by Sam Juliano

     Kirkus raved “Smith soars in this earnest, meditative work about longing, the joy of interaction, and family.”  In a similarly glowing assessment Publishers Weekly offered “Every living being, Smith implies, needs a place to belong, and children, especially need other children.”  School Library Journal gushed, urging repeated visitation: “There is much to savor and explore in this cleverly crafted picture book, and readers will glean more with each perusal.”  The unbridled fervor continued for months since the book’s early year release, and numerous respondents on Good Reads were predicting it would win the Caldecott Medal.  Alas a controversy followed the initial hoopla that centered around the use of one word on the book’s title and how it was brought to bear on the book’s art.  Though the vast majority of the book’s admirers are by and large staying the coarse, the mild dissension in some quarters has slowed down the buzz for the book, allowing some of the year’s other picture book treasures to capture the lion’s share of the talking points.  Will the real Lane Smith please stand up?  Oh yes, the book’s title and creator.  There is a Tribe of Kids is a non-stop symphony of movement, a habitat trotting exploration of a cluster of nouns and how they apply to a young boy in the Tarzan mold, dressed in  leaves (though his comfortable fitting footwear doesn’t quite conform) who travels with abandon.

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by Sam Juliano

Master picture book stylist Jon Klassen won the Caldecott Medal several years ago for the second book in his eventual “Hat Trilogy.”  He also won two Caldecott Honors for Extra Yarn and Sam and Dave Dig A Hole.   The first two books in the trilogy, I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat are not reliant on each other, as their stories if not their premise are independent.  The final work, this year’s We Found A Hat is story-wise and stylistically the best one yet, so you have to wonder if a sequel has a chance to follow-up on the same author’s previous win in an ongoing series.  Caldecott rules explicitly state that the committee is not to consider whether an artist won or not previously; the issue is the craftsmanship of the current book being scrutinized.  Though all the books veer off in different directions, they are of course thematically linked.  If there is a better artist out who more effortlessly uses space to superlative effect I’d sure like to know of that person.  Even the typography is incomparably elegant.  And Klassen’s economical use of language in this three-part work is cunning and laugh-inducing, not to mention it is one of the very best read aloud books of the year.  In the first two books the perpetrator of a theft get their comeuppance in an implied act of violent retribution.  The Caldecott winner features a small fish who acknowledges that what he did was wrong, but he justifies it by saying the hat is much too small for the whale he swiped it from.  Despite a promise from a snail that he will keep secret his hiding place in a in a maze of sea plants, he is betrayed, and the last image in the book shows the triumphant whale wear his hat after a raid on the greenery.  No such conclusion transpires in We Found A Hat, though like the other books one feels the ending is proper.  The scheming turtle after all never did pull the trigger on the intended heist unlike the aggressors in the first two books. Continue Reading »


by Sam Juliano

If the decision on what book will win this year’s Caldecott Medal was left in the hands of 170 first-graders from Fairview, New Jersey the result would be a landslide triumph for Vera Brosgol’s comedic tale Leave Me Alone.  As captivating as a read aloud book one is likely to put to use in a lower grade classroom, the book is vivid, colorful and pictorially diverse, and the hook of the cranky old lady always fighting to get her own spaces will have most kid in stitches.  Heck the old lady herself can administer them herself with her needle and yarn as soon as she realizes that there is something very persuasive about home sweet home.  The three titular words spoken with exclamatory ardor never fail to attract an eruption of laughter and as a result you have riveted students throughout the reading as the book has the hook of anticipation. As to the pictorial design it is really exquisite and it reminds me of the past Caldecott Medal winner “Always Room For One More” by Sorche Nic Leodhas and Nonny Hogrogian, for the wall to wall humanity, but for illustrative style more like Margot Zemach’s Caldecott Honor winner “It Could Always Be Worse.” Leave Me Alone is bold, vivid and beautifully balanced, and the creativity accelerates as the story proceeds. In the end, it recalls Hey Al as our erstwhile human knitting machine realizes she’s far better off with her brood.   The cover is one of the best of the year.  Balls of yarn frame the angry grandmother holding her needle and thread, and a huge voice bubble with the book’s hilariously exclamatory title, and four of the characters -a boy, a martian, a goat and a bear- she spends time with during the narrative peak out of their own frames to eye her.  Fluorescent orange -always a great color to use for end papers when you want to set a cheery tone leads to a title page depicting this feisty woman heading out carrying a sack. Continue Reading »


By J.D. Lafrance

Anybody that bought Zeppelin I knows that the standout song is “Dazed and Confused,” and that’s great. It’s a masterpiece albeit a little too stifled because it is the studio version. If Almost Famous (2000) is the studio version than “The Bootleg Cut” is the live version of “Dazed and Confused” found on The Song Remains the Same in all of its epic grandeur, taking an already great song and making it live and breathe. Likewise, “The Bootleg Cut” of Almost Famous takes Cameron Crowe’s tribute to classic rock of the 1970s and improves on it by adding over 35 minutes of footage, which allows the world he created and the colorful characters that inhabit it to also live and breathe.

Almost Famous was clearly a labor of love for the filmmaker and his most personal effort to date. It is a fictionalized account of Crowe’s start as a rock music journalist at the age of 15 writing from Creem magazine and then a year later joining the staff of Rolling Stone where he would go on to interview the likes of Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Neil Young, and many others. Unfortunately, his very personal journey failed to connect with a mainstream audience and despite being lavished with critical praise and awards (including an Oscar for screenwriting), the film flopped at the box office but has gone on to develop a cult following. However, one wonders if Crowe never fully recovered from its commercial failure. Perhaps he ran out of things to say, making two films adapted from pre-existing works (Vanilla Sky and We Bought a Zoo) and an original film, Elizabethtown (2005) that flopped both with critics and audiences. Regardless, Almost Famous will no doubt be regarded as his magnum opus and rightly so.
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by Sam Juliano

The scourge of slavery as revealed in an existing document discovered by nonagenarian author-illustrator Ashley Bryan poses that African-Americans working on the Fairchilds estate in the 1820’s and beyond were property of the white slave-holders who even claimed immediate ownership of newly born children of slave parents.  Bryan’s wrenching look at eleven slaves owned by Cado and Mary Fairchilds on a South Carolina plantation, Freedom Over Me, gives voice to those who share a dream of freedom.  Each invariably relates in the first-person narratives told on two full pages alongside a detailed profile drawing and another tapestry showing them with others in a canvas illustrating their dreams coming true, common stories of their abduction and loss of individual rights and of how their special talents were exploited, both in terms of the revenue they generated going to the estate owner and some of them being farmed out if they were too good at what they did.  Bryan has taken human “statistics” and fleshed them out, giving them identities, personalities, a stream of aching inner thoughts, and in some instances a secret resolve to achieve literacy, long banned by the slave-owners because it would intensity their desire to win independence.  In short Bryan gives his slaves a humanity that eluded their real-life counterparts.  All of the slaves in this group were abducted from their African villages, sometimes leaving behind parents or family members who were killed in the raid, and this inner anger drives all to keep the candle burning for freedom, as they render scene-specific aspirations for the time they are release, though sadly that time will never come in their own lives.

After browning parchments of slave auctions and legal documents that bind slaves to the orders within are replicated in collage on the end paper and free space opposite the title page Bryan commits one page with a short summary of Mary Fairchilds, the wife of the slave owner who has passed away.  She speaks of her husband as if he treated the slaves with kindness and respect, apprenticing them to learn carpentry, sewing, pottering, basketry and ironwork, and even loaned then out to neighboring estates as if that was some kind of boost to their self esteem, when in reality it had the opposite effect.  She boasts that the slave earnings came back to her estate, thereby increasing its value.  She announces she will return to England where “I may live without fear, surrounded by my own good British people.”  A For Sale poster featuring all eleven participants of Bryan’s drama lists the age of each and the amount they are sold for in yet another example of dehumanization this most heinous of all human institutions fostered. Continue Reading »


by Sam Juliano

Duncan Tonatiuh’s emotionally enthralling The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes is quite simply one of the most staggeringly beautiful picture books of the year, and to date this acclaimed author-artist’s masterpiece.  Yet, because the competition for Caldecott acknowledgement is so crowded in a year with multiple treasures this exquisite work seems to be lurking rather than making a serious intrusion on the various on-line prediction round-ups as the date of the American Library Association’s Youth Media Award announcements is now as of this writing only one week away.  No discussion of the year’s most notable pictorial achievements, however,  can possibly exclude this magisterial Mexican folktale with a tragic denouement.  The story arc persuasively recalls narrative elements from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, and the heroic subtext bears similarities to stories dating back to ancient Egypt and the Bible.  But Tonatiuh’s melancholic transcription is pointedly based on an Aztec legend of the two volcanoes -Iztaccihautl and Popocatepetl which are located about forty miles southeast of Mexico City, previously the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.  In an afterward Tonatiuh relates that the beauty of these mountains left its mark on both the Aztecs and those who lived nearby over the succeeding generations.  It “inspired a number of storytellers, poets, painters and photographers” says Tonatiuh, who adds “others have created pieces of art to honor the magnificent mountains.”  The author notes at the outset that the latter of the two remains an active volcano to the present date, and a 2013 mild eruption has been recorded. Continue Reading »


by Sam Juliano

We are five days away from the Trump presidency and many of us are still trying to figure out how and why.  But we are there and must come to terms with could well be one of the darkest spans in recent history.  Speaking for myself though I am willing to wait, and hope that far more good comes out of this once unfathomable situation than most might think.  Friday morning’s inauguration is sure to be quite the event, and one doomed to attract fervent protests all over the map.  Stay tuned.

The Caldecott Medal Contender series has reached the last leg of its long and prolific journey, with six more days including today left to “spread the word.”  My projection is for it to end with fifty-eight essays completed.  As of this morning we have had fifty-two.  Thank you many times over to Jim Clark, Laurie Buchanan, Frank Gallo, John Grant, Peter M., Tony d’Ambra, Celeste Fenster, Duane Porter, Tim McCoy, Karen,  Wendy Wahmann, Nancy Armo, Ricky C., Kimbra Power, Book Barn Steve, Alia Jones, David Noack,  Jarie Waterfall, Sharon Lovejoy,  and others for their remarkable support in the comment threads.  And to all those who have registered ‘likes’ I am deeply appreciative.  The Facebook ‘likes’ that are on the linked reviews too are much appreciated.

My deepest heartfelt condolences go out to my friend and colleague on his family loss.  He is going through the worst time of his life, and I grieve with him at this unspeakable time. Continue Reading »