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by Sam Juliano

Ivy at age 9: The universe is expanding.

Doctor in Brooklyn: The universe is expanding?

Alvy at age 9: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!

-Annie Hall (1977)

Though there is little evidence suggesting the expansion of the universe initiated by the Big Bang of 13.7 million years ago will one day cause a final disintegration -there are those to be sure who have hypothesized that expansion will be infinite – there are understanding some who favor the idea that an end will ultimately following a beginning.  In any event the Big Bang theory has now become the prevailing cosmological model for the observable universe, the point of conception of everything we know and imagine, and the model relies on Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  The Big Bang is an event that signifies the birth of the universe when the laws of physics could be ascertained and verified.  Difficult to perceive and for young readers a practically inaccessible advance from nothingness, Newbery Honor winner Marion Dane Bauer applies concise lyricism to to the defining phenomenon of human cognizance in a magisterial picture book titled The Stuff of Stars.  Bauer traces the evolution of man from the time where nothing existed to advent of man, presumably around 200,000 years ago, by stirring the embers of imagination with descriptive language mastery, free of overwrought ostentation.  Against all odds Bauer acutely and powerfully traces billions of years with rhetorical leitmotifs that bring definition and understanding to the most colossal and defining subject of all.

Bauer’s illustrator is the extraordinary Caldecott Honor winner Ekua Holmes, and for once the oft-used expression “a match made in heaven” possesses cosmological heft.  Bauer sets the stage for the birth of existence, with a theological association at the incubation stage devoid of time, space, and configuration, a tabula rasa stage before matter and space have taken shape or form:  In the dark, in the dark, in the deep deep dark, a speck floated, invisible as thought, weighty as God.  There was yet no time, there was no space.  No up, no down, no edge, no center.  In a double page spread that suggests Lars Von Trier’s 2011 Melancholia with its portentous blue light and the closure of immutability in a scenario where end and beginning are blurred.  Holmes gives young readers the opportunity to imagine what a distant white speck might look like hovering over an infinite black hole.  Bauer reinforces this concept of an empty vacuum when nothing we know as real and tangible has taken form.  There is no environment, no living organisms, no people, no tress.  One grounded in religion might convey this as the time before God created the Earth and the heavens.  The Bang! which Bauer denotes as the beginning of the beginning of all beginnings is envisioned by Holmes as a kaleidoscopic web, or an application by an abstract expressionist such as Jackson Pollack.   The time of the band -one trillionth of a second suggests Bauer is seen in yellowed illumination segues into the delineation that a simple cloud of gas which collides, stretches and expands by bumping and accumulation which recalls the phenomenon of the 1958 science-fiction classic The Blob, though the Big Bang ignites star formations throughout the newly-minted universe, a time Bauer tells her readers that still pre-date the formations of planets and living organisms, emphasizing by contrast the minute time window of life in the endless span of time from the implosion to the first one celled organisms millions of years ago.  Hence Bauer tells her young readers without planets there can never be water, rock formations or mammals, as well as the sensory wonderments like “a violet blooming in a shady wood,” “no crickets singing in the night” and indeed no day or night as we know it.  Holmes shows this celestial anarchy as spacious and colorfully incandescent but without the clear lines of demarcation that will later define the formation of the solar system and numerous other galaxies. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

A steady drizzle and overcast sky suffused the late morning hours of Saturday, 17, August, 2013, in the town of Carnforth, part of the northwestern county of Lancashire, England.  The gloomy weather is pretty much normal for that region and that time of year, but somehow it atmospherically accentuated the twenty or so mile trek we embarked on from our home base of Kendal in the county of Cumbria.  Our destination was a seemingly sedate and rustic train depot on the outer fringes of a parish populated by barely five-thousand, and geographically distinguished by hilly terrain and its close proximity to the sea.  The Carnforth Railway Station, which has a history dating back to the mid 1800’s was used as a waylay station for soldiers during both World Wars, and served as a junction on the London, Midland and Scottish railways.  It was refurbished in 1938, and subsequently entered the movie history books after it was chosen as the primary setting for one of the most famous films ever made – David Lean’s timeless classic of repressed emotion – Brief Encounter, which was filmed during the last stage of World War II in early 1945.  The location was chosen by film executives, because it was far enough away from major cities to avert blackouts which were common during the war years.  Said Lean: “the war was still on and the railway people said, ‘there may be an air raid at any moment, and you’ll have time to put out the lights in that remote part up in the north.  We’ll know when the planes are coming.’  We were a blaze of lights from filming.’  More recently renovations were completed to the Brief Encounter refreshment room (the tea room in the film) and the “Heritage Center” that are now places of pilgrimage for the film’s fans.

My recollection of the daytime darkness and the film that made this station famous was again brought into focus the first time I laid eyes upon Robert Burleigh and Wendell Minor’s exquisite  Night Train, Night Train, an atmospheric immersion of the nighttime travel experience, a tone poem which is more attuned to a symphony in music than it is to a story arc in children’s literature.  Burleigh’s concise narrative is presumably set around the mid 30’s during the Depression years as per the car models and billboards, though Minor himself spills the beans in his final note when he talks about the featured Dreyfuss locomotive which he “wonders what it might have been like to rider in the 1930s or 1940s.”  As the actual setting of David Lean’s nocturnal train station romance is on the eve of the Second World War circa late 1938, an adult reader with a vivid memory will probably be able or inclined to connect the dots.  When you add Minor’s mostly-monochrome graphite which magnificently negotiates shadows, lights flash within a celestial perspective it is easy to envision the moody work of cinematographer Robert Krasker who brought dazzling cognizance to this mode of transport in Lean’s poetic work. Of course very young children, who are the target audience won’t discover Lean and Krasker until maybe fifteen years later in their lives but they have Burleigh and Minor to lead the way in replicating the basic tenets of a train ride in all its wonder and excitement.  Book and film lovers will of course think of Chris Van Alsberg’s beloved Caldecott Medal winning The Polar Express, another book set in the blackest night depicting a train ride to the North Pole at Christmastime though children’s literature can boast a number of distinguished books on the subject including Brian Floca’s Caldecott winning Locomotive, The Little Engine That Could by Arnold Munk and Lois Lenski, Train by Elisha Cooper and the Caldecott Honor winning Freight Train by Donald Crews. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The term “Trail of Tears” defines the trek of heartbroken Native Americans to their new homes in the West.  It captures the essence of the removal experience, one wrought with hardship and death for the Cherokee people, who were victimized by the betrayal of the American government, which promised justice, democracy and and rightful land ownership.  The forced relocation was carried out by government authorities following the passage of the “Indian Removal Act” in 1830. The relocated peoples suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while en route to their new designated reserve, and many died before reaching their destinations.   Though the Cherokees were the most profoundly affected by this tragic decree, the Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Ponca, and Ho-Chunk-Winnebago nations were also adversely impacted.  Debut picture book author Traci Sorell explains in a definition afterward that the “Cherokee way of life focuses on a mother-centered culture, from governance to familial relations” and that the the in-transience damaged the family structure which generally was one where children saw maternal relatives as integral to their coming of age.  While it is a fact that older Cherokee boys often trained to become hunters and warriors, and resolved to protect their turf, long held traditions were shattered, leaving familial assimilation a daunting challenge.  Sorell suggests that “many of these ‘lifeways’ were disrupted and many people died because of the removal.”  No discussion of the Cherokee Nation could possibly fail to mention this dark chapter in American History, and Sorell’s heartfelt reference is a stark reminder of what underscores the indomitable spirit of America’s largest Native American population (over 360,000) and the struggles they face in living off natural resources, even with a number living dual lives as Cherokees and as citizens of the United States.  We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga is a celebration of life’s simple purity, wedding traditionalism with modernity, and via a seasonal presentation recalling the Caldecott Honor winning A Child’s Calendar, a poetical work by John Updike, with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman.

At the outset illustrator Frane Lessac depicts a Cherokee family of five and a dog in a Spring setting as a visual transcription for Sorell’s definition of “Otsaliheliga” which is an expression of gratitude and and an opportunity to “celebrate our blessings” while acknowledging the struggles faced by Cherokee Nation on a daily basis and through the four seasons of the year.  “We Are Grateful” bears a perennial Thanksgiving message expanded to embrace the full run of the calendar.  The first double page canvas is an introduction to the autumn season which Sorell titles as “Uligohvsdi-Fall” atime where leaves fall and temperatures drop.  Lessac’s burn-dished tapestry is resplendent and a reminder to those who love the late September to late November time window why no other time of years is quite as sensory, a time Longfellow likened to Brighter than brightest silks of Samarcand,  And stately oxen harnessed to thy wain!  Thou standest, like imperial Charlemagne,  Upon thy bridge of gold; thy royal hand, Outstretched with benedictions o’er the land.  Lessac is a proven master of leaves, and her gouache on Arches paper illustrations, as always gives her scenes a striking three-dimensional look, bringing readers into a cornucopia of brown orange and yellow read during what is surely the most invigorating season of the year.   This is a time as Sorell again reminds her audience that we must always be grateful for what is essentially at time of great aesthetic and meditative uplift.  Lessac’s busy scene shows the family heading down a wooded path in gleeful leaf immersion temporarily curtailing one boy’s raking intentions.  The dark blue sky brings in the nighttime on the following spread, where “shell shakers dance all night around the fire” during the ‘Great New Moon Ceremony.’  The author doesn’t attempt to place the Cherokee in an idyllic light, admitting like any ethnic people they too have domestic quarrels, but will invariably band together to welcome in the Cherokee New Year which is held four days in October in conjunction with an age-old belief that the world was created during the autumn season.  Again Lessac paints a place of colorful occupation, where modern garb blends with traditional dress in a bustling banquet of common purpose.  The darker background emboldens the illustrator’s phantasmagorical tapestry with heightened contrast.  The finale of the autumnal triptych depicts a gathering of buckbrush and honeysuckle to weave baskets that are posed to “remember our ancestors who suffered hardship and loss on the (aforementioned) Trail of Tears.  A proud Cherokee grandmother (elisi) is featured holding the family’s newest member, an infant boy in a sublime wooded hamlet. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Eleanor Estes won a Newbery Honor in 1945 for a deeply poignant work about bullying, immigration, intolerance and forgiveness titled The Hundred Dresses.  The timeless classic, illustrated in striking minimalist watercolors by Louis Slobodkin is as relevant today as ever.  The book’s central character is a young Polish girl, Wanda Petronski, whose odd name, foreign accent and impoverishment make her the object of ridicule to the students in her small town Connecticut classroom.   Maddie, a fellow classmate realizes, too late, that she has been unkind to one of her fellow pupils. Led by Peggy, Maddie’s best friend and the most popular girl in school,  take acute aim at her preposterous mendacious claim that she possess one hundred beautiful dresses, when she wears the same tattered dress to the school everyday.   It is only when Wanda wins the class drawing contest, for her one hundred pictures of various beautiful dresses, that Maddie and Peggy realize what Wanda was talking about.  Though Wanda’s family moves her to the city because of the bad treatment she received, she wins a drawing contest and demonstrates generosity to her tormentors.  The Hundred Dresses suggests that bowing to peer pressure cab lead to profound regret and missed opportunities.  In the 1955 Caldecott Honor winning Crow Boy by Yaro Yashima a young boy is isolated from other children but is taken under the wings of his teacher Mr. Isobe, who brings out Chibi’s creativity and knowledge in their Japanese village schoolhouse.  Numerous other picture books and young adult novels have examined this theme, with a popular new millennium entry The Brand New Kid by Katie Couric and Marjorie Priceman a soulful study of tolerance in the case of a boy evincing physical and behavioral disparities.

A valuable lesson is achieved in one of the most distinguished picture books of 2018, Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse by Marcy Campbell with illustrations by Corrina Luyken.  A boy wearing shoes with holes and securing free lunches at school is seen by his classmates as a teller of tall tales, a modern day counterpart of the perjurer Samantha in Eveline Ness’ 1966 Caldecott Medal winner Sam, Bangs and Moonshine, who declares she owns a pet kangaroo among other deceits.  Adrian waxes lyrical about his proud ownership of a horse, often elaborating in wildly descriptive terms, and quickly rallying to mitigate the feasibility of such a claim.  Yet, Campbell poses that Adrian’s innocuous contentions lead to inventiveness in this veiled tale about the power of the imagination that transcends it’s seeming insurmountable obstacles.  In mostly sedate, autumnal hues master artist Corinna Luyken, whose previous picture book debut The Book of Mistakes won a spate of starred reviews has brought astonishing and controlled resplendence to a minimalist narrative of mutual realization and budding friendship in a terrain where some will never in economic terms have what others do.  Young adult novelist S. E. Hinton would assert Adrian’s type comes from the “other side of the tracks” but Campbell and Luyken know well that inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

A picture paints a thousand words.

In some instances an accomplished poet may only require a few words to evoke an image, while others negotiate greater length and an abundance of detail to paint a convincing picture.  Yet for all the power of language and suggestion, there are occasions where the former, no matter how ornate or grandiloquent can equal the power of the illustration, which only the sense of sight can negotiate, setting the foundation for word corroboration.  There is validity to the old cliche “I must see it with my own eyes to believe it” though when communicative prowess is compromised by language incompatibility the visual image takes on universal significance, setting the bar for storytelling that eschews written interpretation for the unique power of the artist.  In Drawn Together by Minh Lee, with illustrations by Dan Santat, an Americanized grandson and an Asian patriarch find in short order that there is an irreconcilable cultural gap which can’t be bridged by language or interests but can be summarily erased by illustrative creativity.  To that end this assumed octogenarian and grammar school student engage in a shared activity that transports the mind’s eye to fantastical places ensconced in their common heritage.

After a dedication-copyright page where a mother watches her boy head off under a dazzling multicolored title Santat offers up eight rectangular vignettes in wordless mode, chronicling the boy’s chagrined if respectful arrival at Grandpa’s townhouse, a visit that appears to be far more appreciated by the elder, who sports the kind of glowing smile reserved for loved ones.  A cultural divide is introduced at the dinner table, where the erstwhile aficionado of traditional cuisine opts for a noodle dish while the boy’s main course is an American staple, a hot dog and french fries.  Grandpa will use chop sticks, the boy a fork to further differentiate Asian and Western preferences.  The boy’s rhetorical entry point is a line he’s no doubt employed many times in the past, one where his expectations are always the same.  So…what’s new, Grandpa?  The response is indecipherable for the boy, who in all probability has little felicity in the tongue mastered by his elders, so briefly unable to respond to each other the two eat quietly pondering their next move.  Thinking his grandson will connect with Asian sci-fi the two watch from a couch, but soon the boy is bored and requests that the channel be changed.  Grandpa eyes his charge wearily, but stays the course.  The boy rises and walks over to his knapsack under the inquisitive eye of Grandpa who remains briefly unable to figure out what the boy is up to.  The youngster soon draws a boy wizard, which the target readers may equate to a variation on Harry Potter, but the arc of Drawn Together heads off into a wholly original realm.  Finally Grandpa understands the proposal and in no time picks up the gauntlet.  This time it is the boy who is incredulous as Grandpa is more than equipped to respond in kind.  His own mode of transport is a black covered sketch book which he sets beside the boys paper short stack.  Le sets the central mise en scene as an innocuous equivalent of a warrior taking up the challenge of an opponent.  Right when I gave up on talking, my grandfather surprised me by revealing a world beyond words.   (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue is the second part of a critically-praised 1993 trilogy made in France which features acclaimed actress Juliette Bincoche as a woman self-driven into isolation after her husband and child are killed in a car accident.  Like the other films in the melancholic triptych, Blue makes frequent visual allusions to its title: numerous scenes are shot with blue filters and/or blue lighting, and many objects are blue. When Julie thinks about the musical score that she has tried to destroy, blue light overwhelms the screen.   Blue has been often been given poll-position designation as the world’s most popular color, a perceived fact largely because it is the color of the sky and the oceans.  Prime associations with this formally sedate and less conspicuous pigment are intimacy, deep thinking and privacy, though it is vigorously opined that the color is symbolic of loyalty and nostalgia.

Children’s book artists in recent years have lavished much of their pictorial attention to the color, and the result has yielded some sumptuous works.  Isabelle Simler’s French import The Blue Hour, features thirty-two blue colored ovals, each exhibiting a different shade of blue are labeled with the corresponding color.  Even  the instructor will be hard pressed to immediately recognize some of the eclectic variations, such as “porcelain,” “cerulean,” “Maya” and “periwinkle.”  Peter Sis’ Robinson, a dreamy take on the Daniel Dafoe classic is an interpretation of the color as a portal to adventure, while Mordecai Gerstein’s dominant employment of an aquamarine variation still made for a veritable feast for the eyes of blue denizens.  In 2018, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, who six ago gave the color green a vital new interpretation in her Caldecott Honor winning Green, in suffusing the work with renewal and re-birth, has applied the same formula on her new work, Blue, crafting seventeen double page canvasses that is unison provide young readers with the picture book equivalent of the images filmed by cinematographer Slawomir Idziak in the Kieslowski film.  Each ravishing tapestry resonates with thematic richness, bringing astonishing emotional heft to a simple story of a boy’s love for his dog during the formative years.  Seeger insists that the color is a vital force of nature in the life cycle, that it defines human interaction with a canine companion, can be hot or cold, is present at birth and at the end of life and exerts soulful energy during those priceless moments meant to ensconced in the sphere of memories.  A champion of acrylic paint on canvas board base, Seeger’s thick applications of converging shades of the color produced a stunning cover, again like on the cover of Green bleeding onto the white lettering denoting the title with almost storm-like intensity.  It’s gorgeous. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

-John Lennon

The Museum of Modern Art, affectionately identified as MOMA is surely the most heterogeneous all New York City art institutions.  Located in midtown Manhattan on 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues this expansive mecca for modernist painting, sculpture, architecture and design is just as celebrated for its film series, dance theater and performance programs and is perhaps the most resolute sponsor of extensive illustrated children’s book exhibitions.  Among this cultural epicenter’s most treasured possessions are masterpieces by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Cezanne, Rosseau and Pollack.  The most artistically intimate exploration of this highly influential tourist favorite ever attempted in a picture book is the prime focus of the wordless Imagine by Raul Colon, a fantastical adventure inspired by real life exploits from the artist’s childhood.

Colon, a critically-acclaimed author-illustrator, who also rates as one of the most prolific at his craft, lived in Brooklyn for a number of years after growing up in Puerto Rico.  His cherished experiences of Manhattan culture are conveyed in a fictional story of a boy (the artist himself) on a skateboard who gains access to the museum and other locations via the Brooklyn Bridge, a crossing of the East River just a few blocks from the “Dumbo” section of the Big Apple’s most populated Borough.  In a series of cityscape vignettes the intrepid youngster resolves to avail himself of opportunities exclusive to the region and after the proverbial hop, skip and a jump he crosses the historic steel-wire suspension bridge, eyeing the skyscraper metropolis en-route, and then scoots down the sidewalks heading to his midtown destination. (more…)

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