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by Sam Juliano

Prior to the release of Brendan Wenzel’s A Stone Sat Still, the last time a stone served as a metaphorical witness to changes in weather and the passage of time without the ability to impact the world around it occurred in the beloved Caldecott winning Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig.  Of course that stone, referred to in that acclaimed text as a rock, was the creation of supernatural forces summoned up by a wish and when the transference took place from life-force to boulder as a result of consternation fueled by the sudden appearance of a lion the Sylvester of the title, an anthropomorphic donkey, was cognizant of everything around it but was unable to act.  Wenzel, the extraordinarily gifted young maestro of several acclaimed picture books, and the winner of the Caldecott Honor a few years ago for the visionary They All Saw A Cat has followed up that picture book masterpiece with what is even a deeper perspective by exploring with documentary-precision the infinite possibilities surrounding a stone’s passage through time and of how practically every aspect of life emanates from the elemental and is part of the scheme of things.   Again mastering the complex pictorial process that brings together mixed media, cut paper, colored pencil, oil pastels and marker with computer negotiation, Wenzel’s art in a children’s level equivalent of Terrence Malick’s cinema with a probing, sometimes introspective prose narration and an existential undercurrent. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

At the time this essay is published the sixteen members of the American Library Association’s 2020 Caldecott committee will be shortly convening in the City of Brotherly Love behind closed doors to deliberate on their final choices for picture book excellence for titles released during the prior calendar year.  In one of most diverse twelve-month periods ever for picture books the task at hand will no doubt be challenging sorting out a stacked deck, but in fear of putting the jink on any prospective decisions there seem to be some prohibitive theories as to how the chips may fall even if this particular award over the past decade has been almost impossible to successfully call, mainly because art is subjective.  Yet this writer hereby concludes that one title released way back in the first quarter is poised to be anointed in the Caldecott winner’s circle with only the particular designation still outstanding:  will it be gold or silver?  Written by Richard T. Morris and illustrated by veteran artist LeUyen Pham the object inspiring supreme confidence is a sensory joy ride titled Bear Came Along.  A scene-specific celebration of nature in the wild that evokes among other mirthful experiences an amusement park excursion on the log flume Bear is exuberance incarnate, a no-holds-barred immersion that invariably has coaxed reviewers to head off to their dictionaries for words like “ebullient,” “effervescent,” “high-spirited,” “happy-go-lucky” and “irrepressible” among others.  This has hardly represented the maiden instance of wanton merriment on the pages of a picture book (Lane Smith’s A Perfect Day most recently brought to bear gleeful anarchy in a picture book equation) but in this miraculously orchestrated work a unique proposition is posed, that an object of nature is only aware of its role in the scheme of things because of interaction, which in Bear is negotiated via domino effect.  By the time the party is over young readers will be hastily getting back in line for an adventurous encore. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.     -Phyllis Wheately

Noted children’s literature historian Kathleen T. Horning once quipped at an online comment thread  that her great disappointment over the artist Kadir Nelson not winning the Caldecott Medal leads her to conclude that “he will just have to content himself with painting the Sistine Chapel.”  To be sure, Nelson’s work defies the most extravagant superlatives, and I have frankly run out of such phrases myself.  He actually has won two Caldecott Honors (for Moses and Henry’s Freedom Box), but his output includes many other beautiful works of distinction.  He has done the art for New Yorker covers and classic novels, as well as for galleries and exhibitions.  His astounding oil paintings are again being passionately discussed as a serious contender for the Caldecott Medal, which will be announced in Philadelphia on Monday, January 27th.  His resplendent jumbo tapestries in the service of concise and powerful prose from acclaimed author Kwayme Alexander in the electrifying picture book The Undefeated, an ode to black America that is alternately triumphant and mournful, minimalist and baroque, physical and spiritual.  In evoking the recently deceased Maya Angelou in a stirring afterward Alexander makes direct reference to his book’s title when he asserts “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.  It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are.  So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knock down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose.”  Alexander’s largely metaphorical language is predicated on the prefix “not” by manner of starting each defining work with un.  There is inherent pride and defiance in employing such a device and it serves as the rhetorical springboard that is best served by recitation, though larger fonts will also hit home privately with resonating force. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

Missing: one frightened little girl. Name: Bettina Miller. Description: six years of age, average height and build, light brown hair, quite pretty. Last seen being tucked in bed by her mother a few hours ago. Last heard: ‘ay, there’s the rub,’ as Hamlet put it. For Bettina Miller can be heard quite clearly, despite the rather curious fact that she can’t be seen at all. Present location? Let’s say for the moment… in the Twilight Zone.

In “Little Girl Lost,” a third season episode of the classic The Twilight Zone written by Richard Matheson a six-year old girl is officially MIA after she accidentally passes through an undetected  “opening” in her bedroom to enter a new dimension.  Of course for the duration of this trenchant narrative the girl’s parents hear her cries for help but are unable to enlist any tangible solution to something that is clearly beyond their control.  In the world of picture books leaving one’s reassuring confines for a fantasy land is a favorite plot device with recent works like Vroom, Little Fox in the Forest, Alma and the Beast and Journey all showcasing that inherently enthralling deceit.  One of the most famous titles in all of children’s literature, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is similarly transporting, though revolving the endless sphere of imagination connected to dreams.  Another, the wordless first solo effort by acclaimed illustrator and the Caldecott Honor winning Christian Robinson is the kind of book Yours Truly seems to encounter once a year.  Mind you it has zero to do with type or challenge but more with appeal and perception of artistry.  Much like the Caldecott Honor winning Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis of a few years back to mention one such instance I found myself frustrated and unable to make any kind of resonating emotional connection.  Similarly the drastic use of space left me more than willing to throw up my hands in surrender.  And yet I refused to give up and lo and behold while sharing with my wife and engaging in a fruitful back and forth I concluded I missed the boat.  Luckily for me another one sailed into the harbor in short order rescuing me from my misguided judgement. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

No mode of transportation offers its riders more intimacy than the motorcycle.  None offers as much exhilaration, which in some cases rivals breathlessly zooming downward on a roller coaster, and none puts its riders on more dangerous bearings.  Helmets provide vital protection, but invariably it is the skill of navigation demonstrated by the cyclist that will always determine the best odds for safe riding and traditionally the single passenger’s two handed grip around the driver’s waist that serves as a kind of seat belt, guarding against sudden jolts like a pothole that could throw the passenger off the vehicle.  Motorcycles figure prominently in numerous classics of the American cinema like the celebrated Buster Keaton silent Sherlock Jr.,  as well as later films starring Marlon Brando and Peter Fonda, but have have taken center stage road films like the 2004 biopic The Motorcycle Diaries.  In the touching Brazilian Hoje eu Quero Voltar Sozinho (The Way He Looks) a blind teenager experiences an awakening as he holds tight to his boyfriend Gabriel riding around town on the latter’s motorcycle.  Barbara McClintock’s wondrous 2019 picture book Vroom!, an exploration of the motorcycle as a vehicular gateway to the world documents this experience from a solo perspective.  A second children’s book featuring a high-powered scooter, My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero and Zeke Pena relates the experience as interactive, with a girl growing up who finds affection, dedication and practical knowledge by riding with and serving as a helper to her Dad.  Quintero, in an afterward relates that the book is largely autobiographical and that it evokes in setting the city of Corona in southern California.  In fact Quintero declares that her book is an affectionate homage to that city and to her Dad who nurtured her experiences in a place very dear to her heart.  To this writer there are some thematic and stylistic similarities to All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle and Mike Currato, even the trim’s shape and trim size- but to be sure there are more differences than there are points of comparison. Continue Reading »

 © 2020 by James Clark

         I seldom remark upon the actors in the films I touch upon. Of course, many of them are geniuses in striking the tones to propel a cinematic vehicle. My interest, however, is the entirety of the work; and that is the domain of a screenwriter/ filmmaker.

Why I cite the actor, August Diehl, a protagonist in the truly majestic film here, namely, A Hidden Life (2019), is his resemblance to long-departed star, Henry Fonda, and specifically the Henry Fonda of the film, Twelve Angry Men (1957), directed by journeyman, middle-of-the-road, Sidney Lumet. That latter melodrama is light-years distant from Terrence Malick’s production of uncanny hiddenness; but they share the format of a solitary investigation daring to negate a fondness that is catastrophically wrong. The film today, however, casts Diehl not merely casting umbrage about the Nazism of Adolph Hitler, but (only feebly understood), all of world history. That a hidden life transcending the news could obtain here characterizes this film as a communication far from moralistic and sentimental dogma. (Fonda, bucking  relatively simple odds, wins over the hearts and minds of his fellow jurymen-detractors. Diehl, far from eliciting expertise in face of his challenge, tears apart not only himself, but his family and an encouraging cosmos.)

Before he became a filmmaker, Malick, as a young philosophical academic, had impressively attempted to deal with the disarray which was the edifice of the philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). In his, “Translator’s Introduction,” to the Heidegger essay, The Essence of Reasons (1969), Malick underlines the peculiar difficulty of the sense of “world.” In the text therewith, Heidegger comes to a showdown of sorts with the phrasing, “The decisive origins of ancient philosophy reveal something essential to the concept of world. Kosmos does not mean any particular being that might come to our attention, nor the sum of all beings; instead, it means something like “condition” or “state of affairs,” i.e., the How in which being is in its totality. Thus, Kosmos houtos does not designate one realm of being to the exclusion of another, but rather one world of being in contrast to a different world of the same being, eon (being) itself kata kosmon (in relation to the cosmos). The world as this “How in its totality” underlies every possible way of segmenting being; segmenting being does not destroy the world but requires it.” Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

A catalyst of an entire culture and the symbol of the indomitable spirit of indigenous Americans is a food item so basic that it seemingly can offer nothing more than sustenance, yet as posed by author Kevin Maillard in the all-encompassing Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story the culinary side of what turns out to be a cosmic proposition is more emblematic than elemental.  Maillard’s comrade-in-arms in this melting pot of the cultural, sociological and astronomical is the exceedingly gifted Peruvian-American, Juana Martinez-Neal, who just last year won a Caldecott Honor for her sublime illustrations in Alma and How She Got Her Name, a loving chronicle of familial connection, spurred by curiosity, but leading to an understanding of the past and the people who molded their children, grandchildren and nieces.  Fry Bread likewise showcases the family as from which all else emanates and for which everything owes its incubation to, but it brings the entire experience of life to bear on what taken at face value is the most embryonic activity for a family unit.

Fry Bread is Food.  A quintet of spirited children on a mission dance their way over to a family matriarch recalling the selfless grandma in last year’s award-winning Thank You Omu! who holds an ornate bowl and a toddler sucking on a serving spoon.  Like the small-town denizens in Marcia Brown’s Caldecott Honor winning Stone Soup they are decidedly proud their sponsored ingredient will play a vital role in the day’s big culinary event.  Never before has flour, salt, yeast corn meal and sugar taken on such an epic role in the scheme of things or so it might seem to this feisty clan.   Martinez-Neal’s maiden double page canvas in Fry Bread like all that follow is etched in rich, colorful acrylic and graphite that burst off the page with the major complicity of cream-colored hand-textured paper that is a delight to the fingers.  Fry Bread is Shape.  A baking bonanza that would surely delight King Bidgood in the Caldecott Honor winning book examining that incorrigible monarch’s excessive propensities, makes a persuasive case for “shape” as an integral essence of any immersion into the baking process.  Martinez-Neal’s vision is an irresistible work-in-progress, a contention enforced by the curly haired Nana to whom Maillard connects by comparing the concoction’s “puffiness” to her “softest pillow.”  Fry Bread is Sound.  Like the crackling of eggs (Classic television fans may recall the Our Gang episode when Stymie tells his friends that eggs can “talk” while being fried) there are “pops” as the bubbles sizzle after the dough is dropped in the pan zeppole-style to the three intoxicated young attendants it is music to their ears. Continue Reading »