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Archive for January, 2020

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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by Sam Juliano

In last year’s phantasmagorical picture book Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love the author-artist spoke compellingly for the acceptance of diversity in our culture and the common understanding that children may be governed by inward hankerings, which in turn will lead to a freedom of expression, one that shouldn’t be judged and ridiculed.  The titular character is a daring and imaginative boy who is hellbent on beating to his own drum.  He recalls the protagonist in the 2014 release Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchio and Isabelle Malenfant, which features a little boy with comparable verve and commitment. Morris loves wearing the tangerine dress in his classroom’s dress-up center.  Some will conclude Julian is effeminate while others will liken his flight of fancy as an acute desire to be perceived a someone other than himself.  The 1999 Disney Channel Original Movie The Thirteenth Year presents Cody Griffin, a boy adopted by a mermaid mother, who finds himself undergoing a metamorphosis. A transgender man, Kyle Lukoff authored When Aidan Became a Brother in 2019, and this colorful bonanza of a picture book forges a blissful wedding between acceptance and love and finally a repudiation of suppression as one find’s their true self.

Lukoff’s accomplice in this soulful and effervescent story is the exceptionally talented Kaylani Juanita  whose digitally negotiated pastel coloring usher in gender depictions with sensitivity and warmth from the cover where Aidan, sporting a rainbow shirt to the final tapestry when the family celebrates their new arrival in a backyard party.  There is a carnival aspect to the book, what with streamers, strings of lights, clothes and flowers and plants in abundant display.  In bringing the author’s vision of recognition and consent that rightly aims to eliminate any lingering bias against those who discover they are living in the wrong body When Aidan Became a Brother moves forward with confidence and certainty, never once in its thirty pages expressing the slightest notion of regret or dysfunction, never  intimating that Aidan is different from his peers, never exhibiting anything but the unwavering support of parents who understand and love their child unreservedly, and indeed profess no preference of gender.  I’d go as far as to say that When Aidan Became a Brother, devoid of even a trace of pathos, fosters familial love as the great equalizer in situation where being different is seen as some sort of obstacle more resonantly that any picture on the subject that has preceded it.  The fact that Lukoff who in an afterward asserts “When I was born, everyone thought I was a girl” himself in the text never stops to turn around, only acknowledging that Aidan himself after his revelation understands what it means not to belong.  In the end the author emphasizes that transgender children are really no different than those who stay with the gender they were born into. (more…)

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Cutter’s Way

by J.D. Lafrance

One rainy night Richard Bone’s (Jeff Bridges) car breaks down in an alleyway. He spots a large, mysterious car in the distance. A man dumps something into a garbage can. At first, Bone thinks nothing of it and proceeds to meet his best friend, Alex Cutter (John Heard) at a nearby bar. Cutter, a Vietnam veteran who lost an eye, arm, and leg in the war, is an embittered shell of a man who lacks direction in his life. Bone is also stuck in a rut, selling boats for a mutual friend and hustling rich, beautiful women. He often stays at Cutter’s house and is attracted to his friend’s long suffering wife, Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). Insulating herself from a mundane existence with marijuana and alcohol, she is the only woman to have resisted Bone’s charms.

The next day, a young girl is found brutally murdered in the same alleyway where Bone abandoned his car. He becomes a suspect. When Bone spots the man he thinks is the murderer in a parade later that day – the very wealthy local tycoon J.J. Court (Stephen Elliot) – Cutter begins to take an interest in the mystery that unfolds. His interest soon becomes an obsessive conspiracy theory that develops into a troublesome investigation with his skeptical friend and the dead girl’s sister (Ann Dusenberry) along for the ride. Welcome to the world of Cutter’s Way (1981).

(more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The Academy Award nominations were announced this morning and for the most part they were in accord with all the predictors.  A few mild surprises like the unfortunate omission of Great Gerwig for Best director and the absence of Taron Egerton in the Best Actor lineup.  Personally I didn’t think Egerton deserves a nomination.  In any case the discussions are underway on social media and I have my own post which I will copy here:

Some initial observations on Oscar nomination announcement:

1. Joker leads with 11 nominations (I won’t even go there!)
2. 1917 nabs 10 (thrilled!)
3. Taron Egerton left off Actor (surprised but the right choice)
4. Little Woman gets Picture, Ronan, Pugh, music and script! (Yay!!!)
5. Hollywood snubbed for film editing!?!? (Bill Kamberger, what does this mean?)
6. Irishman scores 10 but sadly seems headed for only 1 win.
7. Parasite nabs six nominations (pretty much as predicted)
8. Honeyland score in documentary and international (Wow!!)
9. The Two Popes (Pryce, Hopkins) is obviously well-liked
10. Jo Jo Rabbit director tossed out as expected (But I much preferred Gerwig to Phillips)
11. Bravo on Antonio Banderas’ inclusion!
12. Obviously the lack of any recognition for two of my favorite films of the year (A Hidden Life and Waves) was expected but nonetheless ludicrous.
13. In actress I personally preferred Erivo to Lupito and Awkwafina, so i have no qualms there.

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by Sam Juliano

So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.   -“Mother to Son”, Langston Hughes (1922)

Lush, exquisite and painterly there is no picture book released in 2019 as beautiful as Going Down Home with Daddy, a celebration of family from the extraordinary Daniel Minter.  The artist’s modus operandi is acrylic wash which seems to be an inspired artistic choice for author Kelly Starling Lyon’s dreamy prose for this soulful and sensory impressionist fever dream.  If the sole criteria for winning the Caldecott Medal is pictorial resplendence then Minter should be showered in gold.  However as insiders well know the awards are given for interaction between the art and the words unless the subject is wordless in which case the yardstick is the manner the art replaces the prose.  Yet, this inspired collaboration pushes all the Caldecott buttons while serving as an indelible showcase for Minter’s frame-worthy art which talented students and adults may find too alluring not to revisit for the irresistible visual immersion.  Minter himself scored mightily not once but twice in 2019, with his allegorical and incandescent historical work The Women Who Caught the Babies exhibiting gorgeous paintings that have had many amazed at the inconceivably high level of art possible in today’s children’s literature.

Minter’s rich textures usher in Going Down Home with Daddy with a vivid burnished front cover depiction of four young African-Americans in a scene from the text proper heading over to a farmyard location carrying some creative samples.  Lyons’ reunion morning, when the family packed to leave for a road trip down south compellingly recalls the Caldecott Honor winning collaboration from Cynthia Rylant and Stephen Gamell titled The Relatives Came, which is a festive account of northern state kin taking an annual trip south to immerse with a boisterous clan with similar taste in how to have a good time. At the end of that life-affirming tale the departing family head up with dreams about their next visit, which is achingly paralleled in the Lyons-Minter collaboration.  The artist’s bleeding blue wash represents an introduction to a beloved relative’s favorite color, a scheme sustained in the silhouette-laden car ride depiction which Lyons evocatively describes through the eyes of Lil Alan:  I watch as we drive from city streets to flowing highways under a sweep of sparkling stars.  Minter responds to this nocturnal prose depiction with the bleeding colors of dusk and the close-ups of two of the vehicle’s passengers, one haunted by a perceived failure to share something. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The annual  Caldecott Medal and the runner-up “honor books” have followed a traditional path since their inception in 1937 though there have been tell tale signs that the norm has been slowly expanding to embrace graphic novels, mixed-media application and novel-sized works like The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick) and Bill Peet: An Autobiography, two works that won the Caldecott Medal and Honor respectively, which left the box defying the conventional picture book format.  The committees have shown a marked love for wordless books and even startled the book community when a book with controversial themes, This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki not only broke through the graphic novel embargo but brought attention to subjects long held as taboo in the Caldecott realm.  Yet there is still one barrier to cross.  Though photographic elements have appeared in such books as Smoky Night (which won the Caldecott Medal in 1995) and Knuffle Bunny (which copped a 2005 Honor), and other winners like The Right Word, Radiant Child, Viva Frida and Trombone Shorty contain mixed-media art where photographs are utilized, there has yet to be wholesale recognition for photography as a legitimate form for children’s picture books.  Over the last several years some of the most extraordinary beautiful picture books have showcased this all-too-often underestimated form of artistic expression, one to some that is seemingly devoid of talent or held in low esteem when put alongside work crafted from the hand.

The distinguished author-artist April Pulley Sayre has fostered seasonal appreciation with the camera-made images that compliment her fleeting prose.  Full of Fall for example conveys the depth of that colorful time of year more resonantly than the vast majority of books that replicate that burnished time between summer and winter that is popular with those with a sensory hankering.  And then there is that dynamic duo, Helen Frost and Rick Lieder who continue to expand a transcendent series initiated in 2012 with Step Gently Out and continuing with Sweep Up the Sun, Among a Thousand Fireflies, Wake Up and this past year Hello, I’m Here! which may be arguably the most resplendent collaboration of all between this this most gloriously economical of wordsmiths and the man who has not only redefined the capabilities of the camera but has taken his readers into intimate outdoor places, perhaps even upstaging real-life visitation which is always compromised by the nearly impossible proposition of having the subjects sit in for a photo shoot.  A master of light composition, crystal clarity and “in my living room” images, the photographer’s trenchant close-ups have paved the way for Frost’s indelible poetry gently voiced with sustained anthropomorphism.  In the prior books the focus was species-oriented by in Hello, I’m Here! the sand-hill crane are affectionately given a book of their own.  As a result of this more scene-specific strategy Frost and Lieder make this inspired effort more personal, more pointed, more attuned to the various nuances underling the sustenance of life. (more…)

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