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by Sam Juliano

Construction on Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan commenced in 1931, with the finishing touches applied in 1939. Workers unwittingly inaugurating a tradition in that first year when they decorated a 20 foot balsam fir with all kinds of items including cranberries, paper garlands, tin cans and foil gum wrappers.  Two years later a 50 foot tree was installed as a holiday beacon for workers and Big Apple tourists, and the tradition was officially launched.  Each year the center’s head gardener heads up an investigative mission to find a most ideal specimen of the object famously described Upon whose bosom snow has lain/Who intimately lives with rain,  Crews are annually dispatched during the fall to search for super size evergreens from states as far away as Vermont and Ohio, though the history reveals that New Jersey, New York and Connecticut have provided by far the most since the practice was instituted.  The largest tree ever showcased was a 100 footer from Killingworth, Connecticut, chosen for the 1999 yuletide season.  No tree higher would qualify because of city street width specifications around the complex.  Last year’s tree at 30,000 pounds and 56 feet wide was a record breaker in both departments.  The Mayor of New York City traditionally lights it at a ceremony now televised by NBC.

A newly released picture book by Matt Tavaras, Red & Lulu is a glorious celebration of one of America’s most cherished institutions, and by way of concept, design and beauty, not to mention an irresistible dramatic hook,  it appears destined for an indefinite tenure on the holiday shelves in bookstores.  Tavares is a veteran picture book maker who has produced some of the most distinguished biographies of baseball legends like Ted Williams, Pedro Martinez, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.  His output though has been diverse, and with Red & Lulu he has crafted his masterpiece, a book as aesthetically beautiful as it is dramatically touching.  It is not remotely a long shot to conclude that this striking and colorfully vivid work is surely one of the most beautiful from any country, and that Caldecott Medal discussion is assured.  Red & Lulu is also that rarest of books, one as artful as it is popular and as thematically soulful as it is artistically captivating. Continue Reading »

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by Sam Juliano

What’s that sound in the distance?  I could swear sleigh bells and caroling are wafting through the air.  Even the white stuff has made its first appearance in the metropolitan area, and some of us are getting our annual yuletide DVDs ready for holiday week viewings.  Just on Thursday evening we watched the 1951 A Christmas Carol for the eight-hundredth time, and yet another viewing of the 1947 Miracle on 34th Street is imminent. In any case, traveling by car has been a daunting proposition, and decorating has been a prime order of business.  Here at Wonders in the Dark, our annual Caldecott Medal series soliders onward, though at a bit more leisured pace than it has in the past.  Jim Clark’s magisterial film essays are posted every third week.  Part 2 of the Greatest Television Series Countdown will resume on or around February 14th.

A major book event was staged on Sunday at Manhattan’s Books of Wonder.  I posted on Facebook on the three children’s book luminaries who appeared, and will repeat them here

Renowned picture book illustrator extraordinaire Raul Colon appeared this afternoon at Manhattan’s premiere children’s mecca, Books of Wonder to discuss the extraordinary “Miguel’s Brave Knight” which was reviewed as part of my “Caldecott Medal Contender” series. He is seen here with my son Jeremy and speaking to the gathering about Cervantes, his collaboration with the great Margarita Engle and the advent of the book’s unique cover, one of the year’s two or three most spectacular.

One of the greatest of children’s book illustrators, Czech-American Peter Sis appeared today to discuss his major Caldecott Medal contender “Robinson” at Books of Wonder this afternoon in Manhattan. As always Sis gave a comprehensive account of his art and the advent of his latest sublime work, one of many in a distinguished career that has brought him three Caldecott honors. I dare say I believe “Robinson” is his masterpiece. Sis is seen here with my son Jeremy and speaking to the gathering.

Esteemed illustrator Charles Santore appeared today at Books of Wonder to promote his new fairy tale interpretation of “Alice in Wonderland.” Not a Caldecott contender as this like most of his other work is a chapter book, but it is a sublime work and Santore engagingly addressed the gathering, later responding to my question about the time it took to complete the intricate assignment. “Three years” he answered. Santore is shown here with Jeremy and speaking.

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by Sam Juliano

“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach of us more than we can ever learn from books.”           -John Lubbock

In clinical terms the condition is referred to as “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” but what really defines the title character in Carmen Bogan’s exuberant Where’s Rodney? is a youth possessing an orientation for immersion in anything of an alfresco slant.  This is a boy by his very nature who could never achieve his potential in a rigidly cerebral environment.  The independence one associates with the open air promotes self-reliance and a naturalist philosophy that in turn will bolster rather than curtail scholastic advancement.  Legendary botanist and environmentalist John Muir spent years hiking through Western forests and writing impassioned pleas to important politicians, which in part resulted in the creation of the “national park.” William Dickson Boyce, an outdoorsman by nature, is often credited with helping to found the Boy Scouts of America after many years of camping and hiking through especially rugged terrain.  The celebrated  transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau in his defining work Walden detailed his experience in rejecting the city life in favor of a cabin on the edge of a pond.  As these seminal figures have documented, there can never be a replacement for actual experience, for all the study and volumes read.  Bogan reverses the learning process by having Where’s Rodney?’s spirited protagonist absorb the sensory elements first, and then to attach the meaning that is meant to be imparted in strictly didactic terms.  In this sense it would be exceedingly difficult to argue that Rodney or any other young person who redefines academic order doesn’t have a head up on those who can identify or access but not necessarily “feel.”

In conjunction with the Yosemite Conservancy, “Dream On Publishing”, an independent multicultural children’s book sponsor committed towards promoting literacy for children of color was established four years ago by none other than Bogan herself.  Planning a visit to a park within the reach of any school or family unit is the underlying aim of this unique and singular picture book, one of a continuing series that is intended to let all kids know that individually and collectively they count mightily in the larger scheme.  After the brown hued title page replication of a later tableau depicting Rodney at the height of his sensory raptness a situational drama juxtaposing the insufferable claustrophobia of the classroom and the free-spirited exhilaration only made possible without the man made barriers is played out.  Bogan’s illustrator is the acclaimed Floyd Cooper, an inspired choice for this project if there ever was one.  Cooper’s “subtractive” process, distinctive and idiosyncratic, involves color washing and peeling away of layers to achieve the striking grainy texture that emboldens the humanist elements in his books.  A crisp and soulful documentation of profoundly registered unbridled emotions carry along the stories he illustrates far more than any conventional notions of plot. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

Film Critics groups from New York, Los Angeles and the National Board of Review have announced their year end awards this past week and all three chose different films for their ‘best.’  The Gotham scribes chose Lady Bird, LA named Call Me By Your Name and the NBR selected Steven Spielberg’s yet-to-open The Post.  The choices for Best Director and the acting winners were also different, though the surprising omission of Gary Oldman for The Darkest Hour as Best Lead Actor had raised more than a few eyebrows.  Two of the groups chose Timothe Chalomet (Call Me By Your Name), while one chose Tom Hanks for the Spielberg movie.  The three differed on actress with Sally Hawkins, Meryl Streep and Saoirse Ronan receiving citations.

Jim Clark’s latest review is a gem on Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy.  The Caldecott Medal Contender series continues until February, with fifteen essays so far published.  On February 14th the second part of the Greatest Television Series countdown will resume.

Our entire family spent Saturday and Sunday in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the heart of the Amish Country.  The highlight was the time spent at the Kettle Village, though we unexpectatntly wound up adopted a 16 pound, seven-year old feline at the Pet Smart out there for a mere $25.  A super friendly animal, but we already have two other cats, two birds, a labrador retriever, a pug, a turtle, two guinea pigs, and a hamster. Continue Reading »

by Sam Juliano

“Just as buildings in California have a greater need to be earthquake proofed, places where there is greater racial polarization in voting have a greater need for prophylactic measures to prevent purposeful race discrimination.

-Ruth Bader Ginsburg

     She is the second woman ever to serve on the United States Supreme Court as an Associate Justice.  At 84 she is the oldest member of the court and generally regarded as the leader of the liberal wing.  A strident feminist and strong advocate for women’s rights she fought discrimination through much of her life, and in her younger years was an actual victim.  As she approached eighty, this demure grandmother, weighing only ninety pounds, was looked on as a cultural icon for her audacious stands against a conservative male majority.   Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs Equality by Jonah Winter, with illustrations by Stacy Innerset is a picture book biography of a seminal figure in the judicial ranks that chronicles her earliest years, the influence of her beloved mother, through her college years where she met the love of her life and broke through long standing barriers connected to race, gender and role.  With the combination of concise and riveting text and some of the most exquisite art in Innerst’s picture book career a biographical milestone has been achieved.  It all begins as Winter presents the book with a judicial bookend which is in tune with what Ginsburg eventually became.  She is seen as a little girl who hasn’t a clue of what her life would bring. Winter announces that the future Supreme Court Associate Justice endured a difficult life at a socially turbulent time, and these, alas are “the facts of the case.”

The early 1930’s saw a large influx of Jewish immigrants as a result of anti-Semitic persecution in Germany, and a prime place for relocation was none other than Brooklyn, New York.  Some set up business in the Borough while others commuted to the garment district in Manhattan daily.  Young Ruth’s earliest years were spent in a small apartment in a building with few furnishings, comparable to the fictional Kramdens of Bensonhurst.  Ruth’s father never finished high school, but was still enterprising enough to have owned a fur shop before declining business forced him to become an employee in the same profession.  Innerst’s drab maroon-gray decor and subdued tints signify near impoverishment, though a copy of The New York Times and a familial embrace and family portrait imply a tightly knit unit and a measure of literacy confirmed over the ensuing pages.  Ruth’s intellectual role model is unveiled as her enterprising Mom, a high school graduate, prone to multi-tasking, an arduous domestic servant, who, much like the bibliophile Elizabeth Brown in Sarah Stewart and David Small’s 1995 picture book The Library, succeeded in reading and mopping floors simultaneously.  Living at a time when women were highly discouraged from college enrollment, Ruth’s mother secured a job at fifteen years old to help pay for her own brother’s education before settling in to conform to her husband’s edict that “a woman’s place was in the home.”  Yet, this homebound directive gave Ruth’s mom the opportunity to instill in her ever receptive offspring a love of books, imparted daily while the cookie jar was utilized for future education funding. Continue Reading »

© 2017 by James Clark

      Among the many and rare skills of filmmaker, Kelly Reichardt, I think the one that most defines her work is the remarkable attentiveness to mood. From time to time we all experience how difficult it is to read the real angle coming to us by figures we have a close and clear bead upon. Often a full disclosure can only be attained by discerning a panoply of incidents (overt and covert), perhaps tracing back to a distant past.

Possessed of very high-powered disclosure in that strategic area, she has memorably deployed those resources in order to, in the film, Old Joy (2006), produce sophisticated havoc upon conventional, politically correct assumptions about the sacred cows of our orbit, for the sake of initiating the neglected, very difficult and crucial task of sensuous coherence.

Old Joy directly purports to cover a reunion of Kurt, an itinerant, getting in touch with a former friend, Mark, living, as always, in Portland, Oregon, and now married to pregnant, Tanya, in their environmentally lush home sustained by intellectually demanding jobs. Here we should note a glaring irregularity about each of them. Along the way of this saga we learn that Kurt, the self-styled, not to mention unctuous, “people person,” has waited until his considerable stay in the venue was no longer tenable before leaving on Mark’s answering machine, “I’m in town and I’m just hoping you’re in town.” As to Mark (a mark?), as the film opens, his eyes are closed as he sits in his rather overrun, “authentic” yard, staving off a nervous breakdown, with a Tanya who is pretty much fed up.

This seeming conjunction of ardent, youngish searchers benefits (if that is the word) from the eyes of the “indie” stalwarts who constitute for Reichardt a force needing shock treatment they are unlikely to like. What’s not to love about a counter-cultural rogue, drug addict and homosexual predator catching up with an academically-secured humanitarian, addicted to that liberal radio gospel hour, Air America? Let’s see.

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by Sam Juliano

Let’s go fly a kite
Up to the highest height!
Let’s go fly a kite and send it soaring
Up through the atmosphere
Up where the air is clear
Oh, let’s go fly a kite!       -Richard B. and Robert A. Sherman,  Mary Poppins (1964)

Elaine Magliaro’s interpretation of the essential activities facing both living and inanimate objects is governed by a subjective point of view.  Though her intended readers can assume the role of each one of her subjects before and after she applies her delightful free verse to a diverse array of what we encounter on a typical day, it is best to submit to the sensory allure of a book fully committed towards erasing the pangs of ennui by way of a spirited tour chronicling the expected manner each chosen article plays in a scene-specific situation.  Magliaro sets a desired tone by instructing her gifted illustrator Catia Chien to enlarge and color code key words in her verse, which are not restricted to any single part of speech.  Appropriately enough the book launches with the responsibilities of dawn, which “shoos away night” and “wakes up the sleeping sun” while simultaneously inducing songbirds to do their thing and letting “dreams drift away.”  A young girl and dog are first seen in an impressionist spread documenting the arrival of  a new days as light filters through an open window in a living room dominated by delicate rendered purple hues.

Birds know well the consequence of missed opportunities and the likelihood of a second chance not availing itself anytime soon.  Magliaro implores our feathered friends to take full advantage of the unfaltering mantra, “Fist come, first served” by descending down to a lawn where feed has been offered up.  A delay will undoubtably result in other birds “seizing the day.”  When breakfast has been negotiated the poet advocates airborne tenacity:  Stretch out your wings on the brightening sky.  Morning’s upon us.  Get ready to fly!  Chien’s overhead capture is an impressionist gem, featuring the metaphorical image of a bird sporting the wing span and tail of an airplane in a now busy sky of many other airborne creatures evoking Richard Bach’s line from his famed 1970 novella:  and the word for breakfast flock flashed through the air, till a thousand seagulls came to dodge and fight for bits of food.”  The artist makes lush use of saturated acrylic red and green projecting out from the flicked brown and tan cross strokes in a scene witness by the intrepid young girl and her inveterate canine. Continue Reading »