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by Sam Juliano

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.         -William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Though the commercialization of Thanksgiving can never compare to the yuletide celebration of a month later, the late November depletion of the nation’s turkey population has come to be an occasion too often taken for granted.  To be sure much good comes out of the annual rendezvous with beloved family members and a dinner more often than not that’s fit for a king.  What is too often lost for children is the meaning of the day, the reason why school calendars always include two successive days off late in the month that usher in the ensuing weekend.  The big irony of course is that the title of the holiday says all we need to know about the significance of a festive occasion also crassly referred to as Turkey Day, yet even that ubiquitous labeling fails to cut through the pleasures many have come to anticipate with hedonist fervor.  No one is as routinely attuned to the Thanksgiving rituals as children, who are understandably showered with parental affection and all the cheer those special times of the year can engender.  Some family dinner gatherings are prefaced with prayers, or non denominational expressions of appreciation, but it all makes for a kind of blanket statement and a sweeping generality for kids who are accustomed to receiving, but less likely to identify the sources of their gratitude nor the origin of their sustenance and shelter.

Picture book artist Toni Yuly aims to set the record straight in Thank You Bees, a lower level work that could equally be categorized as an invocation or a scene-specific applause for the planet’s natural elements.  While this soulful homage to Earth’s invaluable resources was not designed to honor a holiday, its spirit and auspices make it an attractive addition to books about one of America’s most beloved single days.  Aside from the titular kinship the pervasive theme of Yuly’s book is one of unmitigated gratefulness, and the realization that without even a single one of her fundamental, indispensable acknowledgements, life as we know it could not exist.  While Yuly’s environmental homage is devoid of any replete secular reference, comparable to a work like the 1945 Caldecott Medal winner Prayer for a Child by Rachel Field and Elizabeth Orton Jones, there is nonetheless a spiritual vantage point of a child coming to terms with life’s essentials, via land, water and air.  There is certainly a plethora of fiction that addresses the appreciation process, but Yuly’s inspired primer is as close as a direct ecological plea to youngsters at the most impressionable of ages.  The author-artist doesn’t directly request a measure of conservation, but the implications are clear, and a positive consequence of first knowing what we were blessed with on the planet. Continue Reading »

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by J.D. Lafrance

In 1989, up-and-coming screenwriter Steve Kloves wrote and directed The Fabulous Baker Boys, an engaging and insightful look at two piano-playing brothers working the lounge circuit. The film was a critical hit, but barely made back its modest budget. A few years later, he wrote and directed Flesh and Bone (1993), an under-appreciated neo-noir that also failed to connect with a mainstream audience. Its commercial failure must have hit Kloves hard as he wouldn’t have another screenplay made until Wonder Boys in 2000. Since then, he has been the go-to guy for the Harry Potter franchise, which hopefully has given him enough clout within the industry to write and direct again – it would be a shame if he squandered the promise showed on his first two films.
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by Sam Juliano

Thanksgiving Day 2017 is imminent, and many of us will be holding true to long standing traditions, visiting family and cherishing yet another day with our loved ones.  For Lucille, the kids and I it will mean out 22nd consecutive annual trek up to Butler, New Jersey to the home of Lucille’s sister and her husband and three grown sons.  What always gloriously compliments this proposition is that Lucille’s brother-in-law has four brothers and a sister, and each has children, who also have children.  The bottom line is that their sprawling, mansion-sized house (their living room is as large as the layout of our own entire first floor) on a hill at the end of a scenic cul-de-sac will be hosting around 60 people for quite a holiday smorgasborg, and an insane desert spread and late night second meal on the back yard barbeque that will serious challenge my controlled Type 2 diabetes situation.  Over the extended holiday weekend Lucille and I also have (whag else?) some movie plans that will include some fo the year’s most anticipated prestige offerings: Mudbound, Call Me By Your Name and The Darkest Hour.

Part II of the Greatest Television Countdown will commence on February 14th, but I will delay the next group e mail notification till right after the Christmas holidays.  The Caldecott Medal Contender series is ongoing and will continue until early February.  Our resident film scholar Jim Clark has been publishing some stupendous comprehensive essays every third week.

We are all so thrilled to attend Saturday afternoon’s Manhattan Books of Wonder presentation by Caldecott winning artists Erin and Philip Stead who spoke of their heartening collaborartion with Mark Twain, “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine.” Lucille, Jeremy and I got to chat with both artists (and their newborn child). Jeremy is pictured above with the Steads and their three 2017 picture book gems, including “Prince Oleomargarine.” Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

Hope is the thing with feathers; That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words; And never stops at all.
                                        -Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

In last year’s Caldecott Honor winning Leave Me Alone by Vera Brosgol, an old granny tires of chaos and deafening noise in her overpopulated house and escapes through a secret door, only to find out that life in another region offers up the same obstacles as those experienced in her domestic environs.  The people residing in the fictional village of La Paz in Carmen Agra Deedy and Eugene Yelchin’s The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet, like Brosgol’s overheated guardian, need some rest and relaxation.  The problem with this proposition in Deedy’s book is that innocuous intent can often result in dire consequences.  For all its deadpan humor and amusing underpinnings this allegorical story is a thinly veiled cautionary tale about foolhardy concession and the abuse of power.  Put in more basic terms its conforms to the tenets of a timeless adage, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”  The book’s original title was The Noisy Little Rooster, but the alteration is so much better attuned to the work’s unmistakable theme.

The pictorial response to Deedy’s Once there was a village where the streets rang with song from morning till night is a quilted countryside at the forefront of a cluster of thatched buildings, a few of which are chapels.  Woven into the many plots, distinguishable by color are musical notes, depicting a blissful hamlet, unencumbered  by curtailment of any sort.  This lyrically acoustic Shangri-La is a veritable cornucopia of sound, all converging in and around a town square.  Albeit,  some is of the bombastic variety – a man shouting into a bullhorn, a car with loud speakers passing through, church bells peeling and a boy marching to his own drum beat, other reverberations are suffused with more soulful cadences, such as a man playing an accordion, bus passengers strutting their choral prowess, birds singing in a tree, a married couple singing and playing guitar on a park bench and even a man singing in a shower with open window.  A tea kettle contributes a signature toot to the cacophony, but more natural sounds like water gushing from a fountain or a goat neighing complicate this antithesis to the pastoral lifestyle.  Yelchin’s mixed media eye candy applications were created by oil pastel, colored pencil, gouache and acrylic and the polychromatic double page canvas are vigorously applied in kid friendly mode.  Alas, like the denizens in Ron Barrett’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs too much of a supposedly good thing on an everyday basis will render this propensity stagnant.  The residents of La Paz tired of the constant sensory chaos and finally decided to serve up their Mayor with his walking papers.  Yelchin humorously visualizes this with an index finger extended, ordering the town’s chagrined highest ranking official to quit the premises, after a family of four and even their canine can no longer endure the deafening rumpus. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

The last time a plucky and intrepid young girl risked a ferocious winter blizzard on the pages of a children’s book was back in 1986 when Irene Bobbin, a dressmaker’s daughter filled in for her ailing mother to deliver a dress to a duchess, whose castle was on the other side of a mountain.  The courageous adventurer is the titular character of William Steig’s Brave Irene, though the circumstances surrounding this hypothermic trek have little in common otherwise.  Fate, chance and reciprocal kindness save the day and leave young readers relieved after a hair-raising confrontation with the elements on an especially forbidding turf.

In a seemingly innocuous pictorial prologue a girl is initially spotted petting her dog in a living room as her parents hold coffee mugs with little concern for any measure of impending danger.  Wearing a red parka she heads off to a one room schoolhouse as the dog’s barking becomes more pronounced, while off in the distance a pack of wolves howl and scout hilly terrain.  Cordell sets the stage for what turns out to be as markedly perilous a raw adventure story  as any Jack London has ever turned out.  Not since Jerry Pinkney’s 2010 Caldecott Medal winner The Lion and the Mouse did an act of charity receive reciprocation in kind, and not since John Rocco’s 2014 Blizzard has snow as a crippling force of nature threatened the survival of those caught in the blanketing acceleration.  No doubt an adult reader might be thinking of the classic lines-  It lay drifted on the crosses and headstones, on the spears of the gate, on the thorns, but the target audience is left with the full gamut of emotions, ranging from consternation to exhaustion in a region controlled by ravenous wolves who are not by instinct able to show compassion for anyone stranded in their den.  After a stark and unostentatious title page of black letters over a background of snow falling, we see our fearless snow traveler bidding adieu her classmates, wall of whom as envisioned by Cordell are over the moon over with the white stuff, and adorned in varying colors.  Cordell’s highly stylized, unique scratch board illustrations were created for this book by pen and ink with watercolor, and the method is a perfect fit for a story where living creatures, tress and objects are partially obscured by an all-enveloping snowstorm  Yet the author-illustrator vividly paints his protagonists, sometimes full frontal to accentuate the urgency of the situation, and as ever is a master colorist controlling his canvas like a pictorial maestro, darkening primary hues to denote the fleeting daylight hours and creating by cotton ball saturation the most visceral and intense blizzard ever recorded in a picture book.  By his own admission  Cordell diverted with Wolf in the Snow from his standard simplified, shorthand drawing style. Continue Reading »

With songwriting icon Jimmy Webb at The Cutting Room on Saturday night in Manhattan

by Sam Juliano

And now it is Thanksgiving Day that approaches as weather in the northeast is now conforming with time of year.  The Caldecott Medal series continues as part 2 of the Greatest Television Series Countdown inches closer.  The movie season has now reached what is usually the richest span of the year, and awards groups and critics are beginning to prepare their annual ‘Best of’ lists.

Songwriting icon Jimmy Webb performed a concert/review of his greatest hits at Manhattan’s The Cutting Room, and later signed copies of his new memoir “The Cake in the Rain.” Webb gloriously sang and played the piano with the able assistance of musicians. His greatest masterpiece “MacArthur Park” (my favorite pop song of the rock era), “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston”, “The Worst That Could Happen,” “Up, Up and Away,” “Witchita Lineman,” “All I Know,” “Didn’t I?” and a few non-Webb songs comprised the venue. This is the second time Lucille and I saw Webb over the past year.

The entire brood attended the annual ToyCom event in the PAL building in Parsippany, N.J. Melanie, Sammy, Danny, Jillian and Jeremy are seen in photo below outside by one of the classic cars previously used in movies on Sunday afternoon. Great day out for the entire family.

As a lifelong Agatha Christie buff and a passionate adherent of the BBC series “Poirot”, I went in to the new Kenneth Branagh version of “Murder on the Orient Express” more than skeptical. David Suchet after all is far and away the definitive Poirot, the one Dame Agatha envisioned and the one her family immediately recognized as the living embodiment of Poirot as written. The new film is well mounted, acted and filmed, and is intermittently riveting, but all in all somewhat uneven. Branagh, with the most extravagant mustache ever negotiated makes a decent Poirot, but this re-make is not the best version of this seminal mystery novel. Still, I’ll go with 3.5 of 5 and offer a modest recommendation. Saw the film with the entire brood last night in Ridgefield Park. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania”           -William Shakespeare

A brooding sensibility and undercurrent of melancholia suffuses the pictorial design of Richard Jackson’s All Ears, All Eyes suggesting that this is the picture book Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier would have made if he aimed his creativity down this road.  Though art aficionados may evoke the painting Forest by the post-impressionist Paul Cezanne or an even closer kinship to Belgian artist Pol Ledant’s Magic Forest, both Jackson and the book’s illustrator Katherine Tillotson fully understand their lower grade audience for whatever iconographic intricacy the book holds for adults or older readers.  Advanced book lovers who partake of this magical, nocturnal foray may even expect to hear Lord what fools these mortals be! or Are you sure/That we are awake? It seems to me/That yet we sleep, we dream.  The earlier tapestries even give a hint that  we may behold someone such as Francis Lennox, the protagonist in a children’s novel by Francis Hodgson Burnett.  But Jackson and Tillotson’s focus is more scene specific.  From the luminous, golden dusk infiltrating the spaces between trees like an advancing forest fire to the onset of a kaleidoscopic slumber they chronicle the creatures who emerge only under a cloak of darkness.  Jackson’s sensory word triggers set the stage for the real assault on the senses engineered by Tillotson, whose multidimensional tapestries expand the metaphorical observations and supple use of onamopeia.  Young readers will derive the added thrill of trying to find nature’s creatures in some areas obscured by saturated color clashes.

Airborne leaves on the opening end papers provide answers on the double page frontispiece spread.  Sound and sight are posed interrogatively on the daytime title page,  followed by a hooting owl seemingly imbedded in a tree as daylight yields (Who-who) as two raccoons inhabit the yellow to orange changeover at eventide.  The ebbing illumination is ushered in by the omnipresent owl, depicted by Tillotson as a specter discernible by its eyes, a sharp contrast to what was fashioned by John Schoenherr in the Caldecott Medal winning Owl Moon.   Jackson’s query What scoots between roots? is answered in the prickliest of terms, before the unmistakable sound of a whirring bat, a sharp contradiction from a deer negotiated in ghostly silhouette.  Bright colored leaves falls as purple hues work harder yet to pre-empt the dimming illumination. Continue Reading »