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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 »

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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 »

 © 2017 by James Clark

      This film, from 2010, touted as a remarkably “minimalist” presentation in the form of getting real about the gritty hardships of mid-nineteenth-century travel with a view to starting afresh in Oregon Territory, proves to be, in fact, a most modern story. It features three ox-drawn covered wagons, a circus-cowboy-buffoon and scout and three ladies of the convoy in bonnets and gowns so pronounced they resemble an order of nuns. There is, you might appreciate, room for large confusion in getting to the remarkable sophistication being the nub of this work’s working.

Whereas other film investigators in her orbit tend to put all their audacious cards on the table each time out—producing therewith a critical mass of mysterious logic for their fans to digest in relative tranquility—Reichardt harbors a secret trajectory (from out of the iconoclastic territory beloved by her colleagues). And that outer limit does not show up in strength time after time. In fact, to date, it has only appeared twice, in our current effort, and in the very recent, Certain Women (2016). Badasses everywhere you turn; but rarely devising something about badasses beyond the standard appalment and compromised isolation. In Meek’s Cutoff, the desperately lost wagon train captures a lone Indian and proceeds to coerce him to reveal where the water might be. In Certain Women, Jamie (an Indian woman requiring some surveillance to be seen as such) offers to show a lost lawyer where the fun is and gets a rude brush-off which smashes her equilibrium going forward. In the saga of Meek and his would-be cutoff of a supposed primitive nobody, there comes about a turning of the tables, with the outsider having somehow acquired the trappings of an insider. But so much seemingly old-school nail-biting and games-playing obtrudes there that the remarkableness of the loner does not effectively register. However, in the light of Jamie’s being robbed of her unsecured mojo, Meek’s Cutoff (Meek the boss-clown being denied his bid to annihilate the Oregon Indian) brings that “new frontier,” which tripped up Jamie, to an instinctively vivid significance. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

There are 565 municipalities in the state of New Jersey. On the vital Sunday before Tuesday’s election Democratic candidate for Governor Phil Murphy (way ahead in the polls) decided to spend his time in two Boroughs – Fairview and Paramus!!!! This is such an incredible, incomparable honor for our town and the powerful Democratic party running it. My brother Paul Juliano was the day’s master-of-cermonies and central speaker who introduced Bergen County Clairman Lou Stellato and Murphy! Lucille and I were so thrilled to meet the next Governor and hear his electrifying speech, one loaded with barbs for the current outgoing GOP Governor. Awesome!

Jamie Uhler‘s latest capsule is another gem, one that he considers the 2015 musical horror fantasy The Lure:

The Lure (A. Smoczyńska… 2015) musical/fantasy  If I said that last night I watched perhaps the greatest Horror musical we’ve ever had would you blink? I’m not entirely sure many would, as the sub-genre isn’t exactly littered with masterpieces. Outside the grossly overrated, if fun, Rocky Horror Picture Show (and in this vein, its then comparatively underrated sequel Shock Treatment) and the rather average, but thankfully gory, Sweeney Todd, one struggles to even name any more of real note. There’s De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, a film I often fondly recall if few others do, and cite its soundtrack as terrific (it’s in desperate need of more fans), that’s probably the best perhaps, so long as you remain like me, with Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris unseen. None of these are that scary though, mostly opting to rely on the seemingly strange juxtaposition of Horror and singing for the bulk of their aesthetic, with all the films mentioned venture towards high camp (to varying degrees of success). Smoczyńska’s 2015 work is then a real original, artfully crafted and imagining a world where masterpieces can be made with the fusing of very odd bedfellows.   Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

On April 20, 2016 the United States Treasury Department announced the imminent replacement of Andrew Jackson’s face on $20 denominations after a groundswell of public opinion that included the vociferous sentiments expressed by adherents of a pointed “Women on 20’s Campaign.”  Though bureaucratic delays and the lengthy period of time it will take to enact such a monumental currency conversion will probably mean a decade before someone holds the new bills in their hands, for so many this is a glowing acknowledgement long overdue that at along last will shatter white male dominance of our society’s most prime example of daily exposure.  Jackson’s replacement is one of the most venerated figures in the nation’s history, one equally heroic to African-Americans and the fairer sex, one untainted by scandal nor personal vice, and venerated largely for her courage in escaping slavery and becoming a leading abolitionist who saved the lives of hundreds and contributed mightily to the Union cause during the Civil War.  In recent years the name of Harriet Tubman as an American of charity and unwavering devotion to a cause at the risk to her own life has elevated her in the regard of many as a figure comparable to Lincoln or King.  Awareness of Tubman as one of the nation’s seminal figures has been increasing over the past decades.  In 1978 she became the first African American to be honored as part of the Black Heritage Stamp Series, as well as the maiden African American woman to be honored on a U.S. postage stamp.  On the 100th anniversary of her death in 2013 officials broke ground on the 17-acre Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, which included a 15,000-foot visitor center, walking trails and an exhibit hall with interactive displays. The same day, the state designated a 125-mile driving tour, dubbed the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway that cuts through her home turf on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  A Harriet Tubman National Historical Park is set for construction in Auburn, New York where she lived out the post-Civil War years, dying at age 93.

Books about this larger than life figure have been plentiful, with several, including Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton and other biographical volumes by William Still, Fergus Bordewich and Jacqueline Tobin/Raymond G. Dobard attracting the strongest acclaim.  On the picture book scene there have been two exceptional works on Tubman.  In 2000, Alan Schroeder and the renowned Jerry Pinkney collaborated on Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman, and six years later two more children’s literature luminaries, Carole Boston Weatherford and Kadir Nelson teamed up for the magnificent Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, a work that brought Nelson one of his three Caldecott Honors.  The celebrated wife and husband book making partners Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome are among the most prolific artists in the industry, when their work together is combined with James’s art for books written by famous writers like Jacqueline Woodson, Charlotte Zolotow, Eve Bunting and Angela Johnson.  Lesa and James who specialize in biographies, have gifted the book community with acclaimed titles such as Freedom School, Light in the Darkness, Quilt Alphabet and last year’s sublime Louis Armstrong picture book, Just A Lucky So and So.  Among other biographies the pair have collaborated on books about Sachel Paige, Helen Keller and Benny Goodman. Continue Reading »