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Archive for January, 2016

Whisper_hres-813x1024

by Sam Juliano

One would be hard pressed, stroke for stroke, image for image, idea for idea to find a more imaginative or phantasmagorical picture book in 2015 than Pamela Zagarenski’s surrealist The Whisper, the first book this celebrated two-time Caldecott Honor winning artist has also written herself.  The Whisper, which made me think of Lewis Carroll is a book within a book, and an indescribably beautiful visualization of a time-worn creative writing assignment, where students are asked to write a story based on a series of pictures.  But alas no students have yet been given the kind of ravishing art Zagarenski has been known for throughout her career, nor perhaps have been temped with such imaginative provocations, nor with such challenging, intricate tapestries.  Zagarenski’s sensibilities  are Felliniesque though her mixed media application, elaborate design and kaleidoscopic imagery.  The Whisper is about the power of storytelling and the limitless imagination, but it is also a fever dream, with connecting images, designs and colors, that carries over the artist’s previous preoccupation with crowns, teacups wheels, tigers and the heavens.    There is wonder, enchantment, and magic in a story where the words fly out of the book while the girl carries it home from school, but a fox catches them with a net in the central conceit.    This is the Seven Voyages of Sinbad meets Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, though Zagarenski’s dreamy ideas are far more benign if suggestive. (more…)

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Emmanuel's Dream cover

by Sam Juliano

Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles were born blind yet went on to become justly celebrated  writers and singers. (Charles was actually seven when he lost his eyesight).  Wilma Rudolph, born premature and sickly, developed polio almost immediately, necessitating leg braces, yet won three gold medals at the Olympics.  Perhaps the most famous “disabled” person was Helen Keller, who was born deaf and dumb, yet mastered braille to become a major author, lecturer and political activist.  Their triumphs were made possible by a dogged refusal to surrender to their limitations, and subsequently to achieve the level of success not attained by some of their peers who never had disabilities.  Yet they all benefited by societies that encouraged getting beyond their limitations, societies that offered money and support groups.  Hence it is unconscionable to perceive that in some places in the world it is seen as a curse on a family who give birth to a compromised child.  In Ghana in West Africa a boy named Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah was born in largely perfect order, save for one of his legs, which was limp.  The crushed father left the family never to return, but the mother was driven by her faith and named her child Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

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Last Stop 1
by Sam Juliano

Ma quando vien lo sgelo
il primo sole è mio
il primo bacio dell’aprile è mio!     

-Giacomo Puccini, La Boheme

It has long been asserted that those who appreciate sublimity the most have experienced the worst kind of squalor and impoverishment.  It has also been posed that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what is one person’s nightmare is another’s eternal joy.  In Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson’s Last Stop on Market Street, each one of these adages is applicable to the story of a young boy and his grandmother who have close to nothing, but come to find appreciation, indeed inspiration from everyday urban life.  The picture book is also a subtle repudiation of capitalist excess, and a call for a life of sensory immersion.  De la Pena implies there is light at the end of the tunnel, and happiness is almost never contingent upon geography.

Much of the drama in Last Stop on Market Street plays out in a bus that maintains a route that travels up and down the street of the title.  The title page pictures the two main characters, while the double page dedication spread street of cars, bicycle riders, dog walkers and people walking.  Between the house is a church with stain glass windows, that takes center stage in the next spread, where rain has begun.  CJ likes the freedom of leaving the church, though he now has to deal with the wet stuff.  The first of his many questions to his Nana throughout the book was in regard to why they needed to stand in the rain, albeit under an umbrella, waiting for a bus.  The Nana makes a funny quip about trees needing water, but that is her normal mindset – she is a mountain of good will and positive energy, and always looks at the bright side of even the most dire equations.  When the boy sees his friend climb into a spiffy blue car he asks her why they can’t own a car.  While the answer is painfully obvious Nana spins it as a clear case of better opportunity, pointing to the fire-breathing dragon on a side poster of the bus, and the trickster Mr. Dennis, who drives it.  After they board the bus, CJ hands over a coin to Mr. Dennis, while Nana voices her deep laugh.  They sit in the front near a marvelous cast of characters, including a man tuning a guitar, and a woman in curlers with a jar of butterflies.  They all exchanged greetings, even CJ at his Nan’s behest. (more…)

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american-1

 © 2015 by James Clark

      Here we go, into a New Year (we definitely won’t call it the Year of the Ram or the Sheep or the Goat); and here we go kicking up a notch our not setting great store by “spoilers.” Anton Corbijn’s The American (2010) could be mistaken to be primarily a “suspense thriller” and judged as such. An American go-getter, Jack by name, has come upon some quality control issues in his career of murdering highly placed government and corporate trouble-making functionaries (like spies, expensive underachievers and other irritants and embarrassments) and his contemptuous and unforgiving manager salts him away in Italy and gives him the (low-key) assignment of producing a special gun which in fact is slated to dispose of him. A skirmish in that climax shows him dodging that bullet but being shot dead anyway.

Corbijn could not in truth care less what you think to be the thrills quotient of that eventuation. As a cog in the movie industry he has to cover his ass with a Hollywood star (George Clooney), some attractive women (nude or otherwise) and some attractive cinematography. In this artisanal web, he quite closely occupies the same boat as Jack, where one wrong step spells death (of some kind). The pragmatic underbelly of our helmsman’s craft is exceptionally bathed in epiphantic atmosphere. That disclosure constitutes the heart of the film, an adjunct of endeavor pretending (for the sake of the market) to stand by a beginning, a middle and an end, but in fact offering depths and real, not vicarious, shocks to ponder for a lifetime. (more…)

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stanley 1

by Sam Juliano

If he were alive today, H. G. Wells would be the world’s biggest fan of Jon Agee’s It’s Only Stanley.  But heck, Jules Verne would be a member of the picture book’s fan club too.  It isn’t too far off the mark either that romantics would be touting its virtues as well.  Right down to the Victorian mansion, where some perverse nocturnal activities are played out, this is a book with nineteenth-century sensibilities despite the modern era familial trappings.  The Wimbleton family are obviously intimidated by their ever-resourceful beagle, a handy man extraordinaire whose scientific and mechanical tinkerings are perfectly attuned to his comprehensive brand of home maintenance.  The family’s patriarch never becomes unhinged at Stanley’s increasingly alarming activities, setting them aside matter-of-factly with the repeated titular utterance.  The Wimbletons are not deep thinkers, though aside from Dad they all would very much appreciate a good night’s sleep, even if it gives clearance to a defining event in space travel.  No they aren’t quite in a league with James Marshall’s The Stupids but they won’t be earning any points for attentiveness.

Agee’s pleasing non-conformity with the story’s launching is a single drawing before the title page where Stanley hears a “Howoooooo” from the sky while sleeping on the porch.  He deciphers the actual location of the wail on the title page, and on the next panel we see Mom and Pa Wimbleton in bed reacting to Wilma’s swearing that she heard a spooky sound.  Walter and the family feline spot Stanley howling back to the moon. outside the house, and Dad reports back to the family that there is nothing to get unhinged about.  But before long there is another even louder disturbance and Agee frames it like he does throughout in fabulous rhyme scheme: (more…)

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if you plant a seed

by Sam Juliano

The last time a picture book ventured into the territory of planting seeds of selfishness, the book’s author and illustrator Janet Stevens employed the theme as part of a story about chronic laziness warranting the worst kind of greedy deception.  The book, Tops and Bottoms won a Caldecott Honor in 1996, and showcased plants and vegetables with abandon, which is also a pictorial ingredient in Kadir Nelson’s sumptuous If You Plant a Seed, a fable set in glorious oils about sharing to earn benefits, a concept never even broached in the Stevens book.  Nelson visualizes the dire results of hording, before our major protagonists, a rabbit and a mouse opt for a far more congenial and rewarding strategy.  The artist is a unique talent in children’s literature in that he is a major artist on several other fronts, and his picture book oil illustrations are relatively rare in a field dominated by watercolor, gauche, collage and mixed media.  Indeed, noted children’s literature scholar Kathleen T. Horning once quipped on a Horn Book comment thread in lamentation of an unrewarded book by the artist that “he will just have to content himself with painting the Sistine Chapel.”  To be sure, Nelson’s work defies the most extravagant superlatives, and I have frankly run out of such phrases myself.  He has won two Caldecott Honors (for Moses and Henry’s Freedom Box), but his output includes many other beautiful works of distinction.  He has done the art for New Yorker covers and classic novels, as well as for galleries and exhibitions. (more…)

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Boats-for-Papa

by Sam Juliano

Boats for Papa is one of the year’s most wrenching picture books, and is one of the year’s most pictorially beautiful.  The fact that it was written and illustrated by a first timer is pretty astounding, but in the annals of children’s literature this is cause for celebration.  Two years ago Aaron Becker broke into the ranks with the magnificent Caldecott Medal winning Journey, and just this year we were treated to The Bear Ate Your Sandwich, the maiden effort by Julia Sarcone-Roach, but this field is normally dominated by artists well beyond their initial engagement.  Jessixa Bagley’s book is about love, loss and the inspiration to create, and during the telling of this marvelously spare story these themes intermingle to reach a common understanding that ultimately achieves a state of grace.  Prior reviewers have argued whether the book will resonate more with adults or children, but having shown the book to a number of fellow teachers and friends, and having read it to five first grade classes I can vouch for its effectiveness with both groups.  The kids are regularly taken by the young beaver’s resourcefulness, while adults will find it difficult not to tear up at the book’s denouement, when the truth is unveiled accidentally.

Spare storytelling is wed to soft pastel-like watercolor tapestries, a perfect artistic choice for a story set near the sea.  The beaver Buckley lives in a small wooden house off the beach (one of two first-class picture books that share the same setting, with the other In a Village by the Sea set in the Far East and featuring humans) with his mother. What they have by way of furnishings is scant, but Buckley pointedly notes they have each other, announcing immediately this is a drama about relationships.  After  mother and child walk towards their house on the sand we see the cut in panel showing the wooden floor and walls with a simple furnace/stove a window with held curtains, wall pictures, table and sink.  Buckley spends his time looking for things at the beach, and what is noticeable in the first double page spread are broken tree branches in abundance.  The term “busy as a beaver” couldn’t be more apt, as Buckley works with hands meticulously, constructing boats out of all the driftwood he can handle. (more…)

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45 years

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rambling in masterful British drama “45 Years.”

The-Revenant-Movie-2016-DiCaprio

Leonardo Di Caprio in raw and powerful “The Revenant”

by Sam Juliano

The annual lamentation that the holiday season has come and gone so quickly has again come to pass, as we are now four days into the New Year.  In the metropolitan area the temperature has dropped, but no precipitation of any kind.  This has been one of the mildest winters on record, but we do have a long way to go for sure.

Between late year movie viewings and a demanding Caldecott Medal Contender series, I have been spoken for, but at least all our outings have been with the entire family.  I would like to once again thank all those who have made the Caldecott series such a rousing success both at WitD and on social media, where the reviews have been shared by enthusiastic authors and illustrators.  I especially would like to thank Laurie Buchanan, Valerie Clark and Patricia Hamilton for their tireless promotion on FB, and to those who have regularly placed comments.  I will site everyone when the series completes this coming Sunday.  The awards will be announced Monday morning, January 11th. (more…)

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GrowingUpPedro640

by Sam Juliano

They beat me.  They’re that good right now.  They’re that hot.  I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my Daddy.           -Pedro Martinez

As a fervent lifetime Yankees fan who plied my craft as a premium cheerleader from the late 60’s till the time Pedro Martinez finished his career with the hated Bosox circa 2003, (I am still a good enough fan today) I remember the ace pitcher for two reasons especially.  Mind you there is plenty to remember this newly minted Hall of Famer by: 3 time winner of the coveted Cy Young award, a World Series ring from 2003, where he won the third game, and the highest winning percentage of any 200 game winner in the modern era, post 1898.  Alas, as is the case with most who seem to remember the dysfunctional moments best, it was Pedro’s actions during the third game of the American League championship series against the Yankees that have stayed with me.  During a dugout clearing melee involving both teams, elderly Yankees skipper Don Zimmer charged Pedro, but found himself thrown to the ground with very little effort.  Naturally, the newspapers had a ball over the incident for weeks afterwards.  Then years later in 2009 when Martinez had signed as a Philadelphia Phillies hurler, he found himself again facing the Yankees in the 2009 World Series.  Seasoned Bronx rooters hadn’t forgotten Pedro’s famed patriarchal homage, and they mercilessly chided him from the stands with derisive chants of “Who’s Your Daddy?”  Gotham newspapers such as the Post and the Daily News joined in the fun splashing those words as banner headlines of the sports section, and Martinez himself found himself again in the reporters’ spotlight.  Yet there is really so much more to the Pedro Martinez story, and in a gorgeously illustrated picture book, Growing Up Pedro, master craftsman Matt Tavaras, who also penned the stirring prose, goes back to the star pitcher’s humble beginnings in the Dominican Republic, chronicling along the way the special relationship Pedro shared with his older brother Ramon, a star pitcher in his own right.  As many fans of the national pastime are well aware, the country, part of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola shared with Haiti, has produced many great players over the years, including the likes of Juan Marichal, Many Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Robinson Cano, Pedro Guerrero and “Big Papi” David Ortiz.

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Finding winnie 1

by Sam Juliano

Similar statues stand in Winnipeg, Canada and in London, England, depicting a World War I soldier named Harry Colebourn holding hands with a bear cub.  Though a seemingly innocuous memorial of wartime camaraderie between a man and animal, these physical homages are iconic in scope and significance, representing as they do the real-life inspiration for one of children literature’s most beloved characters.  Lindsay Mattick and Sophie Blackall’s Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear is a kind of story-within-a-story-within-a-story, but for Winnie the Pooh fans it is a historical godsend, with none other than a descendant of Colebourn penning the story of how a Canadian serviceman found a bear and of the narrative circumstances that led to its taking up residence in the London Zoo, where it became the real-life model for a fictional character extraordinaire. Mattick tells the story as someone who is a kindred spirit with this material, using the original story of Harry as a device to amuse and enrich the life of her own son, while tying together the various humanist strands that have made the Winnie-the-Pooh story so endlessly captivating.  Malick’s storytelling skills are considerable, and she uses dialogue effectively to bridge together the past and present.  One can’t help but be stirred by this kind of Fern and Wilbur relationship, though much like E. B. White’s masterpiece there is an eventual realization that a final home is dictated by what’s best for the new tenant.  For those who are familiar with the story there are some marvelous details to relish, for those in the dark, this is really quite the treat. (more…)

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