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Archive for January, 2020

By J.D. Lafrance

“Don’t keep anything in your life you’re not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” – Neil McCauley

“All I am is what I’m going after.” – Vincent Hanna

For his entire career Michael Mann has been obsessed with cops and criminals and the place where their lives intersect. He began to explore it in earnest with Thief (1981) by putting an emphasis on the criminal element. With Manhunter (1986), he shifted the focus to the law enforcement side. Fifteen years in the making, Heat (1996) was an epic culmination of his fascination with both sides of the law. In some respects, the film took the obsessive profiler from Manhunter and put him up against the no-nonsense expert safecracker from Thief while also examining how their cat and mouse game, through the streets of Los Angeles, affected those around them.

Mann parlayed the commercial and critical success of The Last of the Mohicans (1992) to cast two of the most well-respected American actors – Robert De Niro and Al Pacino – as the crook and the cop respectively, ramping up anticipation as it would be the first time these acting heavyweights would to appear together on-screen. They did not disappoint, delivering iconic performances as two driven men at the pinnacle of their professions, respecting each other’s skill but also acutely aware that if it came down to it one of them would probably die at the hands of the other.

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by Sam Juliano

The Caldecott Medal winners as well as the Newberys and all the other Youth Media Awards were announced this morning at the convention center in Philadelphia.  Lucille and I traveled down Sunday morning to meet up with friends and to spend time checking out the exhibits.  We ended up at the Hard Rock Cafe to break bread with Brian Wilson and Lee Price.  We left late last night, opting not to remain for the announcements, but were still thrilled to attend for the one day.  “The Undefeated” by Kwayme Alexander with illustrations by Kadir Nelson won the Caldecott Medal. The three (3) honor books are: “Bear Came Along” by Richard Morris and LeUyen Pham; “Double Bass Blues” by Andrea Loney and Rudy Gutierrez and “Going Down Home with Daddy” by Kelly Starling Lyons and Daniel Minter. (All are absolute masterpieces!!) Only the Gutierrez book failed to receive coverage in my series.  I want to thank all who contributed to the series.  It was by way of social media sponsorship, site page views and comments the most successful of any previous year.  Thank you Jim and Valerie Clark, Ricky Chinigo, Duane Porter, John Grant, Brian Wilson, Wendell Minor, Florence Minor, Raul Colon, Tim McCoy, Frank Gallo, Celeste Fenster, kimbrac, Eric and Terry Fan, Raul Gonzalez, Barry Wittenstein, Peter Marose, Jack Marsh, Frank Aida, Leon Duncon,  Jamiepeeps, Wendy Wahmann, Fiona Robinson, Andtrew Hunt, Ed Spicer, Barbara McClintock, Daniel Minter, Kelly Starling Lyons, Susan Fabricant Hess, and so many others for your support either on social media or at the site, or in both capacities.

Late Saturday night the Director’s Guild (DGA) handed Sam Mendes Best Director for the enthralling WW1 drama 1917 After winning the PGA it is clearly now the film to beat for the Best Picture Oscar. Not remotely rock solid (Parasite is still very much in the game because of SAG) but nonetheless now seen as the favorite. I’ve repeatedly voiced my fondness for the film, counting it as my absolute favorite of all the nominees in any categories, so of course I applaud this development! (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

In the elegiac A House That Once Was, a 2018 picture book by Julie Fogliano with illustrations by Lane Smith, a derelict house is a monument to memories.  The ghostly cabin in the deep woods seems well past the point of architectural resuscitation, and continues to exist in a kind of spectral sphere as a shrine to times well lived.  A similarly dilapidated shack encased in tar paper and nearly to the point of no return is brought back to life when a big and impoverished Depression-era family perform their own effective method of CPR by employing handyman ethics in the sumptuous Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler, an arresting story of grit and fortitude set in the Minnesota woods based on the true to life hardships of her grandmother’s family. Wheeler’s book, a love letter to her Nan, the fifth oldest in a family of eight, is a work of astounding craftsmanship in every aspect of its construction.  The painterly dust jacket, bathed in gorgeous yellow, green and turquoise in its evocation of the titular structure, establishes setting in the most pictorially resplendent of terms.  The inside cover, a replication of the text’s winter tapestry and a work of art unto itself, depicts two members of the family heading out to find food may inspire adult readers to recite The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep and miles to go before I sleep.  An annotated map of the family’s rural woodland hamlet appears on the end papers and their own shack lies near a swamp, with only deer paths falling between.  The title page, like the dust cover sports jumbo-font black India ink letters and a miniature facsimile of the most-unlikely of homes for nine people. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

A domino effect plays out in the narratives of three Caldecott Medal winners, One Fine Day by Nonny Hagrogian , Finders Keepers by William Lipkind and Nicolas Mordinoff, and Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema and Leo and Diane Dillon depicts the insect and animal world fielding questions from one chronic questioner.  A fox repeatedly asks for a favor so that his tail can be sewn back on after he absconds with a pail of a pail of milk; two canines try to solve the question about the rightful owner of bone by asking others and a small insect instigates a panic that is sustained as creature after creature is approached to reach the truth in varying conceits. In Deborah Freedman’s similarly cumulative  Carl and the Meaning of Life a field mouse innocuously queries the titular earthworm for his seemingly bizarre underground propensities, setting off a chain of events where the scheme of things is adversely affected after this inveterate truth seeker suspends his indispensable elemental role to investigate its significance.  Soon enough after Carl goes interrogative he finds that also his prospective respondents are busy supporting their own families or keeping up the own end of the bargain to help keep the world ecologically sound.  After trial and tribulation the now nomadic earthworm encounters a bereaved beetle who through its own manner of deprivation provides the long-elusive answer that sends its enlightened mercenary to again function profoundly so the world can maintain its equilibrium. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Prior to the release of Brendan Wenzel’s A Stone Sat Still, the last time a stone served as a metaphorical witness to changes in weather and the passage of time without the ability to impact the world around it occurred in the beloved Caldecott winning Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig.  Of course that stone, referred to in that acclaimed text as a rock, was the creation of supernatural forces summoned up by a wish and when the transference took place from life-force to boulder as a result of consternation fueled by the sudden appearance of a lion the Sylvester of the title, an anthropomorphic donkey, was cognizant of everything around it but was unable to act.  Wenzel, the extraordinarily gifted young maestro of several acclaimed picture books, and the winner of the Caldecott Honor a few years ago for the visionary They All Saw A Cat has followed up that picture book masterpiece with what is even a deeper perspective by exploring with documentary-precision the infinite possibilities surrounding a stone’s passage through time and of how practically every aspect of life emanates from the elemental and is part of the scheme of things.   Again mastering the complex pictorial process that brings together mixed media, cut paper, colored pencil, oil pastels and marker with computer negotiation, Wenzel’s art in a children’s level equivalent of Terrence Malick’s cinema with a probing, sometimes introspective prose narration and an existential undercurrent. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

At the time this essay is published the sixteen members of the American Library Association’s 2020 Caldecott committee will be shortly convening in the City of Brotherly Love behind closed doors to deliberate on their final choices for picture book excellence for titles released during the prior calendar year.  In one of most diverse twelve-month periods ever for picture books the task at hand will no doubt be challenging sorting out a stacked deck, but in fear of putting the jink on any prospective decisions there seem to be some prohibitive theories as to how the chips may fall even if this particular award over the past decade has been almost impossible to successfully call, mainly because art is subjective.  Yet this writer hereby concludes that one title released way back in the first quarter is poised to be anointed in the Caldecott winner’s circle with only the particular designation still outstanding:  will it be gold or silver?  Written by Richard T. Morris and illustrated by veteran artist LeUyen Pham the object inspiring supreme confidence is a sensory joy ride titled Bear Came Along.  A scene-specific celebration of nature in the wild that evokes among other mirthful experiences an amusement park excursion on the log flume Bear is exuberance incarnate, a no-holds-barred immersion that invariably has coaxed reviewers to head off to their dictionaries for words like “ebullient,” “effervescent,” “high-spirited,” “happy-go-lucky” and “irrepressible” among others.  This has hardly represented the maiden instance of wanton merriment on the pages of a picture book (Lane Smith’s A Perfect Day most recently brought to bear gleeful anarchy in a picture book equation) but in this miraculously orchestrated work a unique proposition is posed, that an object of nature is only aware of its role in the scheme of things because of interaction, which in Bear is negotiated via domino effect.  By the time the party is over young readers will be hastily getting back in line for an adventurous encore. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.     -Phyllis Wheately

Noted children’s literature historian Kathleen T. Horning once quipped at an online comment thread  that her great disappointment over the artist Kadir Nelson not winning the Caldecott Medal leads her to conclude 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 actually 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.  His astounding oil paintings are again being passionately discussed as a serious contender for the Caldecott Medal, which will be announced in Philadelphia on Monday, January 27th.  His resplendent jumbo tapestries in the service of concise and powerful prose from acclaimed author Kwayme Alexander in the electrifying picture book The Undefeated, an ode to black America that is alternately triumphant and mournful, minimalist and baroque, physical and spiritual.  In evoking the recently deceased Maya Angelou in a stirring afterward Alexander makes direct reference to his book’s title when he asserts “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.  It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are.  So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knock down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose.”  Alexander’s largely metaphorical language is predicated on the prefix “not” by manner of starting each defining work with un.  There is inherent pride and defiance in employing such a device and it serves as the rhetorical springboard that is best served by recitation, though larger fonts will also hit home privately with resonating force. (more…)

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