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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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