by Sam Juliano

     Richard Nathaniel Wright is widely and justly regarded as one of the greatest African-American writers of all-time, indeed one of the most towering American men of letters who ever lived.  Like Harlem-bred Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin he achieved international prominence after being reared in near-poverty, and went on to publish two of the supreme masterpieces of American literature, Native Son and Black Boy.  The latter is an autobiographical novel covering the author’s difficult childhood, intellectual coming of age (young Wright was named class valedictorian at completion of his Junior High School years) and his later involvement and abandonment of the communist party.  Published five years earlier than Black Boy in 1940, Native Son is often considered one of the first successful attempts to explain the racial divide in America in terms of the social conditions imposed on African Americans by the dominant white society.  The book’s publication is regarded by many literary critics as a culture-altering event, and to the present day numerous polls by critics and readers have placed the book high among the finest ever written from any country.  Yet the last years of Wright’s short life (he passed at age 52) featured an output too often relegated to a lower position in the pantheon.  His prolific output of “Haiku”,  a traditional form of Japanese poetry consisting of three lines represents one of the most impressive of all outputs committed to the form.

It would be difficult to imagine a more piercingly beautiful, effervescent and nature-attuned pictorial homage to this extensive productivity than the extraordinarily moving and buoyant Seeing Into Tomorrow, a photo collage miracle by Nina Crews which immediately takes its place among the best photographic picture books ever created.  So far this oddly neglected kind of craftsmanship hasn’t scored yet from the Caldecott committees, but has attracted effusive praise from picture book critics.  Previously artists like April Pulley Sayre and the team of Helen Frost and Rick Lieder have published extraordinary books wedding poetry with photographs.  It is mind-boggling to ponder the kind of interpretive application needed to achieve seamless fusion of word and image, but also as in the case with Ms. Crews, the ability to visually document the spirit and essence of transcendent verse that for its iconic writer sixty years ago afforded him a new kind of inspiration, beauty and kinship with nature which had eluded him while his focus was on social justice and politics.  Wright’s daughter Julia explains in a 1998 prologue to her father’s luminous volume Haiku: This Other World that Wright’s verses were “self-developed antidotes against illness and that breaking down words into syllables matched the shortness of (Wright’s) breath.”  The novelist and essayist was also able to find a new form of expression and inspiration at a time when the Grim Reaper was laying siege and when he was finally able to appreciate the Earth, which early in his life was seen the enabler of suffering.  Wright’s success at what Julia opines “to spin these poems of light out of the gathering darkness” is given metaphorical heft by Crews who names her picture book for the final of a dozen haiku choices selected from over four thousand written.  Crews’ approach is sensory and it zeros in on moments some might think are disposable, but in fact when linked together etch a profound sense of time and place, in fact also in accordance with the title bring contemporary substance and ornamentation to timeless writings.

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by Sam Juliano

The final message of the soulful picture book Thank You Omu! is unmistakably Capra-esque.  The entire premise and rousing finale of the beloved 1946 film holiday jewel It’s A Wonderful Life asserts that no man is a failure if he has friends.  In the Capra film a plethora of longtime friends who had been on the receiving end of George Bailey’s generosity, came forward with cash that would save that film’s famed protagonist from financial ruination and thus prevent the darkest of resolves he had pondered without realizing how many people he has moved.  Similarly in a third-season episode of the classic The Twilight Zone television series, “The Changing of the Guard” an elderly English instructor at a Vermont boy’s school, Professor Fowler is forced to retire and concludes he meant little to the world.  He plans to commit suicide on Christmas Eve, but the ghosts of a number of the boys whose lives he molded appear to tell him how much he meant to them in teaching them valor, loyalty and kindness among other traits.  Fowler, like George Baily, opts for life after receiving the greatest compliment one can earn in their lifetime.

While the lower-keyed debut work by author-illustrator Oge Mora may seem more philosophically simplified, it’s principle is no less resonant, it’s moral no less powerful, it’s sense of community no less ingrained in the story’s dynamic.  Thank You Omu! will remind many young and adult readers of Marcia Brown’s classroom staple Stone Soup, a folk tale about a trio of soldiers who trick villagers into crafting soup from stones, but with ongoing deceit coax them into coming forth with the ingredients that are actually what make such a full and delicious meal.  There is no such subterfuge in Mora’s book, which was inspired by the female role models in her life, especially her culinary-gifted grandmother.  Omu, a miracle of acrylic collage, china markers, pastels, patterned paper and old book clippings is a story of magnanimity, gratefulness and the adage that in the end one will be treated as they treat others.  To be sure the book is a study of sacrifice and how the most noble in our ranks will think of themselves only after they’ve thought of everyone around them.  For Mora it permanently ensconces a love for her grandmother, showcasing how in a world often on narcissist mode benevolence can be transferable. Continue Reading »

 © 2019 by James Clark

      In many ways, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), looks to a past leaving it nearly an anachronism. The helmsmen here, Joel and Ethan Coen, have, in their business affairs, been forced to locate their complex communications in the swill of the multi-cocktail Happy Hour known as Netflix. (Years before, David Lynch, apropos of the vein now virulent, was heard to declare, “I didn’t make this picture for your damn phone.”)

As you probably know, the boys are nothing if not resilient, and with this unwelcome matter in the air they prove to be even more feisty and irreverent than usual. Their strategy to be large as life is a wild and wonderful tour de force. Inasmuch as this film with a vengeance is multi-faceted, let’s ease into it by way of its amusingly wicked parody of Millennials, those softies utterly disinclined to show up at a theatre to see a Coens’ film.

You might think the lads are staging some kind of revival of Cowboys and Indians entertainment, inasmuch as the setting is the “Wild West,” and its six vignettes comprise the product seen to be slices (in various tones) of the fateful drama of what used to be a big money-maker. Actor, Tim Blake Nelson—directly addressing the audience as if it were packed with fast friends—leads off with a singing cowboy, Buster Scruggs, so hilarious in enjoying his domain that we barely register that the song he so confidently sings is about dying of thirst (“Cool Water”) and that he takes low-key umbrage that one of his wanted posters accuses him of being a misanthrope (his horse whinnying in support when prompted to consider that the charge is patently unfair). That he brightens up with the thought that “Song never fails to sooth my restless heart,” constitutes the first of many displays of assurance that heavy baggage can be exorcised on the order of a good cleaning lady. (The writer/ performer of the song, “Cool Water,” Marty Robbins, was not only a country/Western musical profit-centre in the Nixon-era, but also a NASCAR driver, always in the hunt. On one racing occasion, he was seriously injured swerving into a wall to avert smashing into a stalled vehicle. Hold that thought in fathoming the protagonists stalled here, in other ways.) Continue Reading »

By J.D. Lafrance

Based on George V. Higgins’ 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly (2012) is a protest film masquerading as a crime movie. It’s an angry howl of discontent presented under the auspices of a Quentin Tarantino-esque tale of tough guys with guns only with much more depth and even more talking (if that’s possible). Despite receiving a warm reception at the Cannes Film Festival, Andrew Dominik’s film failed to make back its $15 million budget in North America and had to rely on international grosses to turn a profit. Clearly mainstream movie-going audiences were not interested in seeing an overtly talky crime film starring Brad Pitt. This is a shame as Killing Them Softly, while a bit heavy-handed in some spots, is quite brilliant.

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by Sam Juliano

My school time-consuming Mock Caldecott voting prevented me from posting the Monday Morning Diary early but here it is later in the evening.   194 ballots were cast by Fairview’s first and second graders at the Number 3 School Annex on Monday and the result was the biggest landslide by the gold medal winner in the six years the voting has been staged. Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s wildly popular “Blue” scored a whopping 191 points via regular weighted tabulation of each student getting three choices in order to outdistance the second place finisher “The Wall in the Middle of the Book” by better than a two-to-one margin (191 to 94) but in emulating a Caldecott committee of four years ago we decided to award six (6) books the Caldecott Honor silver medal. The results are as follows:

Blue (Laura Vaccaro Seeger) 191 (Medal)
The Wall in the Middle of the Book (Jon Agee) 94 (Honor)
Big Bunny (Rowboat Watkins) 75 (Honor)
Ocean Meets Sky (Eric and Terry Fan) 59 (Honor)
We Are Grateful (Traci Sorell/Frane Lessac) 58 (Honor)
Dreamers (Yuyi Morales) 55 (Honor)
Imagine (Raul Colon) 49 (Honor)

Though we began this five month venture with over 200 picture books, the final batch numbered 70. Of those we have the seven (7) final winners above and nine (9) other books that finished with 30 points or above:

Dude! (Aaron Reynolds, Dan Santat) 44
Wild Orca (Brenda Peterson/Wendell Minor) 41
The Unwanted (Don Brown) 37
A Parade of Elephants (Kevin Henkes) 36
Nanny Paws (Wendy Wahman) 35
Bub (Elizabeth Stanton) 34
In the Past (David Elliott/Matthew Truman) 34
A Big Mooncake For Little Star (Grace Lin) 34
Thank you, Omu! (Oge Mora) 30

Hence we have sixteen (16) books that really impressed the 194 students and teachers of the Number Three School Annex to the tune of Top 16 out of around 200!!! Still there were many other books that received point and kudos to all the wonderful books and their creators. It has been quite a ride since September! Thanks to all the teachers and classroom aides for their assistance in today’s event! (A fair number of books I consider absolute masterpieces like “The House That Once Was” by Julie Fogliano and Lane Smith; “Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse” (Marci Campbell, Corina Luyken) “Nothing Stopped Sophie” by Cheryl Bardoe and Barbara McClintock and Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall probably were more complex and intricate for the mainly first grade voters)

Fairview’s student body is now 82% Hispanic, and 6% Arabic. The other 12% is a mix, African-American, Italian, Croatian, etc.

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by Sam Juliano

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

Had Jon Agee’s The Wall in the Middle of the Book been subject to the McCarthy era scrutiny as were other literary works, films and plays back in the 50’s one would be certain to find a capitalist vs. communist implication in both the book’s brick wall lining its gutter and in the matter of one believing they are safe and prosperous only to find that the assumed horror that lies on the other side is in fact the place of idyllic activities, a Shangri La of sorts.  Of course false assumptions have gotten many in hot water, though it is far from unlikely that a rosy situation hasn’t uncovered a deception or has been complicated by unexpected threats or pitfalls.  In The Wall, the basic premise has a young knight believing that his his own carefree and safe home turf is being maintained by the physical barrier that he soon enough discovers is also holding dangerous creatures at bay.  Conspiracy minded adult readers might conclude at the book’s finale that the knight’s realization that we should never judge a book by its cover has led him to understand that what he feared most was actually a paradise, while what he initially thought was a blissful place is in fact seriously corrupted and a far greater threat.

At the outset Agee announces “There’s a wall in the middle of the book” and readers immediately see this tall, narrow mortared partition as the only protection for the knight and his almost certain demise, what with a tiger and rhinoceros menacingly poised again the other side of the wall.  When the tiger props on the back of the rhino with a mean looking ape joining in it is clear that the boy better not get too curious.  Indeed the author states what readers are well aware of, but perhaps need to be reminded: “The wall protects this side of the book.”  By that time the ape joins the tiger piggy-back and the dynamic to come appears to be in little doubt.  Yet a mouse crawls up under the rhino as the knight is busy on the books “protected” side tending to a brick that has become dislodged.  In the meantime a duck makes its initial appearance behind him and sharp readers will see a parallel narrative underway.  When Agee asserts that “The wall protects this side of the book…from the other side of the book” the good vs. bad dynamic begins to lose definition.  For one the three animals are lined up on top of each other in a way that suggests they are trying to rescue someone.  Back on the “safe” side waves of water begin to appear, and the boy seems dumbfounded as he starts to climb the latter.  But not yet comprehending the rising water he confidently looks forward under Agee’s ironic contention that “This side of the book is safe,” when of course page turners will by then know it is anything but.  On the side of the book that might have induced Dorothy and the Scarecrow to chant “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my” the mammal trio scatter after seeing the mouse (“The other side is not”) The safeness of the little knight’s side becomes more precarious with the rising tide. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

The last time a picture book featured a take-charge dog was a few years ago when Jon Agee’s irreverent It’s Only Stanley introduced us to the most intrepid and resourceful canine children’s literature has yet seen.  But while that comedic space-fantasy showcased an animal inherently gifted in handyman mode, the pink poodle in the titular Nanny Paws fosters domestic anarchy in the responsibilities of  caring for a family’s young twin daughters Allie and Mae via a series of  episodes underlined by unabated mischievous exuberance.  Nanny Paws rarely plays by the rules, but in her own dysfunctional manner, she gets things done.  But as veteran West Coast-based author-illustrator Wendy Wahman confirms in a series of idiosyncratic vignettes, one doesn’t necessarily have to play by the rules of a human to achieve success in completing tasks.  While pre-schoolers with a dog in the house might be tempted to encourage Nanny Paw’s unorthodox behavior, older kids will gleefully connect with the playful insubordination, which sure beats doing things by the book.  After all, wouldn’t it be far more fun to defy the norm and turn everything upside down?

Wahman brings her special brand of illustrative mayhem to the fore via supple use of pencil and watercolor with digital enhancement and her favorite color is pink, which is announced in hard-core terms on the end papers and sustained throughout in the figure of the book’s undaunted protagonist.  The spirited tale launches with an early morning bedroom depiction where Nanny Paws peaks around the door to eye her two charges, fast asleep and clinging to fondly regarded stuffed bears, one a doctor and the other a basketball player.  The place is a veritable comfort zone, with floral decor and heart decals with the children’s’ names on the inside of the door.  Wahman flashes back to the previous Tuesday when Nanny Paws woke the twins in  a scenario that delighted Mae, but disgruntled Ally, though in a subsequent tumble both are receptive to her unique method of washing their faces.  Helping them get dressed turns in a tug of war with a sock and breakfast preparation includes Nanny’s personalized cookie jar maneuvering, where she manages to chomp her own way to the spoils.  With a scattering  Chomp, Slurp, Crunch! the table is cleared and this tenacious pink poodle “bags” their lunches as the author announces to readers: Good morning, Nanny Paws!   Continue Reading »