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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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by Sam Juliano

Robinson by Peter Sis is the ultimate fix for those stoked to say that blue is their favorite color.  Classroom teachers preparing to introduce it can supplement the presentation by displaying the the opening end papers of Isabelle Simler’s French import The Blue Hour, another sublime, recently released picture book.  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.”  But the human eye can differentiate between shades and the bonanza of blue on the cover and in the text of Robinson can be spotted in Simler’s identifiable ovals.  “Turquoise blue” is an especially ravishing palette and it is showcased in all its eye-filling splendor on the cover, perhaps the most resplendent in the artist’s picture book career.  The Czechoslovak-born Sis is a children’s book author and artist, but his work on a number of fronts is known worldwide where some count him as one of their absolute favorites.  He has already won three Caldecott Honors for The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain; Tibet: Through the Red Box and Starry Messenger, and virtually each of his other picture book releases have been posed for similar annointment in pre-Caldecott discussion forums and at prediction sites.  He is a master in minutiae, where others like Caldecott Medal and Honor winner Peter Spier and Japanese artist Armo have excelled, and his seamless integration of maps, graphs,  intricate patterns, myriad colors and diverse modes have hit sitting alone when picture book complexity is under consideration.  Each of Sis’ new works is an adventure and his latest book by the very nature of its subject is epic.  Yet, an argument can certainly made that Robinson is his simplest work with more straight forward and unencumbered art.  It also may well be his most sublime work of them all.

Sis in that inimitable artist who makes each and every one of his illustrations speak to the reader, every one multi-faceted and spurring the gamut of emotions and crossing the line from reality to the fantastical realm.  His work, especially Robinson exhibits some fascinating artistic kinship to some of the most distinguished cinematic Czech luminaries, directors like Karel Zeman, Jaromil Jires and the animation giant Jan Swankmajer.  Every tapestry in itself tells a story and requires studied examination for the fullest appreciation.  A compelling example of this propensity is showcased immediately in Robinson’s opening duel page canvas, where nine various sized vignettes establish the young protagonist as an adventure lover, and a pirate at heart whose engagement toward that pursuit is diverse and imaginative.  Whether it is setting up a pirate tent in the courtyard, dressing as pirates in the tub (a little King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub anyone?), watching a movie about pirates or climbing scaffolds to build a stone pirate, these are intrepid kids who never do things halfheartedly.  When the school announces a costume party the ensuing intentions are of the no-brainer variety, until young Peter is convinced by his mom to dress up as Robinson Crusoe, the hero of the boy’s favorite adventure story.  Peter can’t dispute his affection for the Daniel Dafoe classic novel of the same name, and readily agrees to her proposition.  Sis’s mastery of design and thematic enhancement is showcased in two pages chronicling this change of plans.  His mother is shown holding a copy of the Dafoe book, which is pictorially transcribed in  a brown tinted square border illustrating scenes from the book and cursive writing made to appear as segments from the text.  The mother’s crafting of the costume is similarly framed by a fabulous abstract and visceral circular arc documenting its construction.  The various stages in dressing is pure illustrative bliss, and the walk to school under the adoring eyes of mom is is framed by architectural expressionism. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

One of Cuba’s most distinctive if even defining anachronisms – highways populated with classic American cars from the 1950s – appears set to fade into history following the most sweeping relaxation of vehicle imports since the revolution.  For most of the past half century, Havana’s traffic has been jammed with Pontiacs, Studebakers, Oldsmobiles, Chevrolets and Soviet imports as a result of tight domestic controls and US sanctions that made it difficult to buy parts and fuel. But in the latest of a series of economic reforms, the council of ministers headed by his brother – the current president, Raúl Castro  abolished the need for permission and opened up the car market to all citizens.  The Communist party’s official newspaper, Granma, related that the new regulations would “eliminate existing mechanisms of approval for the purchase of motor vehicles from the state”.  The measure was largely designed to erase public frustration at the previous directives, which afforded an unfair economic edge to those who could purchase cars and push them on the black market, often at several times the original price.  The end of the import ban however came at a price, and the long overdue modernization will effectively eliminate the world’s largest automobile museum for good, closing a time portal that for many allowed a bygone era to maintain a presence in an age where other technological advances like the cell phone, lap tops and social media allowed the 50’s to break bread with the new millennium.

A celebration of the car culture permeating Cuba in the baby boomer years and the resilience of the island’s natives is gloriously brokered in All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle and her illustrator Mike Curato.  As related by the renowned Cuban-American author and poet, life during the era seemed to revolve around the vital use of the car, which after trial and tribulation gave Cubans pride of accomplishment.  The car in those days was nearly equal to the home, carrying family members to visit other relatives, to run errands, and especially to head into the steaming metropolis of Havana, the country’s capital city, where the major roads were a living embodiment of what some will fondly recall from movies like American Graffiti, Tucker and Heart Like A Wheel.  Keeping an automobile in running condition was often equaled by cosmetic attention, the results of which defied age, mileage and excessive use.    All the Way to Havana is about pride, perseverance and responsibly, and the car with its inherent physical grandeur is the vassal of those fiercely maintained propensities.  The encapsulation of the daily diligence is a sensory road trip to the capital where the sounds of other cars, street performers and people buzzing attest to the indomitable spirit of those who are high on life. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Big Cat, little cat  is handsome, silhouette-laden monochrome minimalism applied to surprisingly powerful emotional effect. Mo Willems and Jon J. Muth collaborated back in 2010 on an equally resonant work about death and the cycle of life, City Dog Country Frog which that year was being seriously posed for Caldecott consideration at numerous children’s book forums. I dearly love the earlier book, and I regard Elisha Cooper’s Big Cat, little cat just as passionately. My wife and I are long time cat owners, and we’ve gone through this sadness more times than I’d like to remember.  Cooper, a veteran author-artist has with this square-trimmed work fully realized the old adage less is more.  Yet, the artistic unity, superlative use of white space, and attractiveness of the style both hits home with young readers and adults fully attuned to the concept of emotional simplicity.  Beneath all the familial/pet camaraderie Cooper’s book is anchored by a somber underpinning.  It is an all-too-telling reminder to those who have come to regard their beloved felines that no living creature can eclipse life expectancy, or at least rarely too far beyond the time clock status quo.  Nonetheless, this spare story about friendship largely dwells on the domestic bliss which develops when new additions alter the normal functions of solitary existence.  The “old” cat is understandably bigger and all-too-familiar with the the house regulations.  He gives the new charge, imagined in solid black, some ‘how to’ lessons, showing him the food and water bowls, litter box, a spot for rest, and some advice on how to behave.   Cooper’s double page close-up canvas of the grown cat and kitten cuddled negotiated in black, white and background beige is sublime and the most potent depiction of bonding.  A series of comparative vignettes showing the kitten’s growth till it even surpasses that of the house’s weathered civet, conclude in a striking titular alteration: Big cat, bigger cat.

The cats lived in the city and every day there was “work”.  Their “cooking” is waiting near the refrigerator to be fed, “cleaning” is licking each other as cats are prone to do, climbing on couches, “hunting” which constitutes watching an outside bird feeder and its erstwhile residents, and “making plans” which lead to a daily five minute ritual of tumbling and turning in playful immersion that is too often misinterpreted as an old-fashioned alley fight.  again Cooper uses white space to astounding effect, painting a double page canvas more spirited than anything full color can accomplish.  But keeping it as simple as is pictorially possible the emotions culled are more resonant.  And the power of suggestion, so artfully employed by cinema master Val Lewton in his low-budget 1940 genre features is so much more effective than showing every detail.  Kids particularly are best served by tapestries that spur their own visionary potential. (more…)

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