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Archive for the ‘author Sam Juliano’ Category

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

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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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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by Sam Juliano

Let it fly in the breeze and get caught in the trees
Give a home to the fleas in my hair
A home for fleas, (yeah) a hive to bees, (yeah) a nest for birds
There ain’t no words for the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of my
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, my hair.      -The Cowsills, 1969

The “norm” in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Eye of the Beholder” are humans with contorted ape-like faces who in the narrative’s central deceit promise to help a beautiful blonde woman via facial surgery to drastically alter her appearance to match their own.  Similarly, the two irreverent sixties sitcoms The Munsters and The Addams Family played the same game to the hilt subverting perception of ordinary and grotesque.  The former show’s “Marilyn” character, a dream to any hot-blooded young man is to her immediate family of monsters a physical aberration to be pitied.  The same role reversal is at the heart of a fantastical picture book by Esme Shapiro titled Alma and the Beast, in which a wide-eyed hairy creature befriends a prim young girl wearing a yellow dress and cap.  Thematically and pictorially elements from The Secret Garden and Beauty and the Beast are discernible yet Shapiro is clearly attempting to coax her lower grade school students to never judge a book by its cover and that what we have been predisposed to label can often turn out to be quite the opposite.

The book’s maiden double page tapestry depicting a stone house in the woods a la the Brothers Grimm is a forest primeval defined by a hair stylist in a phantasmagorical realm.  From within we are introduced to “Alma” a single-toothed fur-ball with a markedly joyous disposition who rises from a bed of braided hair to brush her teeth and prepare the morning tea.  In a field where flowers and insects thrive harmoniously Alma treats her plumpooshkie butterfly to some butter-breakfast tulips after consuming one herself.   Then like a barber negotiating a fever dream she braids such rust colored trees, “combs” the grass (adults might recall the fairy tale about King Midas and his Golden Touch) and “pets” the roof – also constructed with hair which almost suggests that everything in this magical place came about after direct contact with Alma whose activities seem to resonate most when the days grow “chilly and pink.”  On this fateful day when cosmetic manicuring is performed at abandon Alma and her butterfly gazed on the strange appearance of a little beast who is beyond conspicuous in in a hamlet where bees create “strands of honey” in their fuzzy hives and fountains pour out “waves of hair.”  The little beast as incredulously titled as the eight year-old “monster” played by Billy Mumy in TZ’s “It’s a Good Life” is a young girl clad in yellow who is lost but far from panicking. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The most intrepid of canines was the ever-resourceful family handyman and space traveler Stanley who was the titular character in Jon Agee’s 2015 picture book It’s Only Stanley.  Peggy Rathman’s Caldecott Medal winner Officer Buckle and Gloria chronicled the unbreakable bond between a policeman and the dog who performed with him on his visit to schools to speak on safety.  In the cinema the loyal companion Parson Russell Terrier Uggie engineered a mad dash down a street to alert a policeman that his master was trapped in a house fire in Michel Hazanavicius’ 2011 Oscar Best Picture winner The Artist.  But the role of a dog in the life of a child can never be downplayed both for steady companionship during upbringing and for an emotional bond that often supersedes any other.  Veteran children’s book author-illustrator Sergio Ruzzier deliberately blurs the role of each protagonist in his latest early-age treasure Good Boy, which intimates a spiritual connection that rivals the deepest intimacy between a married couple, familial siblings, or the closest of friends.  in fact Ruzzier raises the ante in a story where daily activities, meals, inter-space travel and sleeping re-define the meaning of soulmate in the context of a boy and a dog who are not -in contradiction of the conventional wisdom- separated by species, physical size or age, but are wed by common purpose and incomparable compatibility.

Ruzzier, the Italian born classicist with duel citizenship who divides his time between the US and Italy is in the Caldecott hunt for the fifth time in six years.  With Good Boy he has produced what is surely by any artistic and conceptual barometer of measurement one of the finest works of 2016.  Like all the best creations, Good Boy is thought-provoking, elegant, and invested with the most vital, if rudimentary measure of advocacy for our youngest readers.  The book celebrates the power of friendship and the unlimited boundaries of the imagination. Once again Ruzzier’s colorful and sumptuous otherworldly tapestries evoke a European sensibility and some of his eccentric carnival scenes envision the surrealist cinema master Alejandro Jodorowsky, though framing the art as Felliniesque seems just as appropriate.  The creator of the charming story of forgetfulness, Have You Seen My New Blue Socks?, the melancholic tale of friendship, A Letter For Leo, the counting book in miniature, Two Mice, and his gem about the power of reading, This is Not a Picture Book Ruzzier again makes in intimate pitch to the youngest readers with stirring examples of personal interaction and to teachers and adult readers his singular art  Sharp-eyed viewers might see some persuasive comparisons with the art of renowned artists Leo Politi and Tomie DePaola, but on the other hand Ruzzier is an original whose work is far more singly identifiable. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Urban neighborhoods steaming with life, culture and creativity are too often the subject of misguided perception and racist profiling by those who make generalizations about high crime statistics and impoverishment.  Despite the hardships endured by those who are eternally making do with so little this is an environment where youthful imagination soars and artistic inclinations flourish.  It is a place where inspiration is wed to tenacity and single-mindedness.  Eight year-old Ava Murray resides in a Bronx neighborhood marked by ethic diversity and a hankering by its inhabitants to pursue their artist inclinations.  At her home she is always perplexed that the stories she hears from the television paint her neighborhood in a very poor light.  One incredulous story features a girl about her age being handcuffed for “breaking the rules” which as Ava’s mom explains to her is the result of her graffiti activity.  The youthful idealist, with a thirst for creativity and bereft of a mean bone in her body can’t come to terms with society putting a clamp on the urban beautification of her Bruckner Boulevard environs, a place the youngster observes as a “world of many colors and sounds”; shapes and sizes that are bright and bold.”

Ava is the central protagonist in a story of artistic fortitude in an urban hamlet where communal camaraderie and a singular purpose provides the inspiration for vocational advancement which is simultaneously impacted by a certainty of conviction that there is a spiritual kinship with artists, musicians, dancers and writers who rose out of their roots to make their mark in the world.  In I Can Write the World by Joshunda Sanders, with illustrations by Charly Palmer, Ava experiences the power of her fellow African-Americans in the New York City borough where Murderer’s Row played in the most famous of all baseball stadiums, one of the nation’s largest zoos sits in defiance of of its ultra-urban surroundings, and where rap and hip-hop music originated.  Ava and her family reside in the poorest Borough in the city, where the median family income is around $37.000, less than half that enjoyed by Manhattanites.  But as expressed so movingly in two previous Caldecott Honor books, A Chair for my Mother by Vera Williams and Tar Beach by Faith Ringold those with a free verse spirit, and a hankering to create can make claim on a wider universe than the constricted one some are eternally bound to and those with self-confidence and the ability to find the beauty and express their own voice in an area too often castigated for the same issues that plague all inner-city neighborhoods. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

He’s off and flyin’ as he guns the car around the track
He’s jammin’ down the pedal like he’s never comin’ back
Adventure’s waitin’ just ahead.
Go Speed Racer
Go Speed Racer
Go Speed Racer, Go!        -Nobuyoshi Koshibe, Peter Fernandez, Speed Racer, 1967

Barbara McClintock has been in the Caldecott hunt a number of times over the years.  Her sublime collaboration with Jim Aylesworth, My Grandfather’s Coat, was one of the prime contenders for the 2015 medal, and both the resplendent Emma and Julia Love Ballet and her 2018 Nothing Stopped Sophie written by Cheryl Bardoe were spoken of regularly in the Caldecott forums.  Her distinguished career has brought her fame worldwide, with marked veneration in Japan, where her books have been regularly translated, and her Adele & Simon series and Mary and the Mouse books have held the stage in elementary classrooms for years.  A persuasive argument could well be tendered that her newest children’s lit treasure Vroom! is her sturdiest bid for the shiny gold sticker yet, what with McClintock fans more excited than they have ever been for the Connecticut-based author-illustrator.  The inspiration for her new work is two-fold.  The artist confides she spent much time in her childhood playing with a silver toy car like the one that Annie drives in the book, and in recent adulthood she seemingly firmed up resolve after acquisition of her spiffy new Audi.

Though Vroom’s showcase front cover is gangbusters in conveying the theme, McClintock immediately signals the book’s mise en scene with florescent green end papers which inform young readers that not only will there be no stopping or delaying but not even a cautionary color segue in a narrative committed to unmitigated acceleration.  After a title page envisions a car racing full speed ahead, the book’s protagonist Annie happily sets a helmet over her long red-brown hair.  The author makes it clear that the power of the imagination is at work and much like one of kid lit’s most iconic characters, Max in Maurice Sendak’s Caldecott Medal winning Where the Wild Things Are, this young girl is wearing pajamas, a obvious clue for young readers anyway that we are about to enter fantasy land for whatever natural continuance one would expect from a racing car obsessive.  After two other minimalist vignettes the automotive-attuned child puts on her gloves and hops into her racing car and takes off plane-style through the window of a second-story bedroom in her suburban home.  Though a family pet witnesses the air-borne take-off the inhabitants in the home are none too wiser of course the singular hobby-prone youngster has acted on her wishes. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

I would not be just a muffin’,
My head all full of stuffin’,
My heart all full of pain           -E.Y. Harburg, Harold Arlen, The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The inveterate bird-scarer known as the scarecrow has been a boon to farmers around the world dating back over 2,500 years to ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece.  In feudal Japan they were front line protection for the rice fields, affording security for both newly-planted seeds and the maturing crop.  Inevitably over the years the scarecrow has been the prime protagonist in horror films, where its frightful visage has induced writers to re-imagine this rural symbol as a purveyor of supernatural terror.  Yes children today and those from past generations have a far more benign perception, one based exclusively on the beloved character played by Ray Bolger in the 1939 American film classic The Wizard of Oz.  Based on the first in a children’s series by L. Frank Baum the scarecrow is a good-hearted and intelligent character who wishes he had a brain in a plot where his quick-thinking is vital to the success of the trip to the city where the titular character rules over. In Baum’s book, the famed film version and practically all personifications the scarecrow is initially perceived as one of the loneliest of guardians.  Like Trent in the original Outer Limits’ most celebrated episode “Demon with a Glass Hand” where the robotic creation of mankind must stand watch over the earth’s population who are stored on a glass hand as electrical impulses, he is seemingly doomed to seclusion.  In the poetic new picture book masterwork The Scarecrow by Beth Ferry this all-weather mannequin constructed with straw and work clothes is virtually programmed with one purpose, unencumbered by dual-tasking and unchallenged by anyone or anything looking to complicate his sole mode of existence. (more…)

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