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Archive for the ‘Sam’s book reviews’ Category

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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by Sam Juliano

Growing up in a town in Northern Jersey just a stone’s throw from Manhattan back in the 60’s and 70’s, soccer or futbal as it continues to be called by some passionate advocates had scarcely taken hold.  The rage on the sporting front was baseball, American football and basketball in that order.  The closest game to soccer in concept and execution was ice hockey which placed fourth in order of popularity.  As the once prohibitively Italian-American town’s ethnicity re-defined itself starting in the late 80’s, the world’s most popular sport began to take hold.  Decades later the community is 85% Hispanic and soccer has effectively become the town’s game of choice by a wide margin.  Baseball and American football leagues once thriving have long disbanded and the one specious field, designed for the community’s Babe Ruth League is now a lighted soccer field in operation every day from the time school closes till 10:00 and on the weekend from early morning till late at night.  Soccer is now all the rage much as it is in one 2018’s most infectious and immersive picture books, The Field by Baptiste Paul, with illustrations by Jacqueline Alcantara.  The latter’s exotic front cover, a lush olive green tapestry showing the game’s all-encompassing allure to young and old, replicated on the dust jacket is in the humble opinion of this reviewer the most exquisite of the hundreds of picture books released this past year.  And there have been a number of front cover gems to be sure.    The front end papers accentuate soccer’s hold on St. Lucia on the Domenican Islands where the game spills over from a cow field to an adjoining forest.  Alcantara’s sumptuous color blends bring this exotic locale into the classroom or home where The Field is being read and each of the illustrations in the book whether they are vignette style, full page or double page canvases they are vibrant and bursting with energy.  Paul effectively integrates the Creole language, which is this area of the world is heavily French based with some Spanish, Portuguese and English, by placing Creole next to English in the text throughout.   At the outset a take charge youth wearing white who was first seen in prominent form on the cover make his rounds to recruit players. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Jillian Tamaki and her cousin Mariko Tamaki were awarded a surprise Caldecott Honor a few year back for their 2015 graphic novel, This One Summer,  The win was the first in the history of the awards for that form and for many represented one of the boldest steps forward for the committee, who risked controversy by bestowing the prestigious prize on a book squarely aimed at the uppermost end of the Caldecott audience, the earliest teenagers.  The book featured mature themes and very strong language, yet few could deny it’s brilliance both from a writing and artistic perspective.   Of course, bringing attention to the graphic novel from a  group almost exclusively attuned to the conventional picture book (understandably) was a major inroad towards pictorial diversity and it has opened the door to other possibilities on that front.  But those impressed with that work and other books by these exceedingly talented Japanese-Americans could never have envisioned the masterpiece that appeared in picture book land in early 2018.  To be sure They Say Blue is a solo effort by Jillian, who illustrated This One Summer.  The book has earned spectacular raves, is poised as one of the front runners for the one of the Caldecotts to be announced on the morning of Monday, January 28th, 2019 (a short time from the publication of this review) and hand landed on the end of the year Best-Of lists posted by children’s book critics and sites as well as a major picture book award last year from the Boston Horn Book, whose rules have some time overlap.  At least one major luminary, who has served on previous committees, Travis Jonker, has predicted the book would be in the winner’s circle when the announcements are made in a post at the School Library Journal.  Few books released this past year are as beautiful on every turn of the page, nor are as fully attuned and immersed in the theme which is maintained from title page to the final glorious spread.  The method to produce this frame-worthy art are says Tamaki, on the dedication page at the end is a combination of acrylic paint on watercolor paper and photoshop.  This intricate method has produced breathtaking illustrations which are diverse, multicolored and textured to a fault. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

I Am Heathcliff –  Catherine Earnshaw, Wuthering Heights

Centuries ago long names were all the rage.  The immortal composer Mozart was actually baptized as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilis Mozart, but that’s small potatoes compared to the great Spanish painter Picasso whose full name was “Pablo Diego Jose Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Remedios cipriando de la Santisimo Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso.”  Long names are associated with reverence, respect and as a tribute to family members dating back generations, many of whom made a difference in the upbringing and maturation of their offspring.  Those children sporting extended names may well at some early stage inquire about their origins and a parent’s full disclosure is one of those indelible moments in a life one can deem priceless.  In Juana Martinez-Neal’s affectionate and moving debut picture book as author-illustrator, Alma and How She Got Her Name is 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.  In Martinez-Neal’s stirring homage it is revealed that every part of this hereditary equation brings to bear a quality into a melting pot of positive traits and convictions.  Once the back stories are revealed the names take on an even more special meaning.  Martinez-Neal’s graphite, colored pencils and print transfers on handmade textured paper seems the ideal way to negotiate a story mainly set in the past, and what with old photo illustrations there is a scrapbook quality in the presentation.  Accentuating this aspect is parched beige and pink, which underline gender and a deep emotional current. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The last time the surname of Robert received titular misrepresentation was only a bit over a year ago when a nasal distortion caused by a nasty cold resulted in a stricken boy repeatedly voicing it to alert his “Mom” in Audrey Vernick, Liz Garton Scanlon and Matthew Cordell’s irresistible Bob, Not Bob!  That is until early 2018 when talented Pacific Northwest author-artist Elizabeth Rose Stanton’s wildly popular classroom favorite Bub made its debut.  A green, pointy eared humanoid markedly androgynous, “Bub” inherited his identification via a seemingly innocuous spelling error.  On the very first day of school he handed in an arithmetic assignment, and failed to close the top of his “O”, and after his teacher calls him “Bub” the name took hold.  As it is Bub is the middle child in a family of civilized monsters physically distinguished by a protruding bottom front tooth, and the only male offspring.  Hanging on a living room wall are framed photos of some favorite family monsters like Frankenstein and a green-eyed cyclops and in a delightful homage the esteemed protagonists of Stanton’s last two best-selling picture books, Henny and Peddles.  The oldest of the children is Bernice.  On a page giving young readers a maiden look at the family dynamic, “Maw” is partial to sunflowers and wears a red necklace, “Paw” is white collar minimalist, while Bernice, who had taken up the guitar is a straight A student.  She is also smitten with red bows, which dot her dress and tie her hair in a pigtail.  Bob sports a blue apron and favors toys, crayons and paper airplanes.  The toddler is a girl who is referred to as “The Baby” bereft of any agreement on a name.  A pink head band features a pastel red flower and her cut dress is multicolored.  Mind you the parents in this loving household could be rambunctious when they couldn’t firm anything up and their debates on a name, Gertrude!  Gisell! Gabriella!  Gladys! were deafening.  In a splendid touch that would surely win approval from the late picture book humorist James Marshall (The Stupids Step Out)  even the characters on the wall frames can’t take the bombast.  Some wear headphones, ear plus and bolts, and the others muffle the sound with their fingers. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

 I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”    

     –Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire (1981)

An adult reader of David Covell’s impressionist tone poem of a picture book Run Wild might initially conjure up the British Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire, which features two Olympic runners who earn gold medals for their country in track.  One of them, an English Jew runs to overcome prejudice, the other a Scottish missionary runs for the glory of God.  A fleeting recollection, but one in the spirit of a children’s book reveling in the most sensory of human activity.  The book’s creator of course isn’t looking at race, religion or underlying motives, he is in fact stripping rhyme or reason from this equation to document what a child would see, hear and feel during an outdoor marathon that will bring geographically connection to various terrains, geological obstacles and the elements.  Covell’s propositions would be daunting even to the most fleet-footed of youthful runners, much less the modest achievers featured in a all-encompassing rendez vous with Mother Nature.  Named one of the Ten Best Picture Books of 2018 in late November by the prestigious New York Times committee Run Wild is a watercolor tour de force, in fact it’s bleeding images almost seem overly saturated, whether exhibiting rabbit ears drawn in thick brush strokes like something you’d see in an Elementary School art class or cotton candy grey clouds and captions his free-spirited jaunts with handwritten printed text to underscore that running is a bohemian endeavor that should never be comprised by time, extent or restrictions. (more…)

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