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by Sam Juliano

Prior to the release of Brendan Wenzel’s A Stone Sat Still, the last time a stone served as a metaphorical witness to changes in weather and the passage of time without the ability to impact the world around it occurred in the beloved Caldecott winning Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig.  Of course that stone, referred to in that acclaimed text as a rock, was the creation of supernatural forces summoned up by a wish and when the transference took place from life-force to boulder as a result of consternation fueled by the sudden appearance of a lion the Sylvester of the title, an anthropomorphic donkey, was cognizant of everything around it but was unable to act.  Wenzel, the extraordinarily gifted young maestro of several acclaimed picture books, and the winner of the Caldecott Honor a few years ago for the visionary They All Saw A Cat has followed up that picture book masterpiece with what is even a deeper perspective by exploring with documentary-precision the infinite possibilities surrounding a stone’s passage through time and of how practically every aspect of life emanates from the elemental and is part of the scheme of things.   Again mastering the complex pictorial process that brings together mixed media, cut paper, colored pencil, oil pastels and marker with computer negotiation, Wenzel’s art in a children’s level equivalent of Terrence Malick’s cinema with a probing, sometimes introspective prose narration and an existential undercurrent. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

At the time this essay is published the sixteen members of the American Library Association’s 2020 Caldecott committee will be shortly convening in the City of Brotherly Love behind closed doors to deliberate on their final choices for picture book excellence for titles released during the prior calendar year.  In one of most diverse twelve-month periods ever for picture books the task at hand will no doubt be challenging sorting out a stacked deck, but in fear of putting the jink on any prospective decisions there seem to be some prohibitive theories as to how the chips may fall even if this particular award over the past decade has been almost impossible to successfully call, mainly because art is subjective.  Yet this writer hereby concludes that one title released way back in the first quarter is poised to be anointed in the Caldecott winner’s circle with only the particular designation still outstanding:  will it be gold or silver?  Written by Richard T. Morris and illustrated by veteran artist LeUyen Pham the object inspiring supreme confidence is a sensory joy ride titled Bear Came Along.  A scene-specific celebration of nature in the wild that evokes among other mirthful experiences an amusement park excursion on the log flume Bear is exuberance incarnate, a no-holds-barred immersion that invariably has coaxed reviewers to head off to their dictionaries for words like “ebullient,” “effervescent,” “high-spirited,” “happy-go-lucky” and “irrepressible” among others.  This has hardly represented the maiden instance of wanton merriment on the pages of a picture book (Lane Smith’s A Perfect Day most recently brought to bear gleeful anarchy in a picture book equation) but in this miraculously orchestrated work a unique proposition is posed, that an object of nature is only aware of its role in the scheme of things because of interaction, which in Bear is negotiated via domino effect.  By the time the party is over young readers will be hastily getting back in line for an adventurous encore. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.     -Phyllis Wheately

Noted children’s literature historian Kathleen T. Horning once quipped at an online comment thread  that her great disappointment over the artist Kadir Nelson not winning the Caldecott Medal leads her to conclude that “he will just have to content himself with painting the Sistine Chapel.”  To be sure, Nelson’s work defies the most extravagant superlatives, and I have frankly run out of such phrases myself.  He actually has won two Caldecott Honors (for Moses and Henry’s Freedom Box), but his output includes many other beautiful works of distinction.  He has done the art for New Yorker covers and classic novels, as well as for galleries and exhibitions.  His astounding oil paintings are again being passionately discussed as a serious contender for the Caldecott Medal, which will be announced in Philadelphia on Monday, January 27th.  His resplendent jumbo tapestries in the service of concise and powerful prose from acclaimed author Kwayme Alexander in the electrifying picture book The Undefeated, an ode to black America that is alternately triumphant and mournful, minimalist and baroque, physical and spiritual.  In evoking the recently deceased Maya Angelou in a stirring afterward Alexander makes direct reference to his book’s title when he asserts “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.  It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are.  So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knock down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose.”  Alexander’s largely metaphorical language is predicated on the prefix “not” by manner of starting each defining work with un.  There is inherent pride and defiance in employing such a device and it serves as the rhetorical springboard that is best served by recitation, though larger fonts will also hit home privately with resonating force. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Missing: one frightened little girl. Name: Bettina Miller. Description: six years of age, average height and build, light brown hair, quite pretty. Last seen being tucked in bed by her mother a few hours ago. Last heard: ‘ay, there’s the rub,’ as Hamlet put it. For Bettina Miller can be heard quite clearly, despite the rather curious fact that she can’t be seen at all. Present location? Let’s say for the moment… in the Twilight Zone.

In “Little Girl Lost,” a third season episode of the classic The Twilight Zone written by Richard Matheson a six-year old girl is officially MIA after she accidentally passes through an undetected  “opening” in her bedroom to enter a new dimension.  Of course for the duration of this trenchant narrative the girl’s parents hear her cries for help but are unable to enlist any tangible solution to something that is clearly beyond their control.  In the world of picture books leaving one’s reassuring confines for a fantasy land is a favorite plot device with recent works like Vroom, Little Fox in the Forest, Alma and the Beast and Journey all showcasing that inherently enthralling deceit.  One of the most famous titles in all of children’s literature, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is similarly transporting, though revolving the endless sphere of imagination connected to dreams.  Another, the wordless first solo effort by acclaimed illustrator and the Caldecott Honor winning Christian Robinson is the kind of book Yours Truly seems to encounter once a year.  Mind you it has zero to do with type or challenge but more with appeal and perception of artistry.  Much like the Caldecott Honor winning Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis of a few years back to mention one such instance I found myself frustrated and unable to make any kind of resonating emotional connection.  Similarly the drastic use of space left me more than willing to throw up my hands in surrender.  And yet I refused to give up and lo and behold while sharing with my wife and engaging in a fruitful back and forth I concluded I missed the boat.  Luckily for me another one sailed into the harbor in short order rescuing me from my misguided judgement. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

No mode of transportation offers its riders more intimacy than the motorcycle.  None offers as much exhilaration, which in some cases rivals breathlessly zooming downward on a roller coaster, and none puts its riders on more dangerous bearings.  Helmets provide vital protection, but invariably it is the skill of navigation demonstrated by the cyclist that will always determine the best odds for safe riding and traditionally the single passenger’s two handed grip around the driver’s waist that serves as a kind of seat belt, guarding against sudden jolts like a pothole that could throw the passenger off the vehicle.  Motorcycles figure prominently in numerous classics of the American cinema like the celebrated Buster Keaton silent Sherlock Jr.,  as well as later films starring Marlon Brando and Peter Fonda, but have have taken center stage road films like the 2004 biopic The Motorcycle Diaries.  In the touching Brazilian Hoje eu Quero Voltar Sozinho (The Way He Looks) a blind teenager experiences an awakening as he holds tight to his boyfriend Gabriel riding around town on the latter’s motorcycle.  Barbara McClintock’s wondrous 2019 picture book Vroom!, an exploration of the motorcycle as a vehicular gateway to the world documents this experience from a solo perspective.  A second children’s book featuring a high-powered scooter, My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero and Zeke Pena relates the experience as interactive, with a girl growing up who finds affection, dedication and practical knowledge by riding with and serving as a helper to her Dad.  Quintero, in an afterward relates that the book is largely autobiographical and that it evokes in setting the city of Corona in southern California.  In fact Quintero declares that her book is an affectionate homage to that city and to her Dad who nurtured her experiences in a place very dear to her heart.  To this writer there are some thematic and stylistic similarities to All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle and Mike Currato, even the trim’s shape and trim size- but to be sure there are more differences than there are points of comparison. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

A catalyst of an entire culture and the symbol of the indomitable spirit of indigenous Americans is a food item so basic that it seemingly can offer nothing more than sustenance, yet as posed by author Kevin Maillard in the all-encompassing Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story the culinary side of what turns out to be a cosmic proposition is more emblematic than elemental.  Maillard’s comrade-in-arms in this melting pot of the cultural, sociological and astronomical is the exceedingly gifted Peruvian-American, Juana Martinez-Neal, who just last year won a Caldecott Honor for her sublime illustrations in Alma and How She Got Her Name, a loving chronicle of familial connection, spurred by curiosity, but leading to an understanding of the past and the people who molded their children, grandchildren and nieces.  Fry Bread likewise showcases the family as from which all else emanates and for which everything owes its incubation to, but it brings the entire experience of life to bear on what taken at face value is the most embryonic activity for a family unit.

Fry Bread is Food.  A quintet of spirited children on a mission dance their way over to a family matriarch recalling the selfless grandma in last year’s award-winning Thank You Omu! who holds an ornate bowl and a toddler sucking on a serving spoon.  Like the small-town denizens in Marcia Brown’s Caldecott Honor winning Stone Soup they are decidedly proud their sponsored ingredient will play a vital role in the day’s big culinary event.  Never before has flour, salt, yeast corn meal and sugar taken on such an epic role in the scheme of things or so it might seem to this feisty clan.   Martinez-Neal’s maiden double page canvas in Fry Bread like all that follow is etched in rich, colorful acrylic and graphite that burst off the page with the major complicity of cream-colored hand-textured paper that is a delight to the fingers.  Fry Bread is Shape.  A baking bonanza that would surely delight King Bidgood in the Caldecott Honor winning book examining that incorrigible monarch’s excessive propensities, makes a persuasive case for “shape” as an integral essence of any immersion into the baking process.  Martinez-Neal’s vision is an irresistible work-in-progress, a contention enforced by the curly haired Nana to whom Maillard connects by comparing the concoction’s “puffiness” to her “softest pillow.”  Fry Bread is Sound.  Like the crackling of eggs (Classic television fans may recall the Our Gang episode when Stymie tells his friends that eggs can “talk” while being fried) there are “pops” as the bubbles sizzle after the dough is dropped in the pan zeppole-style to the three intoxicated young attendants it is music to their ears. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

When reference librarians generally unfamiliar with the new releases in the children’s literature section are asked about a book named Truman they either ponder scanning all the books about our 33rd president or in a more scene-specific sense eye a popular biography with the same title written by David McCullough.  Indeed some of the brightest children from the third grade and upwards might also conclude that a book with such a title can only be about “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” and that it best be found on the biography shelves.  Alas, the subject of this kid-lit revisionism isn’t about a Chief Executive at all but about a donut-sized tortoise accustomed to a birds-eye view of the street below from its third floor window vantage point,  one who is hopelessly smitten with a Fern Arable-like young girl named Sarah who provides him with security, attention and love.  And yet this juvenile story about mutual adoration, written by Jean Reidy and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins has proven itself in just a little over six months as a durable library loan title and a classroom favorite.  For elementary school readers whose contact with the world is often through the books they encounter, the central theme in Truman is every bit as meaningful as any work exhibiting intellectual scholarship.

The two women responsible for this charming picture book surely conform to the overused idiomatic expression “a match made in heaven.”  Reidy, acute to her intended audience employs word economy in seamlessly flowing and descriptive terms and her artist Cummins responds with astonishing gauche, charcoal and colored pencil, digitally negotiated art that isn’t only beautiful to look at but for both kids and adults is wholly endearing.  From an irresistible dust jacket cover featuring the story’s human protagonist lying on a rug cuddling up to her adored pet, through turtle-shell brown-green end-papers that are sustained on the frontispiece before yielding to a center stage pink-icing donut aside Truman readers are whisked off into an adventure that may intimate more than it executes, yet within the claustrophobic confines of a city apartment there is Toy Story-like wonderment and genuine emotional investment in a terrapin that took little time in capturing the hearts of the reader from the very moment he was described as sweet as as the donut he munched on.  On a thoroughfare that recalls the titular scene in the Caldecott Honor winning Last Stop on Market Street, Truman is perched in a glass tank overlooking some measure of vehicular madness, described by Reidy as “honking taxis and growling trash trucks and shrieking cars.  A special mention is made of the No. 11 bus, whose run heads southward.  Cummins’ deft incorporation of color in the minimalist background outlines splendidly creates atmosphere, which is immediately contrasted by a close-up of Sarah with Truman at her side engaging in a coloring session.  Reidy relates that the sedate tortoise, much like his master wasn’t into bombast of any kind, much preferring the soulful interaction possible only indoors. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!   -Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963

One of the most moving and sublime biographical children’s books was released in 2001.  Written by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by the multi-award winner Bryan Collier the work, Martin’s Big Words, inspired the book community at large and had many calling on the American Library Association to anoint it with the most prestigious medal a picture book could receive:  the Caldecott Medal.  In what this writer thought was a careless decision by the normally competent librarians that year, the gold medal was handed over to David Wiesner an extraordinary talented author-artist who holds a record-tying three Caldecott Medals to his name and just as many honors.  But his win that year for the The Three Pigs, the rather discordant sequel to his award winning Tuesday left more than a few librarians and teachers shaking their heads.  Sure the Rappaport-Collier collaboration still won an Honor, but there are multiple reasons it should have been the other way around, not the least of which that few biographical works resonated with such a fusion of soaring lyrical prose and frame-worthy art from one of the best in the business.   In any event, the catalog of worthy primary and middle school books on King is exceptional, and this past year an entry by Barry Wittenstein and six-time Caldecott Medal and Honor winning legend Jerry Pinkney has risen to the top-tier with a profound investigation into the famous speech that moved the proverbial mountains and set off a chain of events -some tragic, some revamping a system maligned by long-held bias and hatred – that permanently altered the sociological and political landscape.

A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation is a scene-specific account of the advent of one of the most famous speeches in American history.  The cornerstone of any study of how oratory rallied a cause and by expansion a nation scarred by violence and bloodshed, King’s most emblematic and beloved rhetorical missive was the result of huddling at the Willard Hotel the night before the 1963 March on Washington.  The “I Have a Dream” oration wasn’t like Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” quickly scribbled down on a napkin with only the eventual speaker as the sole author, but a veritable melting pot of opinions, largely from ministers but also of public figures and those Wittenstein powerfully evokes via “their faces forever seared into his (King’s) memory.”  The speech that follows the soulful deliberation and some well-timed coaxing at the podium by a Gospel singer is wholly electrifying, and reliant not only on the profound content but also on measured delivery, rhetorical emphasis and vocal reverberation from the audience to rival Mark Antony’s famous “I come to bury Caesar” monologue in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, though devoid of manipulation.  To be sure the crafting of the speech was subject to painstaking revisions lasting through the night and even then a reluctance on the part of King to put on any kind of final seal of approval without further tweaking. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

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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