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Archive for January, 2020

by Sam Juliano

No mode of transportation offers its riders more intimacy than the motorcycle.  None offers as much exhilaration, which in some cases rivals breathlessly zooming downward on a roller coaster, and none puts its riders on more dangerous bearings.  Helmets provide vital protection, but invariably it is the skill of navigation demonstrated by the cyclist that will always determine the best odds for safe riding and traditionally the single passenger’s two handed grip around the driver’s waist that serves as a kind of seat belt, guarding against sudden jolts like a pothole that could throw the passenger off the vehicle.  Motorcycles figure prominently in numerous classics of the American cinema like the celebrated Buster Keaton silent Sherlock Jr.,  as well as later films starring Marlon Brando and Peter Fonda, but have have taken center stage road films like the 2004 biopic The Motorcycle Diaries.  In the touching Brazilian Hoje eu Quero Voltar Sozinho (The Way He Looks) a blind teenager experiences an awakening as he holds tight to his boyfriend Gabriel riding around town on the latter’s motorcycle.  Barbara McClintock’s wondrous 2019 picture book Vroom!, an exploration of the motorcycle as a vehicular gateway to the world documents this experience from a solo perspective.  A second children’s book featuring a high-powered scooter, My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero and Zeke Pena relates the experience as interactive, with a girl growing up who finds affection, dedication and practical knowledge by riding with and serving as a helper to her Dad.  Quintero, in an afterward relates that the book is largely autobiographical and that it evokes in setting the city of Corona in southern California.  In fact Quintero declares that her book is an affectionate homage to that city and to her Dad who nurtured her experiences in a place very dear to her heart.  To this writer there are some thematic and stylistic similarities to All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle and Mike Currato, even the trim’s shape and trim size- but to be sure there are more differences than there are points of comparison. (more…)

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 © 2020 by James Clark

         I seldom remark upon the actors in the films I touch upon. Of course, many of them are geniuses in striking the tones to propel a cinematic vehicle. My interest, however, is the entirety of the work; and that is the domain of a screenwriter/ filmmaker.

Why I cite the actor, August Diehl, a protagonist in the truly majestic film here, namely, A Hidden Life (2019), is his resemblance to long-departed star, Henry Fonda, and specifically the Henry Fonda of the film, Twelve Angry Men (1957), directed by journeyman, middle-of-the-road, Sidney Lumet. That latter melodrama is light-years distant from Terrence Malick’s production of uncanny hiddenness; but they share the format of a solitary investigation daring to negate a fondness that is catastrophically wrong. The film today, however, casts Diehl not merely casting umbrage about the Nazism of Adolph Hitler, but (only feebly understood), all of world history. That a hidden life transcending the news could obtain here characterizes this film as a communication far from moralistic and sentimental dogma. (Fonda, bucking  relatively simple odds, wins over the hearts and minds of his fellow jurymen-detractors. Diehl, far from eliciting expertise in face of his challenge, tears apart not only himself, but his family and an encouraging cosmos.)

Before he became a filmmaker, Malick, as a young philosophical academic, had impressively attempted to deal with the disarray which was the edifice of the philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). In his, “Translator’s Introduction,” to the Heidegger essay, The Essence of Reasons (1969), Malick underlines the peculiar difficulty of the sense of “world.” In the text therewith, Heidegger comes to a showdown of sorts with the phrasing, “The decisive origins of ancient philosophy reveal something essential to the concept of world. Kosmos does not mean any particular being that might come to our attention, nor the sum of all beings; instead, it means something like “condition” or “state of affairs,” i.e., the How in which being is in its totality. Thus, Kosmos houtos does not designate one realm of being to the exclusion of another, but rather one world of being in contrast to a different world of the same being, eon (being) itself kata kosmon (in relation to the cosmos). The world as this “How in its totality” underlies every possible way of segmenting being; segmenting being does not destroy the world but requires it.” (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

A catalyst of an entire culture and the symbol of the indomitable spirit of indigenous Americans is a food item so basic that it seemingly can offer nothing more than sustenance, yet as posed by author Kevin Maillard in the all-encompassing Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story the culinary side of what turns out to be a cosmic proposition is more emblematic than elemental.  Maillard’s comrade-in-arms in this melting pot of the cultural, sociological and astronomical is the exceedingly gifted Peruvian-American, Juana Martinez-Neal, who just last year won a Caldecott Honor for her sublime illustrations in Alma and How She Got Her Name, a loving chronicle of familial connection, spurred by curiosity, but leading to an understanding of the past and the people who molded their children, grandchildren and nieces.  Fry Bread likewise showcases the family as from which all else emanates and for which everything owes its incubation to, but it brings the entire experience of life to bear on what taken at face value is the most embryonic activity for a family unit.

Fry Bread is Food.  A quintet of spirited children on a mission dance their way over to a family matriarch recalling the selfless grandma in last year’s award-winning Thank You Omu! who holds an ornate bowl and a toddler sucking on a serving spoon.  Like the small-town denizens in Marcia Brown’s Caldecott Honor winning Stone Soup they are decidedly proud their sponsored ingredient will play a vital role in the day’s big culinary event.  Never before has flour, salt, yeast corn meal and sugar taken on such an epic role in the scheme of things or so it might seem to this feisty clan.   Martinez-Neal’s maiden double page canvas in Fry Bread like all that follow is etched in rich, colorful acrylic and graphite that burst off the page with the major complicity of cream-colored hand-textured paper that is a delight to the fingers.  Fry Bread is Shape.  A baking bonanza that would surely delight King Bidgood in the Caldecott Honor winning book examining that incorrigible monarch’s excessive propensities, makes a persuasive case for “shape” as an integral essence of any immersion into the baking process.  Martinez-Neal’s vision is an irresistible work-in-progress, a contention enforced by the curly haired Nana to whom Maillard connects by comparing the concoction’s “puffiness” to her “softest pillow.”  Fry Bread is Sound.  Like the crackling of eggs (Classic television fans may recall the Our Gang episode when Stymie tells his friends that eggs can “talk” while being fried) there are “pops” as the bubbles sizzle after the dough is dropped in the pan zeppole-style to the three intoxicated young attendants it is music to their ears. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

When reference librarians generally unfamiliar with the new releases in the children’s literature section are asked about a book named Truman they either ponder scanning all the books about our 33rd president or in a more scene-specific sense eye a popular biography with the same title written by David McCullough.  Indeed some of the brightest children from the third grade and upwards might also conclude that a book with such a title can only be about “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” and that it best be found on the biography shelves.  Alas, the subject of this kid-lit revisionism isn’t about a Chief Executive at all but about a donut-sized tortoise accustomed to a birds-eye view of the street below from its third floor window vantage point,  one who is hopelessly smitten with a Fern Arable-like young girl named Sarah who provides him with security, attention and love.  And yet this juvenile story about mutual adoration, written by Jean Reidy and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins has proven itself in just a little over six months as a durable library loan title and a classroom favorite.  For elementary school readers whose contact with the world is often through the books they encounter, the central theme in Truman is every bit as meaningful as any work exhibiting intellectual scholarship.

The two women responsible for this charming picture book surely conform to the overused idiomatic expression “a match made in heaven.”  Reidy, acute to her intended audience employs word economy in seamlessly flowing and descriptive terms and her artist Cummins responds with astonishing gauche, charcoal and colored pencil, digitally negotiated art that isn’t only beautiful to look at but for both kids and adults is wholly endearing.  From an irresistible dust jacket cover featuring the story’s human protagonist lying on a rug cuddling up to her adored pet, through turtle-shell brown-green end-papers that are sustained on the frontispiece before yielding to a center stage pink-icing donut aside Truman readers are whisked off into an adventure that may intimate more than it executes, yet within the claustrophobic confines of a city apartment there is Toy Story-like wonderment and genuine emotional investment in a terrapin that took little time in capturing the hearts of the reader from the very moment he was described as sweet as as the donut he munched on.  On a thoroughfare that recalls the titular scene in the Caldecott Honor winning Last Stop on Market Street, Truman is perched in a glass tank overlooking some measure of vehicular madness, described by Reidy as “honking taxis and growling trash trucks and shrieking cars.  A special mention is made of the No. 11 bus, whose run heads southward.  Cummins’ deft incorporation of color in the minimalist background outlines splendidly creates atmosphere, which is immediately contrasted by a close-up of Sarah with Truman at her side engaging in a coloring session.  Reidy relates that the sedate tortoise, much like his master wasn’t into bombast of any kind, much preferring the soulful interaction possible only indoors. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!   -Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963

One of the most moving and sublime biographical children’s books was released in 2001.  Written by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by the multi-award winner Bryan Collier the work, Martin’s Big Words, inspired the book community at large and had many calling on the American Library Association to anoint it with the most prestigious medal a picture book could receive:  the Caldecott Medal.  In what this writer thought was a careless decision by the normally competent librarians that year, the gold medal was handed over to David Wiesner an extraordinary talented author-artist who holds a record-tying three Caldecott Medals to his name and just as many honors.  But his win that year for the The Three Pigs, the rather discordant sequel to his award winning Tuesday left more than a few librarians and teachers shaking their heads.  Sure the Rappaport-Collier collaboration still won an Honor, but there are multiple reasons it should have been the other way around, not the least of which that few biographical works resonated with such a fusion of soaring lyrical prose and frame-worthy art from one of the best in the business.   In any event, the catalog of worthy primary and middle school books on King is exceptional, and this past year an entry by Barry Wittenstein and six-time Caldecott Medal and Honor winning legend Jerry Pinkney has risen to the top-tier with a profound investigation into the famous speech that moved the proverbial mountains and set off a chain of events -some tragic, some revamping a system maligned by long-held bias and hatred – that permanently altered the sociological and political landscape.

A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation is a scene-specific account of the advent of one of the most famous speeches in American history.  The cornerstone of any study of how oratory rallied a cause and by expansion a nation scarred by violence and bloodshed, King’s most emblematic and beloved rhetorical missive was the result of huddling at the Willard Hotel the night before the 1963 March on Washington.  The “I Have a Dream” oration wasn’t like Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” quickly scribbled down on a napkin with only the eventual speaker as the sole author, but a veritable melting pot of opinions, largely from ministers but also of public figures and those Wittenstein powerfully evokes via “their faces forever seared into his (King’s) memory.”  The speech that follows the soulful deliberation and some well-timed coaxing at the podium by a Gospel singer is wholly electrifying, and reliant not only on the profound content but also on measured delivery, rhetorical emphasis and vocal reverberation from the audience to rival Mark Antony’s famous “I come to bury Caesar” monologue in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, though devoid of manipulation.  To be sure the crafting of the speech was subject to painstaking revisions lasting through the night and even then a reluctance on the part of King to put on any kind of final seal of approval without further tweaking. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Lucille and I will be driving down to Philadelphia early Sunday morning to spend a full day at the American Library Association’s annual mid-winter event where the Newbery and Caldecott winners will be officially announced bright and early on Monday the 27th.  We are not quite sure we will stay over for that announcement (we are currently 50-50 on that proposition) but we will avail ourselves on Sunday for many hours the various teacher’s exhibits in the vast convention hall where the event is being staged.  In all the years I have been involved in the children’s book awards including the long run of the Caldecott series here at WitD, I’ve never attended this celebrated event, so I am certainly excited.  I am also thrilled at the amazing response from the book community at large to this year’s series, especially since it is shorter than previous years because of the sadness and some health procedures to my family we’ve endured over the past months which necessitated my pullback.  Yet, the numbers at the site have been higher than any previous year, with this week’s review of Going Down Home with Daddy accumulating an astounding 700 plus page views, which hearkens back to the old days at the site.  Other reviews have done extremely well on that front as well (Vamos, When Aidan Became My Brother, etc.) but it has been a very long time since the site has seen that high a number for a single post.  The FB sharing by the authors and artists has never been as impassioned and again the number there is well higher than any other year.  I’d like to thank Jim Clark, Ricky Chinigo, Kimbrak, Karen R., John Grant, Frank Gallo,  Peter M., Celeste Fenster, Wendy W., Tim McCoy and others for their remarkable support and insights.  The series is not yet over as I expect at least four more essays before Sunday, maybe one or two more than that even.

The Producer’s Guild close 1917 as best picture of the year this past week and last night in a modest surprise the Korean film Parasite copped the Screen Actor’s Guild ensemble award.  Many theories as to who or what will win have now been dashed sending some confident soothsayers back to the drawing board.  This coming Saturday’s Director’s Guild will seemingly clarify thing s a bit more.  Most are saying that Sam Mendes (1917) will win, with Bong Ho (Parasite) a real possibility as well. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Mexican culture is given the ultimate whirlwind tour in one of the liveliest graphic children’s books ever published, Vamos! Let’s Go to Market by Raul the Third, a work that also has the distinction in the opinion of this writer as being the finest example of Spanish and English language interaction yet attempted in the form.  The fact that this frenetic, vivid and immersive experience is wholly successful to that end is a tribute this distinguished author-artist’s dedication to cross-cultural education in the service of one of the most entertaining rides conceivable for the younger set.  The special bonus of course is that adult readers and teachers have been privy to the fun, with the special joy and challenge of reciting the Spanish terms and dialogue with the notable assistance of a partial glossary on the last page which highlights a slew of translations.  It is hard to imagine a more festive place than the locations explored in Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market!, which makes the early 1900’s Mulberry Street in Little Italy seem like a sparsely inhabited urban hamlet by comparison.  The author-artist, whose real name is Raul Gonzalez, is Boston-based and has scored a Pura-Belpre win.  He is fondly known as the illustrator of the utterly delightful “Lowriders” series authored by Cathy Camper.  Vamos confirms the proverbial expression that “there is something for everyone” in a book with carnival atmosphere, frenzied movement and a glorious investigation of the carnal, the performing arts and and the diversity of marketplace in the most sensory of terms.

After end papers graphically launch Vamos with a myriad of arrows a rooster (el gallo)   “announces the book’s title” as he simultaneously does what all roosters do at the break of dawn.  An anthropomorphic wolf leads the charge to set the day rolling as his dog, Bernabe (perro) woofs (Guau!) feast on huevos rancheros con tortillas de maiz, depart their home (mi casa).  Their destination is the market (mercado), and before embarking the duo must stock their wagon at the warehouse where he checks his list, which includes (with their Spanish equivalents) shoe polish, clothespins, wood, tissue paper, paint brushes, and laces.  Then in one of the book’s most irresistible tapestries (eat ya heart out, Chuck Jones!) this most intrepid wolf heads off passing through a short desert track as he thanks the gallo who retorts no thanks you is necessary as the wake up is his job in a playful nod to the bird’s exclusive claim to fame.  The first stop is a crowded street in front of a barber shop and movie marquee sporting the name of the theater, the “Bunuel” which for older readers and mentors is a tribute to one of the world’s greatest directors, the Spanish satirist Luis Bunuel, who made a few great films in Mexico including the sordid and despairing masterpiece Los Olvidados.  Gonzalez accentuates this cinematic homage by showcasing a poster “Un Perro Andaluz” which is a send-up on the director’s famed 1929 silent surrealist short Un Chien Andalou  (An Andalusian Dog). There is also a passing truck that advertises “Bunuelos” a thin, round, fried pastry, often dusted with cinnamon sugar, which is actively being unloaded  to buyers.  Gonzalez includes clues to future canvases by having a Toro riding on a motorcycle and a newspaper seller holding up a headline that announces “El Toro loses mask!.”  But theater patrons are served refreshments on the outdoor promenade, a skateboarder weaves his way through the traffic, a window washer services a taxi, and in general, much like the bustling cities people are heading off in their own direction. (more…)

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