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Archive for the ‘Sam’s book reviews’ Category

by Sam Juliano

Hope is the thing with feathers; That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words; And never stops at all.
                                        -Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

In last year’s Caldecott Honor winning Leave Me Alone by Vera Brosgol, an old granny tires of chaos and deafening noise in her overpopulated house and escapes through a secret door, only to find out that life in another region offers up the same obstacles as those experienced in her domestic environs.  The people residing in the fictional village of La Paz in Carmen Agra Deedy and Eugene Yelchin’s The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet, like Brosgol’s overheated guardian, need some rest and relaxation.  The problem with this proposition in Deedy’s book is that innocuous intent can often result in dire consequences.  For all its deadpan humor and amusing underpinnings this allegorical story is a thinly veiled cautionary tale about foolhardy concession and the abuse of power.  Put in more basic terms its conforms to the tenets of a timeless adage, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”  The book’s original title was The Noisy Little Rooster, but the alteration is so much better attuned to the work’s unmistakable theme.

The pictorial response to Deedy’s Once there was a village where the streets rang with song from morning till night is a quilted countryside at the forefront of a cluster of thatched buildings, a few of which are chapels.  Woven into the many plots, distinguishable by color are musical notes, depicting a blissful hamlet, unencumbered  by curtailment of any sort.  This lyrically acoustic Shangri-La is a veritable cornucopia of sound, all converging in and around a town square.  Albeit,  some is of the bombastic variety – a man shouting into a bullhorn, a car with loud speakers passing through, church bells peeling and a boy marching to his own drum beat, other reverberations are suffused with more soulful cadences, such as a man playing an accordion, bus passengers strutting their choral prowess, birds singing in a tree, a married couple singing and playing guitar on a park bench and even a man singing in a shower with open window.  A tea kettle contributes a signature toot to the cacophony, but more natural sounds like water gushing from a fountain or a goat neighing complicate this antithesis to the pastoral lifestyle.  Yelchin’s mixed media eye candy applications were created by oil pastel, colored pencil, gouache and acrylic and the polychromatic double page canvas are vigorously applied in kid friendly mode.  Alas, like the denizens in Ron Barrett’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs too much of a supposedly good thing on an everyday basis will render this propensity stagnant.  The residents of La Paz tired of the constant sensory chaos and finally decided to serve up their Mayor with his walking papers.  Yelchin humorously visualizes this with an index finger extended, ordering the town’s chagrined highest ranking official to quit the premises, after a family of four and even their canine can no longer endure the deafening rumpus. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The last time a plucky and intrepid young girl risked a ferocious winter blizzard on the pages of a children’s book was back in 1986 when Irene Bobbin, a dressmaker’s daughter filled in for her ailing mother to deliver a dress to a duchess, whose castle was on the other side of a mountain.  The courageous adventurer is the titular character of William Steig’s Brave Irene, though the circumstances surrounding this hypothermic trek have little in common otherwise.  Fate, chance and reciprocal kindness save the day and leave young readers relieved after a hair-raising confrontation with the elements on an especially forbidding turf.

In a seemingly innocuous pictorial prologue a girl is initially spotted petting her dog in a living room as her parents hold coffee mugs with little concern for any measure of impending danger.  Wearing a red parka she heads off to a one room schoolhouse as the dog’s barking becomes more pronounced, while off in the distance a pack of wolves howl and scout hilly terrain.  Cordell sets the stage for what turns out to be as markedly perilous a raw adventure story  as any Jack London has ever turned out.  Not since Jerry Pinkney’s 2010 Caldecott Medal winner The Lion and the Mouse did an act of charity receive reciprocation in kind, and not since John Rocco’s 2014 Blizzard has snow as a crippling force of nature threatened the survival of those caught in the blanketing acceleration.  No doubt an adult reader might be thinking of the classic lines-  It lay drifted on the crosses and headstones, on the spears of the gate, on the thorns, but the target audience is left with the full gamut of emotions, ranging from consternation to exhaustion in a region controlled by ravenous wolves who are not by instinct able to show compassion for anyone stranded in their den.  After a stark and unostentatious title page of black letters over a background of snow falling, we see our fearless snow traveler bidding adieu her classmates, wall of whom as envisioned by Cordell are over the moon over with the white stuff, and adorned in varying colors.  Cordell’s highly stylized, unique scratch board illustrations were created for this book by pen and ink with watercolor, and the method is a perfect fit for a story where living creatures, tress and objects are partially obscured by an all-enveloping snowstorm  Yet the author-illustrator vividly paints his protagonists, sometimes full frontal to accentuate the urgency of the situation, and as ever is a master colorist controlling his canvas like a pictorial maestro, darkening primary hues to denote the fleeting daylight hours and creating by cotton ball saturation the most visceral and intense blizzard ever recorded in a picture book.  By his own admission  Cordell diverted with Wolf in the Snow from his standard simplified, shorthand drawing style. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

On April 20, 2016 the United States Treasury Department announced the imminent replacement of Andrew Jackson’s face on $20 denominations after a groundswell of public opinion that included the vociferous sentiments expressed by adherents of a pointed “Women on 20’s Campaign.”  Though bureaucratic delays and the lengthy period of time it will take to enact such a monumental currency conversion will probably mean a decade before someone holds the new bills in their hands, for so many this is a glowing acknowledgement long overdue that at along last will shatter white male dominance of our society’s most prime example of daily exposure.  Jackson’s replacement is one of the most venerated figures in the nation’s history, one equally heroic to African-Americans and the fairer sex, one untainted by scandal nor personal vice, and venerated largely for her courage in escaping slavery and becoming a leading abolitionist who saved the lives of hundreds and contributed mightily to the Union cause during the Civil War.  In recent years the name of Harriet Tubman as an American of charity and unwavering devotion to a cause at the risk to her own life has elevated her in the regard of many as a figure comparable to Lincoln or King.  Awareness of Tubman as one of the nation’s seminal figures has been increasing over the past decades.  In 1978 she became the first African American to be honored as part of the Black Heritage Stamp Series, as well as the maiden African American woman to be honored on a U.S. postage stamp.  On the 100th anniversary of her death in 2013 officials broke ground on the 17-acre Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, which included a 15,000-foot visitor center, walking trails and an exhibit hall with interactive displays. The same day, the state designated a 125-mile driving tour, dubbed the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway that cuts through her home turf on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  A Harriet Tubman National Historical Park is set for construction in Auburn, New York where she lived out the post-Civil War years, dying at age 93.

Books about this larger than life figure have been plentiful, with several, including Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton and other biographical volumes by William Still, Fergus Bordewich and Jacqueline Tobin/Raymond G. Dobard attracting the strongest acclaim.  On the picture book scene there have been two exceptional works on Tubman.  In 2000, Alan Schroeder and the renowned Jerry Pinkney collaborated on Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman, and six years later two more children’s literature luminaries, Carole Boston Weatherford and Kadir Nelson teamed up for the magnificent Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, a work that brought Nelson one of his three Caldecott Honors.  The celebrated wife and husband book making partners Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome are among the most prolific artists in the industry, when their work together is combined with James’s art for books written by famous writers like Jacqueline Woodson, Charlotte Zolotow, Eve Bunting and Angela Johnson.  Lesa and James who specialize in biographies, have gifted the book community with acclaimed titles such as Freedom School, Light in the Darkness, Quilt Alphabet and last year’s sublime Louis Armstrong picture book, Just A Lucky So and So.  Among other biographies the pair have collaborated on books about Sachel Paige, Helen Keller and Benny Goodman. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go         –Joe Darion, Man of LaMancha, 1964

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, a contemporary of Shakespeare, and a pre-eminent novelist of world literature is also considered the greatest writer in the Spanish language and one of the most influential literary figures to have ever lived.  His crowning achievement, produced in two volumes, El Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha is the most celebrated work in the entire Spanish literary canon, and comparable in stature with the greatest novels by Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Dickens and Tolstoy.  The book’s titular character has become a symbol of idealistic pursuit and spirited perseverence, the antithesis of surrendering to one’s fears, insecurities and physical constrictions.

Almost as if a direct response to the dearth of historical information relating to Cervantes’ earliest years, celebrated children’s book author-poet Margarita Engle has filled a void in the Don Quixote literature with a sparkling collection of free verse poems that capture the spirit and accelerating imagination of one whose imagination erased injustice and impoverishment, adversity and censorship, vice and intolerance.  Miguel’s Brave Knight: Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote assembles fourteen sketches titled by way of feelings, emotions and events, that for young readers should prove a revelation through the cause and effect essence of the presentation.  There are surely a number of options to approach Cervantes, but Engle’s method by building story through language vignettes is precise, economical and cumulative.  Engle’s own personal passion in her subject is revealed in her afterward, where she attests to parental admiration for this heroic figure and an upbringing during social upheaval that included the civil rights struggle and feminist coming of age.  As a teenager the author traveled to the hills of La Mancha with her family to behold the windmills that fueled the most celebrated imagination in the annals of world literature and on a personal level the author’s a present day relevance of “determination, perseverance, and limitless hope” that in the end will triumph over societal adversity.  Fully attuned to how Cervantes conquered the stumbling blocks of his own upbringing Engle implores her readers to absorb his message and know that they too can aspire to and attain success through indomitable commitment.  This labor of love for the Cuban-American author represents one of her most extraordinary achievements in a career with a plethora of acclaimed works.  Though Miguel’s Brave Knight is being proffered here as a Caldecott contender, Engle’s anapestic encapsulation should be gaining the attention of the Newbery committee as well. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Then it happened.  A sudden, terrible light flashed all around.  The light was bright orange – then white, like thousands of lightning bolts all striking at once.  Violent shock waves followed, and buildings trembled and began to collapse.

-Toshi Maruki, Hiroshima No Pika (1980)

Eric Schlosser’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety is a harrowing and unnerving work about the palpable prospects of a nuclear detonation, one the author believes we have so far averted because of an astounding run of luck.  Four years later the war of words with North Korea as a result of the rogue nation’s ongoing development of nuclear weapons has again brought the matter to center stage, with potential destruction as feasible as Schlosser had envisioned it.  Literature for children on this most unthinkable of viable calamities is understandably scarce, especially works on the aftermath, like the once-banned Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence and the shattering Hiroshima No Pika, a 1980 Japanese picture book by Toshi Maruki that chronicled the terrifying events and nuclear fallout after an atomic bomb was dropped on the ill-fated city.  Raymond Briggs’ Where the Wind Blows, which was also adapted into a critically praised animated feature that examined the human devastation even more acutely, and a 1983 American film, Testament is an intimate story of a family that succumbs to radiation poisoning one by one.

A cautionary picture book, The Secret Project by Jonah and Jeanette Winter, (a son and mother team) is initially set in the first quarter of 1943, when United States scientists convene in a New Mexico desert town to engage in an ultra secret enterprise, one the government has requested be completed in short order.  Though unsuspecting young readers can’t be expected to immediately identify the objective of this clandestine rendezvous in one of the most innocuous of settings, the book’s mysterious, almost sinister context is scrupulously unveiled much like the peeling off of wraparound gauze after a plastic surgery operation.  The book is directly based on the real life “Trinity Test” which was conducted on July, 16, 1945 on land part of the White Sands Missile Range.  The end payoff – preceded by a 10 to 1 countdown readers associated with a rocket launch is simultaneously spectacular and terrifying, and leaves no room to underestimate the destructive power of a mushroom cloud explosion that has long since become the physical symbol for complete annihilation.  About two years after scientists began their work in the desert atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing Japan to its knees and ending the Second World War.  Whereas Schlosser intimated it was only a matter of time before an accident will cause unthinkable devastation, Jonah Winter at the conclusion of his afterward offers hope that stockpiles of nuclear weapons will continue to erode as governments reject the dire effects tests will have on the environment and on health.  Winter refers to a 2016 statistic that there remains around 15,700 nuclear weapons in the world presently, but that with world cooperation we can eliminate this very threat of our existence completely. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

He’s so fine
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
Wish he were mine
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
That handsome boy over there
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
The one with the wavy hair
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)      -The Chiffons, 1963

The last time a crown was part and parcel to a picture book, there was a resulting Caldecott Medal celebration.  Javaka Steptoe’s electrifying 2016 biographical Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat won the American Library Association’s highest annual award for a picture book and by extension a glowing acknowledgement for the symbol that represented power, strength and a sign of respect.  The meaning of this triumphant representation has hardly changed in the recently released Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James, in fact the connotation in this work is more intimate and scene-specific.  This anti-Kafka tale of a young boy’s cathartic experience after a visit to the barber is a study of building confidence, and a full embrace of the belief that when people believe in themselves they can accomplish just about anything.  In a rebuff to those who consider a haircut as annoying as getting their teeth cleaned, Barnes suggests there is so much more than exiting the storefront with the helical striped pole than just the sudden ability to feel a breeze around your ears.  Indeed the seemingly innocuous twenty-minute duration under the care of a hair stylist can result in a life-changing experience, one that eradicates low self-esteem, and creates one ready to go out and conquer the world.  A fresh cut performed by an expert hair stylist can convert uncertainty to aplomb, timidity to assertiveness, melancholy to unbridled glee.  The crown of the title is synonymous with its root connotation.  While reading through this celebratory esteem builder one may recall Greer Garson’s advice to her Latin teacher husband Robert Donat, who is up for headmaster at the English Brookfield School:  “Never be afraid, Chips, that you can’t do anything you’ve made up your mind to. As long as you believe in yourself, you can go as far as you dream.” (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Side by side with your loved one/You’ll find enchanted here/The night will weave its magic spell/When the one you love is near.       -“Bella Notte”, Lady and the Tramp

The dictionary definition of a “bucket list”  asserts a written enumeration of all the goals you want to achieve, dreams you want to fulfill and life experiences you desire to fulfill before you die.  For many it might mean enjoying a meal at a world-class restaurant, attending a concert of a venerated performer or traveling to a foreign country.  For some it might mean publishing a novel or a meeting a famous person.  Some may work hard to secure a promotion at firm they’ve spent a lifetime serving.  The possibilities are infinite.  In the wrenching and extraordinarily beautiful picture book Stay: A Girl, a Dog, a Bucket List, sisters Kate and M. Sarah Klise have explored this premise with the kind of intimate camaraderie that has long defined the special friendship between humans and their canines.  The artists make it clear in their gentle story of domestic alliance that the most enduring episodes in life are the most seemingly innocuous and the ones most often taken for granted.  Dog owners have long known the dreadful, indeed unbearable aspects of growing to love an animal with a twelve to fifteen year lifespan.  Such a lamentably brief tenure does lend itself to bucket list scrutiny, however, and the author-illustrator have handled the narrative’s inevitability with grace and the indomitable power of love. (more…)

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