New Yorkers are singularly single minded. It’s not enough that our city be rich, popular, and famous. We apparently are so neurotic that we need to se...moreNew Yorkers are singularly single minded. It’s not enough that our city be rich, popular, and famous. We apparently are so neurotic that we need to see it EVERYWHERE. In movies, on television, and, of course, in books. Children’s books, however, get a bit of a pass in this regard. It doesn’t matter where you grow up, most kids get a bit of a thrill when they see their home city mentioned in a work of literature. Here in NYC, teachers go out of their way to find books about the city to read and study with their students. As a result of this, in my capacity as a children’s librarian I make a habit of keeping an eye peeled for any and all New York City related books for the kiddos. And as luck would have it, in the year 2013 I saw a plethora of Manhattan-based titles. Some were great. Some were jaw-droppingly awful. But one stood apart from the pack. Written by an Aussie, Herman and Rosie, author Gus Gordon has created the first picture book I’ve ever seen to successfully put its finger on the simultaneous beauty and soul-gutting loneliness of big city life. The fact that it just happens to be a fun story about an oboe-tooting croc and deer chanteuse is just icing on the cake.
Herman and Rosie are city creatures through and through. Herman is a croc with a penchant for hotdogs and yogurt and playing his oboe out the window of his 7th story home. In a nearby building, Rosie the deer likes pancakes and jazz records and singing in nightclubs, even if no one’s there to hear her. Neither one knows the other, so they continue their lonely little lives unaware of the potential soulmate nearby. One day Rosie catches a bit of Herman’s music and not long thereafter Herman manages to hear a snatch of a song sung by Rosie. They like what they hear but through a series of unfortunate events they never quite meet up. Then Herman gets fired from his job in sales and Rosie’s favorite jazz club goes belly up. Things look bad for our heroes, until a certain cheery day where it all turns around for them.
You can know a city from afar but never quite replicate it in art. I do not know how many times Gus Gordon has visited NYC. I don’t know his background here or how often he’s visited over the course of his lifetime. All I know is he got Manhattan DOWN, man! Everything from the water towers and the rooftop landscapes to the very color of the subway lines is replicated in his pitch perfect illustrations. Maybe the medium has a lot to answer for. I love the map endpapers that identify not just where Herman and Rosie live, but also where you can find a great hot dog place. I like how the art is a mix of real postcards showcasing everything from Central Park (look at the Essex House!!) to the Rose Reading Room in the main branch of New York Public Library.
But the art is far more than simply a clever encapsulation of a location. It took several readings before I could see a lot of what Gordon was up to. Here’s an example: Take a look at the two-page spread where Herman is leaving his office for the last time with all his goods in a box, while on the opposite page Rosie trudges home from the closing club, her high heeled red shoes sitting forlornly in the basket of her bike. The two images take place at different times of the day, but if you look closely you’ll see that they’re the same street corner. Yet where Herman’s New York is filled with loud angry voices and sounds, Rosie’s is near silent, a black wash representing the oncoming night. Note too that while Herman’s mailbox was a mixed media photo, Rosie’s is painted in a black wash with some crayon scribbles. It’s a subtle difference, but I love how it sort of represents how objects become less real when the lights begin to dim. And the book is just FILLED with tiny, clever details. From the pictures and instructions that grace Herman’s cubicle at work to the fact that Rosie clearly washes her clothes at home (the clothesline the runs from her bike to the old-fashioned vacuum tube television was my first clue) to Herman’s bed in the living room, Gordon is constantly peppering his book with elements that give little insights into who these two characters really are.
And that right there is the the crux of the book. Time and time again Gordon returns to this idea of how lonely it can be to live in a busy place. The idea that you can be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people and feel as alone as if you were on a desert island is a tricky concept to convey to small fry. Herman’s whole personality, in a way, hinges on the fact that he’s terrible at his job as a telecaller because all he wants to do is talk to people on the phone, not sell them things. He longs for connection. Rosie, meanwhile, finds a certain level of connection through her singing gig. Once that gig leaves, her feelings of extreme loneliness echo Herman’s with the loss of his job. Their sole lifelines to the outside world have been severed against their wills. If this were a book for adults we’d undoubtedly also get a couple scenes of the various failed dates they fine themselves on (well, Rosie certainly… I’m not so sure that Herman’s the serial dater type). Kids understand loneliness. They get that. They’ll get this.
The book also plays on the natural inclination for a happy resolution, and the near misses when Herman almost meets Rosie and Rosie just barely misses Herman can be excruciating. You are fairly certain the two are made for one another (the natural tendencies of crocs to eat deer notwithstanding) so it can be particularly painful to see so many almost wases. This feeling is, admittedly, partly diluted by the fact that you’re not quite sure what will happen when the two DO meet. Are they going to fall in love? Well, not exactly. There may be a kind of child reader that hopes for that ending, but instead we’re given a conclusion where the two just learn to make beautiful music together, and in the course of that music happen to find financial success as well. This is New York, after all. Love’s great but a steady paycheck’s even better.
The truth of the matter is that Herman and Rosie could be set in L.A. or Minneapolis or Atlanta or even Sydney and I’d still love it as much as I do with its New York flavor, tone, and beat. It wouldn’t be exactly the same, but it’s the bones of the book that are strong. The setting is just a bonus, really. With original mixed media, a text that’s subtle and succinct, and a story that rings both true and original (for a picture book medium anyway), this is a city book, a true city book, to its core. Author Markus Zusak said the book was “Quirky, soulful and alive”. Can’t put it any better than that. What he said.
Here’s a puzzler for you. See what you think. There’s been a lot of talk lately about nonfiction for kids and the importance of highlighting those boo...moreHere’s a puzzler for you. See what you think. There’s been a lot of talk lately about nonfiction for kids and the importance of highlighting those books that adhere strictly to the truth. That means no invented dialog in biographies and no invented facts. If you conflate facts, you start getting into a murky, sticky area. As Walter de la Mare is reported to have said (and no, I’m not blind to the irony of not knowing if he actually said it), “only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young.” That goes for our nonfiction too. If we can’t trust them with reality (albeit selective reality) what can we trust them with? So with all this in mind, a stanch staid steady trust in the real world at hand, what are we to make of books where the facts are all true (insofar as we know) but the illustrations are fanciful? No one is ever going to say that the Jesse Goossens book Jumping Penguins is anything but one-of-a-kind. The real question is whether or not you think its delightful flights of fancy help or hurt the material at hand.
Without so much as a howdy-do, Jumping Penguins leaps into the thick of it right from the start. Turn the page and here we have a rather delightful turtle birthday party looking at us. The turtle of the hour is wearing a party hat that reads “150” while before him (her?) other turtles pile on top of one another, Yertle-style. As your eye wanders to the text on the far right you start reading startling and interesting facts. There are 33 species of turtles. The largest weighs as much as a small car. The oldest tortoise of all time was 225 years old when it died. Flipping through the book you are struck by the variety of facts. Sometimes these can be incredibly short (including the near non sequitur “A polar bear is left-handed, as are most artists.”) while others fill out the page from top to bottom. Fun, original pictures filling near two-page spreads continue throughout the book. There’s no particular order to the animals, but by the end you feel you’ve seen a wide variety. An index appears at the end of the book.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you end a book. Jumping Penguins is memorable for many things, but it’s hard not really love the fact that the very last words you will read mere moments before closing the cover are, “Panther: A black panther is not a panther at all – it is a leopard that happens to be black.” Pithy and to the point. There is, however, a downside to Goossens’ cleverness. It’s a downside that probably does not exist in The Netherlands where this book (under the title “Springende pinguins en lachende hyena’s”, in case you’re curious) was originally published. The trouble is that aside from the Index, there is no backmatter to explain where exactly Ms. Goossens is getting her facts. We’re sort of taking it on faith that if you drop alcohol on a scorpion it will go crazy and sting itself to death. This would probably pose more of a problem if I could envision any way in the world in which this book could be integrated into a school curriculum. Fact of the matter is that it’s just a really fun, and rather beautiful, collection of animal facts. No more. No less. So while I wouldn’t necessarily go spouting these off without doing the most rudimentary of checks, I think we’re okay overall.
Not to say there aren’t some moments of confusion. In the seahorse section I already knew that the daddy seahorse is the one who actually lugs about the baby seahorses for long periods of time in his pouch. However, since Goossens doesn’t mention that the females really do give birth to the eggs in the first place, statements like “He gets pregnant again within a few days” can prove more than a little confusing. Alternately, I rather liked the longer words and vocabulary terms that are spotted throughout the text. The casual understanding that the reader is familiar with words like “vertebrae”, “defecate”, and “nocturnal” gives the child reader the benefit of the doubt. I'm rather partial to that.
Clearly illustrator Marije Tolman is supposed to be the main draw here. How else to explain the fact that ONLY her name appears on the spine of the book (the cover doesn’t sport any words at all, so there you go there)? Certainly the art here offers a whole second way of reading the book. What Tolman has done that’s so neat is to illustrate each section with this silly, upbeat style while at the same time including lots of little elements that tie directly into the descriptive text. The Scorpion section, for example, contains about five different little drawn vignettes of various scorpions. It takes a careful reading of the text to realize what they’re getting at. The scorpion wearing three pairs of sunglasses? Well, that connects to the line “Scorpions have six eyes and some even have twelve but they cannot see well”. Slowly you can pair up each picture with the statement, but what becomes clear is that the illustrations in this book will not make any sense unless you do more than skim the pretty pics. Fortunately those same pics are also funny as well as occasionally quite beautiful (I’m personally rather fond of the Giant Octopus).
What Jumping Penguins does better than anything else is simply set up an appreciation for the natural world by way of its modest peculiarities. I mean, what exactly are we supposed to do with the information that “A giraffe has no vocal cords. It has as many vertebrae as you do”? There is no practical application for the knowledge you will find here. And that, I would argue, is actually its strength. Without relying on a specific hook (or precedent, for that matter) the combined efforts of Goossens and Tolman present you with something that looks, at first glance, like a picture book. Linger with it long and it’s rapidly clear that the overwhelming sense at the end is that the natural world is an awesome place. How many other animal fact books can say so much? Read this and you’ll find yourself amazed that you never knew half these facts. This is a book to inspire that most impossible of feelings: Wonder.
Like a bullet whizzing past your ear, I shudder when I consider how close I came to never hearing about Holly Webb's mesmerizing, charming, purely del...moreLike a bullet whizzing past your ear, I shudder when I consider how close I came to never hearing about Holly Webb's mesmerizing, charming, purely delightful Rose. It's an innocuous little book. Doesn't draw a lot of attention to itself. The American cover, while attractive, simply shows a girl in a servant's clothing and a white cat while the title swirls about suggestively. The book isn't even available in the States in hardcover (!) but paperback, thereby guaranteeing that only the sharpest of sharp-eyed spotters will notice it on a library or bookstore shelf. Add in the fact that the reviews for the book have been good but remarkably sparse and you have yourself a recipe for a hidden gem. An unassuming little British import, this is Downton Abbey with magic. It's Upstairs, Downstairs with a talking cat. It is, in short, one of those pure unqualified delights that I dearly hope folks will read. If they don't, the publisher might not bring over the sequels and THAT, ladies and gentlemen, would be the true catastrophe.
Think about it a little while and you'll see how lucky Rose is. Out of all the girls at St. Bridget's Home for Abandoned Girls she was the one picked to work as a housemaid at the prestigious Aloysius Fountain's home. Still, it's strange. An alchemist in high demand, Mr. Fountain knows how to wield magic. That's not the strange thing. The strange thing is that it seems as though Rose has some kind of power of her own. She can hear Gustavus the cat talk. She inadvertently saves Mr. Fountain's apprentice Frederick from a misty monster. And then there are the pictures she sometimes conjures up . . . Rose is perfectly happy where she is, thank you very much. She doesn't have much use for magic. But when children start disappearing and one of them is a friend to Rose, it seems as though it's up to her to figure out who's doing it and to stop them once and for all.
When world building, the children's author has the unenviable task of setting up the rules without letting them override the plot. If you want to write a book for a 10-year-old, you have to resist the urge to go into intricate details. With Rose I sank into this universe like it was the world's comfiest plush couch. The beauty is that magic is not something your average everyday person sees. It's solely a plaything of the rich, though it does filter into some of the everyday details. Once Rose starts working for the Fountain household she gets to attend a church with some fairly magical patrons (and who wouldn't mind having some moving stained glass windows to watch during boring services?). Plus it's filled with great details, like Frederick's grandfather who wished his corpse to be turned into a statue. It's very easy to understand the class and magic details at work here. What sets it apart, I suppose, is how it deals with its storytelling.
It can't hurt at all that Rose is an infinitely likable character. She's got some spunk, and I can tell you that as a kid I would have adored her simply based on the fact that she tries to always follow the rules. When she does break them, it's only in extreme situations. Generally, she likes her job and her position and can see herself continuing on in this manner for the rest of her natural born life. If only that doggone magic would let her.
When I try to think of books that would go well with Rose I come to the realization that it pairs marvelously with Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis. But from the other side of the fence, as it were. Kat is an upper class little lady who has a talent for magic, though it is not approved up for the well to do. Rose, in contrast, is in a world where the well to do have all the access to magic while it's the working classes that scrape by without it. And it is this detail that may yet prove the series' undoing.
If I were to have one objection, it's not even necessarily a problem yet. But I worry about the implications that Rose may actually be from the upper classes and that's why she's capable of magic. Webb is as English and the English come and the book makes some assumptions that give an American gal pause. It seems clear that magic is expensive. That's completely understandable. More problematic is the fact that apparently only the upper classes are even capable of wielding it. This is so well known that even a cat like Gustavus is aware of the fact (and, consequently, views Rose as an amusing anomaly). Now imagine what will happen if it turns out that Rose has rich and famous parents of some sort and that's why this lower-class heroine is as capable as she is. That's the obvious danger, but I'm hoping for something a little cleverer on Webb's part. Since this is obviously only the very first in a longer series (the villain hardly gets to cackle before defeat, and is bound to have a backstory of her own that we are yet to be privy to) there's lots of time to upset the rich=magic paradigm. At least I hope so.
One objection I've heard leveled at the book from other quarters is that the defeat of the villain hinges on her victimized children finding "hope". Bull. Sorry, but clearly that particular reviewer had forgotten that while the whole "hope" bit served to save a dying kid, it had absolutely diddly over squat to do with defeating the big bad. That same reviewer commended the book for the fact that so much more attention is paid to the day-to-day workings of an upper class English home, and to that I agree wholeheartedly. There is magic in this book, and you will find it when you need it, but the politics of the servants prove to be just as enchanting as the . . . um . . . people doing the enchanting (as it were).
Harry Potter left a gap in our lives. It created a vacuum for fantasy, and for a couple years that void was studiously filled with quality middle grade fantastical tales. But as time has gone on, fantasies have filtered out of the system a bit. You'll always find a few good ones in a given year, but few give you that same sense of simple pleasure we felt when Harry confronted the Mirror of Erised or faced off with a basilisk. Holly Webb isn't trying to write the next Harry Potter. She's just trying to write a fun little historical fiction alternate fantasy world. It just so happens that in the process she's managed to conjure up a book that feels good from the get-go. Funny and smart, exciting but never forgetting the rudimentary details of day-to-day life, Rose is the kind of book you could kick yourself for missing. I almost did. Now all I can do is hunger for others in the series to come to the States. Do you believe in magic?
Here is how, as of the date of this review, Wikipedia defines the term “punk culture”. Ahem. “. . . largely characterized by anti-establishment views...moreHere is how, as of the date of this review, Wikipedia defines the term “punk culture”. Ahem. “. . . largely characterized by anti-establishment views and the promotion of individual freedom.” Now look at your toddler. Go on. Give that kiddo a long, lingering look. Consider, for a moment, what makes a small child a small child. Do they believe in individual freedoms? Anyone who has ever attempted to herd a group of them will immediately answer yes. Are they anti-establishment? Well, what would YOU call the kid who draws on the hallways walls in permanent marker? Ladies and gentlemen the only logical explanation to draw from any of this is that toddlers are, and have always been, punk rockers. They have crazy hair, they create one-of-a-kind outfits of their own making, and they certainly have no problem with loud volumes. The evidence is extraordinary. It seems only fitting to hand them a counting book that displays as many different kinds of punks as possible. Looking for the mildest of subversions with a consistently sweet undercurrent, kickin’ art, and fun text? This punk’s for you.
A single, solitary, mohawked punk of the wide cuffed, purple coated, army boot variety goes walking down the street. He runs into his blue haired pal Noriko, she of the bunny-eared car, and then there are two. They, in turn, meet up with green dredded Kevin and the start jamming. It isn’t long before they’re getting ready for a big show, putting up posters, and getting everyone in town involved. More and more punks join the fun until by the slam-bang finish you’ve a party of twelve plus all their madcap friends. At long last it’s time to go home (even Noriko’s car seems to have conked out) and twelve happy punks sleep the night away.
If you have a toddler you read a lot of counting books. It’s part of the deal you sign when the hospital hands over your kid for the first time. “I solemnly swear to read my child an ungodly amount of counting books until the seas turn a boiling roiling red.” Or words along those lines. And when you read a lot of counting books certain patterns start to emerge. You get the distinct feeling that all counting books rhyme in some manner. I don’t know why this should be. It’s not like every children’s book author is actually GOOD at rhyming. They just usually feel obligated to give it a go. So many of them do this, in fact, that when one encounters a picture counting book that does NOT rhyme in any way, shape, or form, the adult reader is thrown. You want to make the cadences even, but the book fights you every step of the way. Such was my experience with “Happy Punks 123”. The first lines are “One happy punk looks around for his friends.” Even before you turn the page you’re attempting to predict the next line. Will it be “Two happy punks now peer through a lens” or “Two happy punks will soon make amends”? Nope. It’s “Are they at Slobotnik Square? Or Calvin Corner?” Turn the page. “Two happy punks sit on a stoop. They like to watch cars and talk to dogs. Hey, is that Kevin?” You see? Other books have set up these weird expectations and you expect John and Jana’s latest to fit the mold. It’s sort of perfect that Happy Punks 123 bucks that expectation by doing its own thing. That’s real punk rock, man. Awesome.
The art in this book is certainly shouldering a great big bulk of the fun. Nothing against the text. Even without its rhymes it’s a nice story of how one gathers friends throughout the day (without cell phones, which makes this downright utopian to some extent). But if the wrong illustrator had jumped on board this ship it would have meant the end of things. As it stands, the art has this laid back, friendly, colorful vibe. There are a lot of speech balloons and signs that mix script and print words. The very font of the book is of the typewriter variety and is snuggled seamlessly into the images. Design wise, the whole enterprise is a pleasure to the eye. It gets a little madcap near the end but with a premise of ever increasing punks you’d feel a bit cheated if it didn’t.
I also loved the subtle little jokes hidden along the way. On the cover, for example, you can see Noriko sporting a shirt that reads “ABCD & EFGH: Home of the Alphabet”. I’m no music guru. I won’t embarrass myself here by confessing how long it took me before I truly knew who Joey Ramone was. However, even I can recognize when a book might be making a reference to CBGB, the original punk rock music club of NYC. I also loved that it was a zombie running the music store (that could be a joke right there) and that they get their treats from “Ornery Penguin’s Gelato”. That's not a reference to anything. It's just the illustrator's excuse to draw a testy penguin character. Who could blame them?
Since we’re dealing with the folks who created A Rule Is To Break: A Child's Guide to Anarchy which earned its 15 minutes of fame when the Tea Party decided to make an example out of it, the inclination is to see whether or not John and Jana worked into a little subversion into the story. Did they? Well, I think it’s all in what you want to see. Yes, the sole antagonist in this book is an elephant. But go a little farther into the book and you’ll see he’s not the only elephant on the scene (a nice pink one works as a coat check girl at the club) and even if he were he joins the party at the end and has a wonderful time with the punks. So basically, Happy Punks 123 is a Rorschach test. You see in it what you want to see.
Basically this is a John Waters film made kid-friendly and picture book accessible. I don’t know that you’d necessarily call Waters “punk”, but then I don’t necessarily think you can slot Waters into any category all that easily. What this book really does is show a vast variety of different types of people, from hard-core rockers to straight edge hipsters. The punk aesthetic ideally celebrates all types of people, all the different ways they want to be (as long as they’re inclusive, obviously). And what John and Jana have done here is show that array, from robots to ultilikilted men to even elephants, if that’s what you’re into. The counting aspect works, and as per all potential bedtime books it ends with everybody asleep. From Portland to Williamsburg you’re bound to find folks loving the Happy Punks 123 vibe. It’s relentlessly cheery and the kind of book that makes you feel good after you finish it. World of counting books? Prepare to meet the latest, greatest addition to your fold.
Poetry is of the people by its very definition. Though sometimes considered the property of the elite (usually by folks who were forced to eat poetry...morePoetry is of the people by its very definition. Though sometimes considered the property of the elite (usually by folks who were forced to eat poetry unfiltered in high school by bored teachers) at its best it is a format that any human with a sense of rhythm and/or timing can use to their advantage. Poetry is the voice of people who are oppressed. When Chinese immigrants found themselves detained for weeks on end on Angel Island, they scratched poetry into the very walls of the building. Not curses. Not cries. Poems. It seems fitting then that J. Patrick Lewis should cull together poems to best celebrate “civil rights leaders” both known and unknown. People of different races, creeds, religions, and even sexualities are celebrated in a book that can only be honestly called what it is: one-of-a-kind.
Seventeen people. That doesn't sound like a lot of folks. Seventeen people turning the tide of history and oppression. Seventeen individuals who made a difference and continue to make a difference every day. And to accompany them, seventeen poems by a former Children’s Poet Laureate. In When Thunder Comes, J. Patrick Lewis highlights heroes of every stripe. And, in doing so, lets young readers know what a hero truly is.
Lewis isn’t phoning this one in. These poems are straight up honest-to-god works of poetry. Though the book is a mere 44 pages or so, its picture book size is misleading indeed. Consider this poem about Aung San Suu Kyi containing the following lines: “When a cyclone flicked off the roof of my prison / like the Queen of Hearts, turning my life to shame / and candle, the General had a mole removed. / When they added four words to the constitution - / my name – to bar me from ever running for office, / the General signed it with his fingernail made of / diamonds and disgust.” We’re on beyond nursery rhymes and patter here. There are also individual lines you just can’t help but admire. I like this one about Nelson Mandela in particular: “It is as if he’s landed on the moon / Five years before the actual event.”
The content is noticeably more mature as well. Kids have plenty of books to choose between when it comes to the Freedom Riders and Walkers, but the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner are dark as dark can be. That poem is told, not in broken up sections, but as a single long, square paragraph. Other ideas, like Muhammad Yunus and his microcredit system or Harvey Milk and his fight for gay rights require a bit more worldly knowledge on the part of readers.
Lewis makes some interesting choices along the way. He’s careful to include familiar names (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Robinson, etc.) alongside lesser-known figures (Aung San Suu Kyi, Helen Zia, Ellison Onizuka, etc.). Some are living, some long dead. Each person has a title (“activist”, “auntie”, etc.). For “the innocent” he names Mamie Carthan Till but not her son, Emmett. At first I was confused by the choice, but the end matter made it clear that it was Mrs. Till that insisted that her son’s funeral be an open casket affair. An act of rebellion in and of itself. And this is undoubtedly the first book for children I’ve read that made special note of Harvey Milk. I know that some smaller presses have highlighted him in the past, but it’s particularly satisfying in this day and age to see him properly named and credited. A sign of the times, if you will.
Another thing I like about the book is its ability to highlight individuals that should be, and are not, household names. If Sylvia Mendez truly paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education, why isn’t Mendez v. Westminster better known? Certainly the book is ideal for writing assignments. The poems vary in terms of style, and I can see teachers everywhere assigning even more too little lauded heroes to their students, asking them to cultivate poems of their own. It would have been nice if somewhere in the book it said what the types of poems featured were (villanelles don’t come along in children’s books every day, after all). Teachers hoping to make connections between some of the subjects then and now might also point out things like how Emmett Till bought candy prior to his death, not unlike a more contemporary hoodied young man.
Of the various objections I’ve heard leveled against this book, there is the problem that each piece of art is not directly credited to its artist. Meilo So’s style is recognizable enough. Ditto R. Gregory Christie. But who did that image of Josh Gibson? Or Dennis James Banks for that matter? Now, the artists are listed on the publication page with references to their images, but since the book itself isn’t paginated this isn’t as useful as it might be. And some of the images work better than others, of course. While I wasn’t as taken with the images of Coretta Scott King, Mamie Carthan Till, or Dennis James Banks, I really liked Josh Gibson wearing his “Grays” garb, standing against a sky full of clouds. A different librarian objected to the fact that the three men murdered by the Klan in 1964 are featured with very similar, dark skin tones. I see the point, but since the shot is taken at night and the whole of the image is itself dark, this didn’t worry me as much.
In many ways the book most similar to this is Marilyn Singer’s recent “Rutherford B., Who Was He?: Poems About Our Presidents Like Singer’s book, Lewis presents the poems and people first and then provides an explanation of who they were at the end. Both give new slants on old names. But for all that, Lewis’s book is unique. Maybe not 100% perfect, but chock full of better poetry than you’ll find in a lot of children’s rooms, highlighting folks that deserve a little additional attention. Certainly bound to be of use to teachers, parents, and kids with an eye towards honest-to-goodness heroism. A lovely addition, no matter where you might be.
Every October you walk into your bookstores and your libraries and you see the overwhelming swath of seasonal fare pelt you from every side. Apples an...moreEvery October you walk into your bookstores and your libraries and you see the overwhelming swath of seasonal fare pelt you from every side. Apples and pumpkins, scarecrows and black cats. You begin to wonder if it's possible to do anything that's both new and autumnal anymore. Then you turn around and you see the book most likely to make you back away in true, abject fear. Rotten Pumpkin: A Rotten Tale in 15 Voices is basically what you'd get if you took Paul Fleischman's Joyful Noise Poems for Two Voices or Laura Amy Schlitz's Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village and turned those bugs and people into molds, slugs, and other creepy crawlies. I have never been so overwhelmed with a desire to wash my hands after reading a book as I have reading Schwartz's latest. That's a compliment, by the way.
It doesn't start off all that badly. On Halloween night a triumphant little pumpkin merrily grins at the reader. "Here I stand, bright with light, proud and round. Tonight is my glory night. Call me Jack." Its hubris doesn't last long. The first unwelcome visitor is a chomping chewing mouse. The next a squirrel. Then come the slugs, a fly, and most dramatically the black rot. Once the rot's set in it's just a question of how quickly Jack will disintegrate. Schwartz fills his story with plenty of useful information, like the fact that low temperatures don't slow most of the fungi that eat pumpkins. Or the strange nature of the plasmodium and its odd ways. By the end we see how life begins anew, thanks in large part to the creatures that help with decomposition. A glossary of terms and useful "Classroom Investigations" are found at the end of the book.
When we think of books told in a variety of different voices, our minds instantly think of some of the loftier titles for kids out there. Award winners. Collections of monologues. That sort of thing. So I think it would be particularly refreshing for kids to embody the characters in this book. I'm suddenly envisioning the world's grossest school play, wherein our hero, the pumpkin, is eaten and devoured by his/her classmates, piece by piece. The characters, if you can call them that, aren't delineated in the text by anything more than their images. Sections run together without chapter titles. I was also a bit sad that the photos were separate from the text, when it would have been nice to see the two integrated. That said, I did like the writing. It does a good job of telling a story, conveying some really interesting factual information, and grossing you out. Surprisingly, this is the book that actually explained Penicillium to me better than anything else I've ever read. Not being much of a scientist I confess that I'd always been a bit fuzzy (no pun intended) on what precisely it is that Penicillium does. I know the story of how it was discovered, but not why it works. Now I do.
It's hard for me to pinpoint what the most disgusting moment of this book really is. Was it the title page with its leering jack-o-lantern leering, bedecked with a black mustache of pure mold? Was it instead the yeast swimming in the fermenting pumpkin, an almost peach colored jelly packed with white rods? No. For me, without a doubt, the honor lies squarely on the spores. We have photographer Dwight Kuhn to thank for that. Having worked on "more than 140 children's books on nature and biology", Kuhn had his work cut out for him when it came to some of the shots in this book. The squirrel was keen, the mouse divine, and the slugs sluggy, but the shot that impressed me the most was the extreme close-up of the fly. *shudder* You'd have to see it for yourself to understand why.
Who says the scariest Halloween books for kids are strictly fictional? With Rotten Pumpkin you've all the thrills of a typical horror story, laden with facts along the way. The hero at the top of his game. The downfall. The insidious, frankly disgusting, forces that eat away at him until he's nothing left but a blackened husk of his former self. Oh, it's thrilling stuff. With applications in the classroom, in the home, and on the stage, there's nowhere this rotting corpse of a pumpkin doesn't belong. So this holiday season don't bother handing the kids yet another copy of Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark when they beg you for child-friendly horror fare. Just load them down with a little Rotten Pumpkin. Guaranteed to make hypochondriacs out of even the stiffest souls.