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by Sam Juliano

The last time a picture book featuring a house as its central character connected intimately with the world around it was none other than Virginia Lee Burton’s Caldecott Medal winning The Little House back in 1940.  The indomitable country cottage witnessed technological advancements and population increases, transforming idyllic pastures to urban congestion.  Burton’s classic posed the modest structure as a symbol, an unchanging  seasonal sentry who watched the countryside transform until she was crowded out to the point where time and place became insignificant.  The focus in Deborah Freedman’s This House, Once is more elemental, for whatever the inborn kinship with the world around it.  For young readers the book teaches the origin of the materials used to build, for adults the metaphysical implications of how tangible materials were at one time part of nature’s scheme.  Indeed, one of children’s literature’s deepest thinkers, Freedman, once an architect, will have the most astute wanting to trace everything back to a starting point.  Tucked neatly but resolutely through the pages is an acute sense of loss, unavoidable in a world where turnover is inevitable in both tangible and symbolic ways. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

But leave me a little love, 
A voice to speak to me in the day end, 
A hand to touch me in the dark room 
Breaking the long loneliness. 
In the dusk of day-shapes 
Blurring the sunset, 
One little wandering, western star 
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow. 
Let me go to the window, 
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk 
And wait and know the coming 
Of a little love.             -Carl Sandberg

Certainly a child would never envision it for obvious reasons, but as an adult reader I was almost expecting to see in that remarkable eighteen window showcase at the book’s center, the wheel chair-bound James Stewart looking out through one of the windows with his camera or binoculars spying on the activities of other neighbors. Of course nothing as abominable as what went on in behind one window across the courtyard in Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece could ever transpire in the celebration of life known as Windows, but there is nonetheless a brooding sensibility in E.B. Goodale’s art that more than warrants a comparison.   In the acclaimed coming-of-age novel House on Mango Street by Sandra Sisneros focuses on a young Latina girl named Esperanza. Throughout the book, window imagery is used as a symbol of regret and entrapment. For example, we learn that Esperanza’s long-dead great-grandmother spent her life sitting sadly by her window, stuck in an unhappy marriage. Four women in Esperanza’s neighborhood are trapped in their apartments and they also sit by their windows, looking down onto the street. When Esperanza sees these women, she vows never to become one of them.

Of course Windows’ focus is far more benign and scene-specific.  The metaphor of the window as a device to establish a human connection with the community and shared activities and rituals by just taking a stroll down the street (the twilight canvas with its golden hues and illuminated portals to life and all we do to sustain ourselves, including our reverence for animal companions is a pictorial jewel) is ingenious. Goodale’s art makes superlative use of line sketches You might pass a cat! and autumnal colors One window might be tall, with the curtains drawn…) and perspective Another window could be dark… and then the darkened house everyone remembers from their youth, though this one displays a stone statue of the Virgin Mother (like the line drawings of garbage can and shopping carriage and full color of dog and red hood). (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

That Mississippi sound, that Delta sound is in them old records. You can hear it all the way through.  -Muddy Waters

His renowned guitar playing was once said to “launch a thousand bands.”  The Rolling Stones named themselves after his 1950 song “Rollin Stone” and the most famous of rock publication, Rolling Stone Magazine similarly decided on their own name based on that same number.  He was one of the most influential musicians in the nation’s history with some like Eric Clapton, who later served as best man at his wedding, counting him as the poll position occupant in that regard.  His rise to prominence and fame from the red earth and cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to the blues clubs and recording studios of the Windy City was a defining moment in music and perhaps the culture at large, but taken in intimate terms the ascendancy of McKinley Morganfield, much better known as Muddy Waters is the kind of things dreams are made of.  Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters By Michael Mahin is indeed a fever dream of a biography, one pictorially fueled by Evan Turk’s electrifying abstract watercolor art, which also utilizes oil pastels, china marker, printing ink and newspaper collage.  This melting pot of forms results in tapestries of exceeding emotional power and pictorial complexity, interpreting Waters’ music in purely visceral terms.

Turk’s dynamic visual style was first seen in his critically acclaimed collaboration with Bethany Hegedus and Arum Gandhi, titled Grandfather Gandhi, and subsequently in a sequel with Hegedus, Be the Change, before the young Colorado born illustrator went solo on The Storyteller, a mind-blowing, labyrinthine picture book combining traditional images with a those one might encounter in a stream of consciousness.  While fervent art fans might reach the conclusion that Turk’s art is too auspicious and advanced for a picture book for the youngest readers the truth is that his kaleidoscopic tapestries shimmer with movement, invariably poised to capture the attention of early grade students attracted to visceral design.  No matter how one sizes up the prime audience for his work the irrefutable fact is that he is one of the most exciting talents out there today, and the release of every new book showcasing his art is cause for celebration. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

In Dan Santat’s gloriously revisionist After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again, the king’s men successfully patched up the personified egg and erstwhile top-of-the-wall dweller after a terrible mishap caused by his incorrigible love of birds.  And contrary to what one learned at the youngest of age after being read the most famous of all nursery rhymes, one can overcome the worst calamity and with the right attitude and application turn the experience into a life defining triumph.  Santat won the 2015 Caldecott Medal in what was considered a surprise for his magnificent The Adventures of Beekle, yet this year most of the children’s book predictors are naming After the Fall as either the winner of another Caldecott Medal or one of the Honors.  This unusually gifted artist, whose sixth book this is, has been on both sides of the expectation equation, yet there appears to be general agreement that this funny, moving and exhilarating work showcases his most exquisite art and that the book in general is his greatest to date.  Still, the sustained momentum for the book has reached a level now, that if Santat doesn’t come away with something on February 12th after all the year-end best lists, predictions and strong grass root support from teachers, librarians and book lovers, mouths will be agape like they were when Marla Frazee’s favored The Farmer and the Clown was left off completely in the year, ironically when Beekle took the gold.  When one factors in the intense 2018 competition, After the Fall’s singled-out superlative regard is even more remarkable.

Santat is up to same game practiced previously by Jon Szieska and Lane Smith and the late James Marshall.  But whereas both the duo (who collaborated on the Caldecott Honor book The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales and the wildly popular The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf) and Marshall (one of children’s literature’s all-time greatest satirists) were irreverent to the bitter end (always a joy of course) Santat’s comparable wit segues into an austere character metamorphosis, where consternation is replaced by bravery, indecision by confidence, abstention to full immersion.  And the final transformation, bringing the widest smile is one of unbridled soulfulness. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The baby boomer era was a time when trading was all the rage.  Whether one wanted to swap eight cent stamps because the design on one was cooler, or a Mickey Mantle for a Roger Maris baseball card, because the latter had just broken the all-time single season home run record.  Bulging Halloween trick or treat bags after almost four hours of ringing bells and knocking on doors usually yielded prime candy items set for brokering.  How about a snickers bar for a mounds almond joy?  Maybe a chunky for a Forever Yours bar?  Those living near Palisades Amusement Park in northern New Jersey across the Hudson River from Manhattan engineered major trades every June when their free strip of tickets to the park included nine rides and a frozen custard.  The adventurous kids who couldn’t get enough opportunities to ride the Himalaya or the dizzying Round-Up gave up their ice cream to those with a sweet tooth.  Then there were those colorful marbles, matchbox cars and Universal monster models.  The girls were always moving dolls around, and swapping accessories for their houses.  And how many don’t remember hearing “I’ll give you New York Avenue and Mediterranean Place for Marvin Gardens and five-hundred in cash?  The general rule of thumb was to hold fast to anything that someone else wanted badly.  Usually the owner did that as confirmation that their possession was more valuable than the item being offered to obtain it.

This dogged conviction is the central conceit in Ariel Bernstein’s I Have A Balloon, a dialogue driven picture book about an owl and a monkey living in a forest who play rhetorical tug of war over a mighty appealing red balloon owned by the hooter.  The owl’s initial ambivalence about the celebratory object undergoes change when a an envious monkey tries to con him out of it.  The owl launches the discourse with a simple sentence that is so deadpan that it easily segues into humor.  I have a balloon.  The money swings in on a branch parroting the owl’s statement of ownership.  The owl then repeats the same four words to emphasize territorial rights to that which he holds by a string.  The book’s illustrator, Scott Magoon, an acclaimed veteran of several popular and critically lauded titles renders the book’s art via the digital medium.  His work is attractive, bold and vividly attuned to the changing dynamics in a story about youthful fickleness and intense desire which is probably the beginning of obsessive compulsive disorder.  The monkey starts to make observations about the balloon, that unbeknownst to the owl are the precise reason he would love to the ownership of it change hands.  That is a big balloon.  That is a shiny red balloon.  The owl steadfastly corroborates the monkey’s disguised yearning. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Wendell Minor has boarded a time machine back to the Revolutionary and Civil War eras, has accessed nature sanctuaries in remote locations like the Galapagos Islands, the Sequoia rain forests and Waldon Pond, has profoundly interpreted the work of some of America’s greatest artists, has transcribed the iconographic essence of our nation’s literary past, and has even journeyed to the moon with one of the most famous of astronauts.  This erstwhile purveyor of some of our country’s most cherished moments and the great outdoors has stood tall as an indefatigable champion of endangered species, ecological vigilance and a glorious past too often obscured by technological advancements.  Yet for all his epic concerns, and cultural homages the simple intimacy on display in the books he crafted with his wife, the author Florence Friedman Minor have maintained a remarkable staying power with his young readers, and remain among the most popular titles in what may well be the most varied catalog of any artist of children’s books.  Florence Minor’s If You Were A Panda Bear and If You Were A Penguin have been abiding favorites in classrooms, and prime examples of effective language and pictorial rapport.  Early in 2017, the Minors again collaborated on How To Be a Bigger Bunny a charming tale of fortitude.

How To Be a Bigger Bunny is adorned with pastel Easter-time colors, though aside from the prohibitive attendance of a cast brought to intrepid fame in a beloved classic novel by Richard Adams, its message isn’t secular but more of the life-affirming variety.  Still, it would seem disingenuous to omit it from any collection of notable children books about Christianity’s holiest day essentially because of its conforming palette and its kinship with that holiday’s fluffy mascot.  Indeed the book’s eight and a half by eight and a half square trim size invites nocturnal placement in any young child’s Easter basket before the break of dawn.  As to the quadrilateral trim, the Minors know well it denotes amenity and contentment or if you will a strong desire not to “leave the box.” Yet if a young reader proceeds with comforting assurance, young Tickles, the smallest bunny in her family is no Ferdinand the Bull, regardless of the pastoral allure of daffodil patches and how appealing it is to engage in extended meditative sessions.  Bigger Bunny turns out to be a kind of “hot box” where lessons are learned through trial or tribulation and a newfound level of respect follows a timely act of bravery. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Honey, I am seven fox years old. My father died at seven and a half. I don’t want to live in a hole anymore, and I’m going to do something about it.       -Mr. Fox, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, 2009.

Marco had it made really.  In his woodland habitat among his own kind he could have all the chicken stew his heart desired.  In the food chain his species were sitting pretty.  All he needed to do was to play the game by the rules.  Don’t make any waves.  Don’t ask any questions.  Don’t take any unnecessary risks.  And above all be pragmatic.  Leaving the box and trying to find out the way of the world could lead to some life-threatening consequences.  In the open wild it was survival of the fittest.  Now if he were to come upon a tree that talked like those indignant apple tossers on the yellow brick road or find out why there wasn’t any uniformity in a song’s temperament, or receive evidence of the sun’s heat and light going through a nocturnal metamorphosis only to be resuscitated daily, perhaps he’d own some bragging rights among his peers, but in the long term his dogged inquiries seems ill-suited for contentment, and his naivete that others of his kind would know some of the world’s well-kept secrets would leave him further in default.  But as little can really be predicted, some surprises can quickly change the status quo, allowing long unanswered questions to go through a period of trial and tribulation.  Marco’s  existential dilemma may have gone unaddressed for a long time if it weren’t for the fantastical arrival of a ship rather spectacularly showcasing two carved wooden antlers, protruding from its bow.  This was Marco’s opportunity to connect with others of his kind, and even perhaps others of a different species who shared his inquisitive mind-set.

The deep-thinker Marco is the creation of a travelling adventure seeker named Dashka Slater, who presently resides in Oakland, California.  Slater’s numerous sea excursions on both coasts no doubt inspired her to conjure up this free spirited woodland Prince of Denmark, one she then turned over to a pair of illustrator American-born brothers, Eric and Terry Fan, who for the time being are working out of Toronto, Canada.  Slater is posing a few adages in this story mirroring Dorothy’s in the immortal L. Frank Baum story-turned-into-beloved-film, one where what you strive to obtain may be right under your nose or that spending time together can alone forge the most indomitable bond.  By the very end of the aptly-titled The Antlered Ship Marco’s questions haven’t abated, but he comes to understand that answers aren’t spoken, but are transcribed by others’ actions.  When Ms. Slater writes:  There were so many questions left to answer.  And so many more to ask she intimates that further sea journeys will bring a deeper understanding of life and human nature.  Slater’s philosophy clearly implies there is no substitute for experience and human interaction and she imparts it persuasively in The Antlered Ship.  Rarely in a children’s picture book has anthropomorphism been so profoundly employed, nor as sagaciously consummated. (more…)

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