience here. They should eat it up with a spoon. It’s just a really nice way of explaining that sometimes critics like myself are not the true arbitrators of whether or not a picture book is any good. Sometimes it really comes down to the kids themselves. They’re the ones who’ll read the title and grab this book so fast it makes your head spin. They say only the rarest kind of best is good enough for our kids. Well this puppy is as rare as it gets and, yes. It’s one of the best. Superhero booger men and all.