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Archive for December, 2015

afraid

by Sam Juliano

Fear is a common occurrence during the developmental years of children.  In a positive sense they allow for an understanding of the causes of chronic consternation that will usually lead to dissipation.  Kids in the most impressionable stages are frightened of the dark, monsters, animals, insects, germs, thunderstorms, loud noises, illness, vertigo and others concerns, but they are almost never sustained for a substantial period of time.  To be sure many adults maintain an unending fear of heights, claustrophobia and even  arachnophobia, and they have been the subjects of novels, films and television shows.  Jimmy Stewart’s police detective “Scotty” Ferguson in Hitchcock’s Vertigo carried a lifelong affliction of the condition, and Night Gallery’s “A Fear of Spiders” featured a middle aged man who was terrified of the insects.  There can be little doubt that the nurturing of these fears at the youngest ages by attentive parents can curb some of the growing symptoms, usually by showing that the object of fear shouldn’t be isolated, but rather integrated with their environment or in the case of phobias with a broader perception of how how this intimate fear is lessened when perceived in a broader canvas. The young girl in Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s I Used to Be Afraid got over the vast majority of her own shuddery inhibitions by departing the sphere of intimacy that invariably pitted her one-on-one with the object of her dread. (more…)

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ketzel-the-cat-who-composed 1

by Sam Juliano

Cat lovers will be utterly charmed.   Classical music aficionados will be transported.  Those who profess an affinity for both will find Leslea Newman’s Ketzel the Cat Who Composed nothing short of a revelation, though few would ever fathom the story’s central conceit was a factual one.  Though it is the kind of thing that would sit comfortably as a miraculous one off in the Guinness World Book of Records, it is story steeped in humanism and its conceivable sphere of possibilities.  One could easily enough conclude that the book’s central event was just a lucky occurrence, a triumph over the law of probability or a validation of fate.  Either way, Ketzel the Cat Who Composed is a life-affirming work with a deeply emotional center.  While preparing for this series I came upon it by accident.  After securing a planned purchase of another title at Manhattan’s Books of Wonder, I quickly browsed the shelves, and was taken by the cover and the subject.  You see I am one who did find the book a lightening bolt of sorts, as a lifelong multiple cat owner and classical music fanatic.  Such a story was too irresistible to ignore.  Then there were the amazing illustrations.  I have since discovered that the book had received fabulous reviews and strong word of mouth by online picture book lovers.  And it was even named by some as one of the year’s recommended titles.

Moshe Cotel lives in solitude on the third floor of an apartment building on a cacophonous street in a city that never sleeps.  Yet sounds of all variety are music to the ears of a composer, which is in effect what his own teacher had taught him.    Moshe began his day sitting at his piano listening the sounds outside and inside himself, and turned them into rapturous music.  His routine was always to leave the apartment when his composition session was complete, not only for exercise but to listen to all the sounds for possible inspiration.  One day after hearing an unusual, more intimate sound Moshe came upon a black and white kitten nestled in a box around a corner.  He named him Ketzel and took him back to his apartment, where he sat the small creature down on the top of the piano to witness his work in progress, sharing the advice that the teacher had given Moshe. (more…)

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Freedom 1

by Sam Juliano

Fannie Lou Hamer is an obscure name when one chronicles the forerunners of the civil rights movement in an elementary school classroom.  Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks have been the subject of picture books, biographies and historical surveys, but other figures have been lamentably relegated to either scant discussion or footnote status.  Carole Boston Weatherford and Ekua Holmes’ Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement fills a vital gap in the literature with a work heavily indebted to Hamer’s own diaries.  Weatherford’s spirited free verse poetry is presented in twenty-two titled pieces that tell the story of a courageous woman who was to become one of the civil rights movement’s most renowned adherents.  Like virtually all African Americans who were born during first decades of the twentieth century Hamer was born into squalor, the last of twenty children born to sharecroppers living in the Mississippi Delta, a place says Weatherford  where the soil was as rich as black folks was poor, where cotton was king and Jim Crow the law.  Hamer’s birth resulted in a fifty dollar dividend to her parents for “producing a future field hand.”  The symbolically titled “Delta Blues” paints a picture of the most demanding kind of physical labor in the hundred degree cotton fields from dawn till dusk.  One can recall Big Sam in Gone with the Wind announcing to the workers as darkness sets in at Tara: “It’s quittin’ time!”  Indeed, the author relates Hamer’s recollections as a situation without an alternative as factories were new then, and not present in Sunflower County.  Sharecropping was a gentler name for slavery,  and Frances gets to the crux of the situation when she sizes up the situation of the blacks never gaining enough money for their share of the crop to pay for necessities borrowed from the owners when she laments Black people work so hard, and we ain’t got nothin’ to show for it.   The cotton field workers picked fifteen tons of cotton a season and incurred cut knuckles and wrists from dried bristles, yet there was no end in site, and no chance for relocation, an option available for the Dust Bowler Oakies in the 1930’s.

Weatherford relates stories about Hamer’s mother spoiling her because she was the youngest, among other examples making her sisters and brother give her piggyback rides (though she says she weighed more than some of them) and averted a spanking from Dad for spilled a pot of boiled rice, due to Mama’s intervention.  In the verse titled “My Mother Taught Me” Weatherford poignantly asserts that the Mom “wore rags patched by rags” so her children could look passably dressed. Frances observed at that time that whites “had food, clothes, everything” while blacks often went hungry and wished Why wasn’t I white, so that we could have some food?  The mother is undaunted and develops self-esteemed among her children, obtaining a black doll for Frances, and tells her that black is beautiful.  The four month school year (December through March) allowed only the time of the year the children weren’t needed in the fields.  The squalor was related in uncompromising terms: (more…)

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Youth

hateful eight

by Sam Juliano

The warmest December on record in the metropolitan area has resulted in a 70 degree Christmas and short sleeves for most, though the coming weeks are predicted to bring a semblance of what we’d normally expect.  We are just a few days away from 2016, and some of us have been spending some of our time this past week playing catch up with the bevy of current releases in the movie theaters.  Plenty of NFL action, but depressing if you are a Giants fan, though hopeful is a Jets supporter.  Classical music and opera are being offered up in some fabulous interpretations in the coming months, and this writer will be in attendance for many.  HD Opera broadcasts are aplenty in theaters beginning in mid-January.

The Caldecdott Medal Contender series continues in force, until around January 10th, the day before the awards are announced by the American Library Association.  Twenty-four reviews have posted thus far with a projected ten more to go.  I want to thank all the site regulars for attending these posts with vigor, and hereby acknowledge the incredible site statistics that have greeted each and every one.  Facebook sharing has further increased the interest and response to the series, which is now in its third year at the site.

Lucille, the kids and I attended a quartet of movies in theaters this past week, with at least that many planned for the present seven-day period. (more…)

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wolfie-the-bunny-cover

by Sam Juliano

There are more carrots in the text and illustrations of Wolfie the Bunny than in any picture book since Creepy Carrots and there is even an unwitting homage to the earlier work by way of the “Carrot Patch” food coop, the place of replenishment for the bunny family at the story’s center.  Trendy Park Slope, Brooklyn in the setting of the 2015 release by Ame Dyckman, with art by Zachariah Ohora.  This is the neighborhood where the Bunny Family resides, and where they are surprised to find a bundle outside their basement door one day.  They are subsequently aghast when they discover a baby wolf, but ever the progressives they immediately embrace their new acquisition with red carpet bravado.  While mommy and daddy bunny profess no quibbles at claiming immediate ownership, and assessing how cute he is, their daughter Dot is grounded in the reality of the situation, frantically opining “He’s Going To Eat Us All Up!”  Much too infatuated to listen the bunny parents set him up at bedtime and he’s soon fast asleep.  Fearing the worst Dot stays up keeping an eye on the unwanted intruder via a headband featuring a flashlight.  In the morning Wolfie is served carrots for breakfast and is repeatedly photographed by the proud parents.  Dot, however, is unwavering as she warns them again that they will soon be Wolfie’s next meal.  After Dot’s friends stop by to see the family’s new sibling, they join Dot in fearful denunciation, screaming “He’s Going to Eat Us All Up!”, prompting Dot to recommend an alternate location to play. (more…)

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float

by Sam Juliano

There are some rare instances where you find that a picture book is so impeccably crafted and meticulously negotiated that you conclude you are looking at something indefectible.  Such is the case with Float by Daniel Miyares, a work about one fleeting endeavor in a young boy’s life that appears to raise the bar in an artist’s insatiable quest for perfection.  Float is a wordless book – that no longer rare phenomenon in the publishing industry where illustrators summon their artistic skills to replace the power of words with the dynamism of images.  What is rare is the wordless picture book that is so flawlessly executed that it makes you think words would have negatively impacted the vision.  Other than the book’s title – a word that economically defines this pictorial tone poem- there isn’t even a reference to language aside from the illegible newsprint on paper material that is used to create the object that does what the title infers.  Taking the place of a descriptive writer, the illustrator must be attuned to facial expression, posture, the thrall of weather, the application of color to define a mood, abstract form to heighten an event, and the full gamut of emotions.  Wordless books follow the tenets of the silent cinema, where the experience is totally visual, without a trace of the interplay that informs some of the finest collaborations.  The illustrator is left with a  formidable task, and Miyares appears to have risen to the challenge with a book that will excite and move the youngest while perhaps tempting those older to ally their skills at creativity.  His art was created digitally.

The book’s sleek and elegant dust jacket cover highlights the mise en scene.  A boy clad in yellow rain gear is floating a paper boat in a street puddle as rain falls.  There is a striking reflection of a nearby house in the water, and the drab gray color scheme denotes the overcast, dreary day.   A partial close-up of that cherished vassal of a child’s fantasy is mounted on the inside hardcover with just enough color to allow it to arise above the non-descript, but less than what would be needed to achieve a happy resolution. (more…)

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Oskar-and-the-Eight-Blessings 1

by Sam Juliano

Oskar’s mother and father were firm believers in blessings.  They lit the menorah, and were confident their faith would insure their safety.  Then, on November 9, 1938 many German Jews found their homes and places of business damaged, synagogues destroyed and many people murdered.  Thousands of windows were shattered in the most vicious pogrom ever perpetuated against the Jews, and the name “The Night of the Broken Glass” (Reichskristallnacht) was ascribed to the two day assault.  In the soulful picture book Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Richard and Tanya Simon with Mark Siegel serving as illustrator, this pre-title page prologue visualizes this horrific event by showing a horizontal triptych with smoke billowing from a synagogue,  the frenzied feet of the perpetrators, and a Jewish family in hiding.

For some Jews the writing was clearly on the wall, and these opted not to wait very long.  Armed only with a photo of his never seen Aunt Esther and his father’s priceless last words “Oskar, even in bad times, people can be good.  You have to look for the blessings,” the boy is boarded on a ship to New York City, whose skyline comes into focus on the expansive title page spread when the cruiser arrives in the harbor.  In a wonderful kinship of the Jewish and Christian religions the Simons have Oskar arrive on the seventh day of Hannakah, which also happens to be Christmas Eve.  While a seagull perches on a wooden dock support, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, Oskar again examines the photo of his aunt, simultaneously realizing that to arrive at her home in time for the lighting of the menorah at sunset he’d have to successfully negotiate one hundred blocks up Broadway.  Oskar was awe-struck by the immense size of the big city, and how he was merely a dwarf in it, and “Broadway stretched before him like a river.”  Inevitably Oskar by then was tired, cold and hungry.  His first encounter was New York City’s version of the bird lady in Mary Poppins, who is feeding pigeons.  She hands Oskar a morsel to feed them, but she understands when he eats it himself.    She then gives him a full loaf, kept warm and fresh inside her coat. (more…)

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flight-1

 © 2015 by James Clark

      One of the great attractions of Paris is the Musee d’Orsay, an art museum and a former railway station smack in the heart of the City’s fabulousness and specializing in France’s gift to transformation, namely, Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings. There the visitor—though he or she may never assimilate it as such—comes into a close encounter with a planet that resembles Earth but also comprises a bedrock of kinetic grace and communion (a Christmas morning fantasy of sorts) which our blue planet’s atmosphere would snuff out in a trice. Or would it?

Someone or some committee there, taking as a starting point the blissfulness of the collection, contrived (in the early years of the new century and new millennium) a union between the museum’s expressivity—and money—and the world’s front-line auteurs who would make what they could, in film form, of the possibilities of the world of untrammelled ecstasy on their walls (and, in a wider sense, their sculptures and industrial design of the late 19th and early 20th centuries). The first filmmaker recruited for such a venture could not have been a more promising choice, namely Hou Hsiao Hsien, proving, in pictures like Goodbye South, Goodbye, Millennium Mambo and Three Times, that visually, sonically and dramatically pregnant surges enliven the spirit of the refulgence of the work of Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Cezanne et al.

Whereas the tableaux in Paris are all about the magic of everything coming up roses, the motion pictures (as such) of Hou tend to determine that hell is other people. In the film resulting from this collision of sorts, namely, Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), our protagonist, Suzanne, a designer of puppet shows, comes to us as a pronounced subscriber to a career of manufacturing facsimiles of sentient creatures in contradistinction to a wider life of trench warfare. “The sea is rough!” she cries out melodramatically, during our first meeting her rehearsing the bearable vicissitudes of the puppet scenario. A near brawl with a deadbeat renter, along with anxieties about an adolescent daughter living with her divorced father in Brussels and, Musee d’Orsay notwithstanding, in no hurry to ever see Paris again and a Banana Republic latest sputtering flame adamantly living in Montreal, eventually spill over to the precincts of the museum of note, emitting a song, “Chin-chin,” more Surrealist than Impressionist, on the subject of a disappointed woman sinking into alcoholism. Evincing the excitement the commission knew they could count on from Hou, we have this dark plunge surrounded by and interacted with players (major and minor) in the City of Light having fallen under that spell of beatitude and goodwill served up (but not exclusively) by the genius of the d’Orsay deposit and often approximated at Christmas. That cornucopia constitutes the Yuletide presence of this out of season mystery. Here we have, in the language of the heart if not the specific register, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Scrooge’s nephew and his wife and friends, as having attained to not only overcoming resentments but having also put into play an idiom of easy, undemonstrative affection—a Christmas gift like no other. (more…)

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amazing cover

by Sam Juliano

When Barack Obama was elected to the presidency in 2008 the nation was set on an uncharted course.  The commander-in-chief was the first African-American to hold the highest office, and of course the first to be parented by an African.  Obama  had a white mother, making his the first mixed race chief executive.  For those marveling at his ability to overcome the long odds, and achieve what many considered a political miracle, they need to go back in the history books to find something far more transcendent.  John Roy Lynch, who lived into his ninety-second year was reared as a slave -he, like Obama was of mixed race with his father of Irish decent and his mother a black slave.  The father was an overseer who died prematurely of illness, leaving behind his wife and two sons including John, but more importantly the plan he had devised to insure their freedom.  He left his possessions to a close friend, one who ended up balking on his benefactor’s intentions.  The wife Catherine, John and his younger brother remained slaves.  This lamentable turn of events seemed fated, and it resulted in a baptism under fire for the boy.  His extended his period of domestic incarceration, though the time brought him to a resonant understanding of the system of degradation that eventually led to the Civil War.

The aptly titled The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Don Tate tells a story of a person who is not only able to deal with and survive the oppression of an era that left his kind with zero opportunity for advancement, but how he  took full advantage of some long-shot opportunities to climb the political ladder to an eventual election to the United States House of Representatives, only ten years after his tenure as a teenage slave.  Lynch’s plight and redemption can be seen as a Cinderella story, but its ramifications helped ignite a freedom spark during the dark days of reconstruction, a time for the barbarous mistreatment of blacks by southern Klu Klux Klan members and those who never took kindly to to the destruction wrecked on them by the hated northerners.  Southern whites took out their hatred on blacks, who in Mississippi were given titles like”apprentice” and “vagrant” to keep them in bondage.  Vengeful whites were able to make good on their hate agenda where it counted most – on the grass roots level.  Barton asserts in the narrative that  “sometimes hate-filled whites dealt out penalties far worse than what the laws called for” including murder.  Not until the freedom marches of the early 60’s did the southern blacks gain a measure of acceptance, but of course even then locals took the law into their own hands, extending their prejudice to unwanted visitors.  In the 1988 film Mississippi Burning three young civil rights workers -two blacks and one white-  travel to the state to assist in the voting registration of minorities, but are murdered in Jessup County by a sheriff-led detail at night after they are pulled over. (more…)

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merry-christmas-picture-gdcwp7uv

by Sam Juliano

Yuletide greetings are extended to all at the site, the readers and their families.  We are just a few days away from Christmas 2015, and a week beyond that the ushering in of the New Year.  Despite a few blustery days, the unseasonably warm weather will be back for Christmas and Christmas Eve with temperatures predicted in the range of 70.  I don’t remember a winter with numbers that high, but this what meteorologists have been predicting for weeks for this area.  My week was such that I was unable to see a single film in theaters, though Lucille and the three boys attended the new Star Wars installment and liked it.  An unusual week to be sure, but one impacted by frantic activity.

The Caldecott Medal Contender series has been moving forward at a brisk pace since the actual awards day is February, and a number of other reviews must be written and posted ahead of January 11th.  I want to thank everyone for their comments and for checking in.

Lucille, the kids and I watched some holiday classics at home including Christmas in Connecticut, Charlie Brown’s  Christmas, The Polar Express  and two versions of A Christmas Carol.  Over the holidays I plan on seeing The Revenant, and Son of Saul among others.  Otherwise I have been spoken for by the Caldecott book reviews.

Best wishes to our good friend Aaron West of Criterion Blues, who just went through a hip operation and is recovery well.  Aaron has been through the grinder in recent years, but it appears certain the recent procedure will have him in  top shape again. (more…)

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