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Archive for the ‘Sam’s book reviews’ Category

by Sam Juliano

In the elegiac A House That Once Was, a 2018 picture book by Julie Fogliano with illustrations by Lane Smith, a derelict house is a monument to memories.  The ghostly cabin in the deep woods seems well past the point of architectural resuscitation, and continues to exist in a kind of spectral sphere as a shrine to times well lived.  A similarly dilapidated shack encased in tar paper and nearly to the point of no return is brought back to life when a big and impoverished Depression-era family perform their own effective method of CPR by employing handyman ethics in the sumptuous Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler, an arresting story of grit and fortitude set in the Minnesota woods based on the true to life hardships of her grandmother’s family. Wheeler’s book, a love letter to her Nan, the fifth oldest in a family of eight, is a work of astounding craftsmanship in every aspect of its construction.  The painterly dust jacket, bathed in gorgeous yellow, green and turquoise in its evocation of the titular structure, establishes setting in the most pictorially resplendent of terms.  The inside cover, a replication of the text’s winter tapestry and a work of art unto itself, depicts two members of the family heading out to find food may inspire adult readers to recite The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep and miles to go before I sleep.  An annotated map of the family’s rural woodland hamlet appears on the end papers and their own shack lies near a swamp, with only deer paths falling between.  The title page, like the dust cover sports jumbo-font black India ink letters and a miniature facsimile of the most-unlikely of homes for nine people. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

A domino effect plays out in the narratives of three Caldecott Medal winners, One Fine Day by Nonny Hagrogian , Finders Keepers by William Lipkind and Nicolas Mordinoff, and Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema and Leo and Diane Dillon depicts the insect and animal world fielding questions from one chronic questioner.  A fox repeatedly asks for a favor so that his tail can be sewn back on after he absconds with a pail of a pail of milk; two canines try to solve the question about the rightful owner of bone by asking others and a small insect instigates a panic that is sustained as creature after creature is approached to reach the truth in varying conceits. In Deborah Freedman’s similarly cumulative  Carl and the Meaning of Life a field mouse innocuously queries the titular earthworm for his seemingly bizarre underground propensities, setting off a chain of events where the scheme of things is adversely affected after this inveterate truth seeker suspends his indispensable elemental role to investigate its significance.  Soon enough after Carl goes interrogative he finds that also his prospective respondents are busy supporting their own families or keeping up the own end of the bargain to help keep the world ecologically sound.  After trial and tribulation the now nomadic earthworm encounters a bereaved beetle who through its own manner of deprivation provides the long-elusive answer that sends its enlightened mercenary to again function profoundly so the world can maintain its equilibrium. (more…)

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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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