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Archive for December, 2015

flutter 1

by Sam Juliano

At the outset of the author’s note in the back of Flutter & Hum (Aleteo y Zumbido) by Julie Paschkis is the startling revelation that the artist is neither Spanish nor a poet.  She began to learn the language in preparation for a book she was doing on Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet.  From that point this self avowed painter and lover of words became smitten with the beauty of the language and has striven to release dual language books of which the exquisite Flutter & Hum is the most recent.  This is a book on animal poems.  The last time a collection of any kind won the Caldecott Medal was in 1980 when Arnold Lobel’s beloved Fables was honored.  Like Lobel’s book, Flutter & Hum is beautifully integrated and designed, and it gives the opportunity for schools with a sizable Hispanic population to compare and contrast the languages.  The set up is simple enough.  The book features fourteen double page spreads, all of which present a poem about an animal.  On the left panel is the English version, on the right the Spanish.  Otherwise the featured animal is showcased across both pages bringing the proper illustrative unity.  The first creature in this poetical homage is the snake (la serpiente) which only knows one letter (sssssss), and slithers through the grass sinuously.  The pages are dazzlingly littered with ‘s’ word streamers that define both a snake’s characteristics and how people frame them.  Pashkis describes the turtle as a creature who hides in her shell, but hopes for something wonderful to happen; a heron is shown as one-legged and a crow who hopes, stops and stares at the only sun shining on a rainy day – a bright yellow umbrella. (more…)

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bear 1

by Sam Juliano

Julia Sarcone-Roach’s The Bear Ate Your Sandwich is the year’s dreamiest picture book. As such it takes a few viewings to focus, but when it kicks in one can never get enough of it.  What we have is a seamless blend of prose, illustration and design and to boot the book is a hoot and sports one of the best titles of the year.

We first see the black bear of the title sleeping in a small clearing in the woods on the extended titled page.  Then we are told by an unidentified narrator:   “By now you know what happened to your sandwich.  But you may not know how it happened.  So let me tell you.  It all started with the bear.”  We then see the bear exercising at daybreak before the scent of ripe berries leads him to the red pick up that is transporting the baskets.  He manages to climb aboard without detection, feasts on the berries and falls asleep under the sunlight and the buzzing of bees.  The innocuous country sounds are soon replaced by the much louder road travel rumbling after his unwitting host has crossed a suspension bridge into a metropolis.

“He was being quickly swept along like a leaf in a great river.  The forest disappeared in the distance and high cliffs rose up around him.”

(more…)

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cordell-Special Delivery Final Cover copy

by Sam Juliano

Chugga Chugga Chugga Beans Beans Beans”

The conceit in Phillip C. Stead and Matthew Cordell’s delightfully anarchic Special Delivery is grandiose and economically prohibitive.  A determined and resourceful young girl named Sadie worries about her dear Great Aunt Josephine, who is leading a life of solitude.  What better way to raise her spirits than to send her -via the local post office- a good-natured pachyderm.  She leads this largest of land creatures to a cheerfully chaotic outdoor depot where the clerk named Jim receives the request matter-of factly.  In a lampoon of unstinting post office procedure, which in this case is ludicrously non-applicable on every count,  Sadie advises him not to bend, drop or shake him, as he is fragile and might break.  After calculating the approximate expense Jim tells Sadie that she will need a real lot of stamps to transport her elephant.  When she asks how many the undaunted postman rolls out a wheelbarrow overflowing with stamps that recalls the zany scene in Woody Allen’s Bananas when workers wheel out thousands of sandwiches to feed a guerrilla army.  Sadie soon realizes the folly of her idea and moves on to ask a pilot named Mary if she’d loan the girl her airplane, while showing her the daunting proposition.  Much like the postman, the pilot acts like this is a run-of-the-mill request, though she informs the girl it will require a lot of fuel.  Just as quick as one can shout “Goooooooo” they are off in a twin engine plane, but soon are interrupted by the telling sounds of sput sputt sputter and koff koff koff.  In a think bubble, Sadie realizes they are running out of fuel.  The plane quickly descends, and after some sounds denoting engine failure, winds up in a river, where an alligator as a guide down this jungle waterway.  They soon hear “Chugga chugga chugga, whooo-whoooo.”  Sound cognizant students may immediately conjure up memories of Brian Floca’s 2013 Caldecott Medal winning Locomotive, which like Special Delivery can be framed as a book about a road journey. (more…)

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a-fine-dessert-1

the-lady-in-the-van-maggie-smith

by Sam Juliano

First off I want to thank the many readers who have responded en masse to the highly controversial and still running comment thread on the Caldecott Contender picture book A Fine Dessert.  As a result of the passionate response to the book from two unwavering positions, Wonders in the Dark has experienced its busiest week since all the way back in 2009.  Some of the discussion was extremely contentious to be sure from both sides of the divide, and I have never been as intensely involved as I was since the review published late Thursday night.  I have learned a lot about the strong feelings and sensitivity regarding the book’s visualization of slavery in the second part of its four stories.  I remain a big supporter of the book, and have enjoyed much success with it with my classes.  For me there is nothing at all in the publishing industry worse than censorship.  Hence any attempt to suppress this beautiful book is alien to my sense of fair play.  After an initial rush of people who criticized my review and loyalty to the book, the thread then came to life with the appearance of many teachers and book industry people who came to the book’s defense.  In the three and a half days the review has been up it has attracted nearly 3,000 page views, hundreds of link ups from Twitter and Facebook and a barrage of exposure on many blogs, with a few re-blogs to boot.  At present the thread has attracted 154 comments.

It has been another torrid week for the Caldecott series in general, and again I thank the many who have placed comments on all the reviews.  Jim Clark’s review of the superlative Three Times (admittedly a film seen by few) was yet yet another magisterial piece by this great writer and friend.

Everything in my life has been compromised the past several days, so aside from a mid-week film viewing of the Oscar qualifier The Lady in the Van with Maggie Smith, I have been lamentably tied down.  A nagging sore throat complicated matters further.  It is hard to believe we are only eleven days away from Christmas, which really did creep up.  Weather in the New York City area has been unseasonably balmy, and in direct contrast from last year’s frigid December. (more…)

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manchurian candidate
by Allan Fish
A little solitaire?
Note:  This review is part of the Frank Sinatra Blogathon run by Judy Geater and two others.  The host site is Emily at The VintageCameo.com. 
 
p  Howard W.Koch  d  John Frankenheimer  w  George Axelrod  novel  Richard Condon  ph  Lionel Lindon ed  Ferris Webster  m  David Amram  art  Richard Sylbert  cos  Moss Mabry
Frank Sinatra (Bennett Marco), Laurence Harvey (Raymond Shaw), Janet Leigh (Rosie), James Gregory (Sen.John Iselin), Angela Lansbury (Mrs Iselin), Henry Silva (Chunjim), John McGiver (Sen.Thomas Jordan), Knigh Dhiegh (Yen Lo), Whit Bissell,
 
The Manchurian Candidate is the film Oliver Stone would love to have made but never could, a film that subtly and nail-bitingly exposes the hypocrisy of political machination and the often blurred distinction between the so called ‘left’ and ‘right’.  Frankenheimer made several classic conspiracy movies in the sixties (see Seven Days in May and Seconds), but this is undoubtedly his masterpiece and one of the all-time great political films.  Not merely a thriller, not merely a military exposé, Candidate is also just what Pauline Kael said it was; “the most sophisticated political satire ever to come out of Hollywood.”
            In 1952 in Korea, an officer, Raymond Shaw, saves his group of men on patrol and receives the Medal of Honor for bravery.  All his former subordinates refer to him in an uncommonly generous, adulating way that seems detached from his gloomy, introspective personality.  Bennett Marco, who has been having nightmares about a brainwashing program conducted by the Soviet and Chinese governments, comes to believe his dream and thinks that Raymond is not all he says he is.  It turns out that he is merely an instrument in the machinations of some truly diabolical master plan. 

(more…)

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SPRING 4

by Sam Juliano

Maurice is a young bear with a chronic hankering to find something that others say he must patiently wait for.  His first problem is that he doesn’t even really know what the object of his search looks like.  His incessant obsession with wanting something that comes only once a year amusingly recalls the short film Elmo Saves Christmas, where our fearless wisher learns his lesson the hard way.  In Carin Berger’s Finding Spring the problem is more a case of a young one not knowing the duration of a season.  When his mother takes him to pick some berries he triumphantly sings “Spring! Spring!, not realizing the activity is normal during the latter stage of winter.  After being assured by his mother that it is exceedingly difficult to wait, and that it is time to sleep, Maurice steals away, vowing to find the object of his queries.  The first group he accosts with his silly request do not give him the time of day.  The squirrel tells him he may have to wait a while, while the giggling  rabbit firmly dismisses him with “Not yet!.”  Deer didn’t even respond while eating grass, and Robin sagely declared “Everything in its time.”  Maurice proceeds through the woods, which smell “musky”, though he detects something “new and tangy in the air.”  He is convinced that the clues are pointing towards Spring, and after he feels an icy sting on his nose and then finds a crystal on his paw, he believes his elusive season is at hand.  More and more crystals form and Maurice chases after them past dry leaves, broken branches and over a frozen stream.  He reaches the great hill where is finds an atmospheric winter wonderland.  Ecstatically he declares his search is over, and declares “S-p-r-i-n-g!  S-p-r-i-n-g! I Found Spring! while forming a large snow ball to bring home for verification. (more…)

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sweep 1

by Sam Juliano

Jonathan Livingston Seagull was one of the best-selling books of the seventies.  This spiritual novella is about self-perfection and soaring in flight.  The work spawned a popular movie which in large measure kept the author’s vision intact.  Recalling my experience of reading the book in my senior year in high school as I engaged with Helen Frost and Rick Lieder’s breathtaking Sweep Up the Sun I again understood the  exhilaration felt by those who explore the natural world.  Helen Frost (there is something inherently poetic in that name) and Rick Lieder previously collaborated on Step Gently Out, a lyrical immersion of the insect universe.  The new book is just as extraordinarily beautiful as Step, again combining Frost’s evocative word economy with spectacular close-up photography by Lieder that replicates the buoyancy of flight and pictorial splendor of the cinema.  Frost’s words are meant to inspire people to strive for excellence, to achieve their goals through individual application, to visit places not yet traversed.  Like her famed namesake, she urges young people to walk down that road not taken.  You might reach your destination alone or with some others who share your vision.  Your determination will allow you to advance way up the ladder, perhaps with little fanfare.  Frost’s poetry is a textbook example of making every word count, and her special word pictures are given the invigorating and intoxicating aerial photographs by an artist who knows well the language of movement, space and expression.

An arresting shot of two robin offspring with their mouths wide open preparing to be fed in is showcased on the first end papers, before Frost’s poetry is launched with Rise into the air on the strength of your wings, alongside the full spread of a blue jay, while on the following page sparrows are seen is less austere terms to the command Go out to play in the sky.  Then we see a red maned house finch opposite another sparrow as the words define their movement:  Trusting it to hold you/as you learned to fly. (more…)

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a fine dessert 1

by Sam Juliano

Mmmmm. Mmmmm.  Mmmmm.

Somewhere in the heavens Robert McCloskey is holding a copy of A Fine Dessert and is marveling at how the delectable results of berry picking have persevered over many generations.  His own concern in his classic Caldecott Honor book Blueberries For Sal of course was securing the raw materials despite the unanticipated stalking of a benign black bear.  The author and illustrator of A Fine Dessert – Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall – have brought homespun prominence to one of 2015’s most exquisite and irresistible picture books, one that confirms that time and place having little bearing on the universal appreciation of making something with your own hands, and then enjoying it with your loved ones.  To be sure, the vital ingredients in this mouth watering confection are not blueberries, but blackberries, but the culinary implications seem to imply fool can be made with any type of berry.  A Fine Dessert could well be the year’s most painstaking picture book in the way it integrates the strikingly ornate art with sublimely applied typography.  Superlative spacing and color coordination bring four different periods to life in handsome vignettes seen in various encapsulations and expansive framings.  Author and illustrator waste no time in sporting their remarkable artistic kinship on the opening double page spread, set in Lyme, England, one that recalls the work of the renowned Barbara Cooney.  In the background sits a country stone house of everyone’s dreams, bordered with a rock wall on both sides, a gate, fields of crops and two trees.  A woman wearing early eighteenth century outdoor garb is carrying a baby daughter on her back, while the other girl is actively employed in helping her pick blackberries.  Jenkins opens the story superbly, giving her gifted illustrator the base for splendidly orchestrated art: (more…)

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three-times-1

 © 2015 by James Clark

      A film like Three Times (2005) comes to us as an exquisite joy and an excruciating horror. Hou Hsiao Hsien has conjured there an arresting exploration of the volatility of human presence; and with the exception of a few filmic gourmands happy to absorb the flavors and happy to stay satisfied therewith, his effort has gone unnoticed. As I proceed to illuminate the workings of this adventure, there is, over and above a metaphorical lighting of a candle, the difficult business of such a dearth of fresh air snuffing out its efficacy. Therefore, the film’s telescoping of three eras (situated, in order: 1966, 1911 and 2005) draws attention to a long and virtually frozen engagement.

You can’t say that Three Times doesn’t effectively pinpoint a percolating, passionately pursued through the ages, not only including but especially in our time. And it leads this thrust with a rich, palpable and witty musical score. It’s 1966 and those doo-wop stalwarts, The Platters, who may be done at home, submerged by the likes of “California Dreamin’,” delivered by the archly-named, Mamas and Papas, still make waves with their tight harmonies (their Enigma Variations)—in Taiwan, in and about the peripatetic business of May, a billiard hall hostess. The TNT comprising this apparently low-key glimpse must wait a bit while we come to a moment of body language in perfect confluence with the disc’s final bat flip in watching the ball clear the fence. An admirer of May, namely, Chen, a young man on leave from military service and trying to locate her current workplace, tosses his match, on lighting his smoke, spot-on the downbeat pushing the final lyric, “eyes!” In Part 3, it’s 2005 and Hou is up to his well-established genius of limning nearly deliriously bad musical and poetic talent. The culprit, Jing (even a jingle would be a relief from what she does) is a partially blind epileptic getting up in the middle of the night, for a smoke, from a bed including her Tooth Fairy photo-guy, Zhen, picking up a fluorescent lighting panel and casting it on a dark wall setting off another crescendo in the form of photos of domestic scenes disclosing attractive women—one instance of which involving a variant of Cherner chairs. The first flash on the gallery wall comes to coincide with that split second (trailing to infinity) when Chen put his all (like Bautista) into tossing that match. The geisha, Mei, in Part 2, her options dwindling, her vocalizing to zither accompaniment being tightened to a kind of death rattle, turns it all around (for how long?) in putting her long-standing, stuffed-shirt (Gerbier-like) Army of Shadows revolutionary-client’s face towel back to perfect balance with a graceful and definitive twist of her hand. Once again, the pristine downbeat coming through stormy times. (more…)

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Yard1

by Sam Juliano

Eve Bunting and Lauren Castillo’s shattering Yard Sale confirms that all the money in the world can never supersede the love of family.  The book also documents the heart-wrenching relocation ritual of parting with domestic belongings that are far more cherished for their nostalgic worth than any kind of monetary value.  Yard Sale further chronicles a move necessitated by economic hardship from airy suburbia to the claustrophobic environs of the big city, where room is measured by inches instead of yards.  As such this exceedingly resonant picture book opines that it usually takes a cathartic event to appreciate something that too often is taken for granted.  While last year’s Bad Bye Good Bye by Deborah Underwood and Jonathan Bean recorded a cross country move, the mood was distinctly exhilarating, and the act more of a thrilling adventure.  Underwood’s book possesses a metaphysical undercurrent, while Yard Sale is achingly humanist from the first page to the last, rooted as it is in a mandatory situation beyond the control of its unwilling protagonists.  This melancholic work evinces remarkable chemistry between veteran children’s literature icon Eve Bunting and Caldecott Honor winning illustrator Castillo, who just last year was in the winner’s circle for her rapturous Nana in the City, another book anchored in kindred immersion.  Castillo’s lightening fast encore to Nana is beyond award-worthy, and in the service of Bunting’s impassioned prose, the art is poignant and elegiac, and a stellar example of how astoundingly well an illustrator can embrace and emote on an author’s vision.

The premise of the book -the need to forfeit a dream situation for one acutely restrictive- immediately sets the tone.  Declares Bunting:  Almost Everything We Own is spread out in our front yard.  It is all for sale.  We are moving to a small apartment.   A young girl is sitting forlornly on the top step of a lovely rustic two story abode overlooking the all-inclusive lot of items that have been put up for sale.  These include a teddy bear, a tricycle, patio and living room furniture, a boom box, lamps, a grandfather clock, hats, tennis equipment and a PC monitor, all items that would fall within the treasured sphere of memories.  To say that much of this three member family’s past activities have been invested in these properties would be an understatement.  The sadly ironic display of a three primary color balloon is meant to signal the event, instead it cues the end of a beloved time span in their lives.  Ever optimistic, especially to boost the spirits of their daughter, the mother announces upon a visit to their new dwelling that it is “small but nice.”  Castillo’s trademark bold style heightens the sense of loss, as the father pulls out a wall bed in the living room no less – the ultimate symbol of just how drastic their unavoidable trade off would be- and the darkened brown doorway and exposed wall is another painful reminder.  Then comes a subtle observation that won’t be picked up by all kids, but no matter as it is clarified further on the following page, when Bunting sadly asserts:  Today there are lots of people walking around our front yard, picking up things, asking the price, though Mom and Dad already put prices on them.  Of course when people ask the prices on things despite the fact that the cost is displayed it can only mean one thing. (more…)

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