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voyage

by Sam Juliano

The 2006 Caldecott Medal committee awarded one of their four honor citations to Hot-Air: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Hot-Air Balloon Ride by Marjorie Priceman.  The events in that whimsically illustrated picture book, one where fact and fiction meet, predate by two years the historic international balloon flight across the English Channel in A Voyage in the Clouds: The (Mostly) True Story of the First International Flight by Balloon in 1785, a 2016 picture book by Matthew Olshan and Sophie Blackall.  As per their pointed titles both books admit to a degree of fabrication, and the newer book even makes mention of the sheep that was aboard the earlier flight.  The other significant similarity between the books is the quality of the art.  Caldecott Medal winner Sophie Blackall’s tidy watercolor pastels are a perfect fit for the period decor, especially the eighteenth-century clothing and uniforms.  Blackall again treats readers to vivid colorful tapestries in tandem with another superlative authorship by Matthew Olshan, who previously collaborated with her on the wildly popular The Mighty Lalouche, another period piece, set in France in the early 1900’s.  The narrative highlights an amusing ongoing row between the financial backer of the planned venture, an Englishman named Dr. John Jeffries and his pilot, a Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, both of whom feel they should be calling the shots.  In the end, like the contentious canines in the 1953 Caldecott Medal winning Finders Keepers by Will and Nichols, they must pool pool their resources and ingenuity to stave off disaster, a resolve that forges a friendship. Continue Reading »

before-1

by Sam Juliano

The Horn Book’s Martha V. Parravano stated in her “Calling Caldecott” review of Before Morning by Joyce Sidman and Beth Krommes, “I’m not sure there’s another 2016 picture book that delineates mood so beautifully.”  Though I’d pose that Michelle Cuevas and Erin E. Stead’s intoxicating The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles pushes mighty close in that department, I do in the end have to concur with Parravano.  This is not the first time Sidman and Krommes have explored nature’s wonderments -their Swirl by Swirl altered long held perceptions in the miraculous wedding of lilting lyricism and ravishing watercolor scratchcard illustrations.  The two artists are at it again in Before Morning, a Frostian confection that whisks the reader off into the realm of invocations, where King Midas-like wishes are granted bringing a soothing serenity to a place always operating in the fast lane.  Before Morning operates under the auspices that if you quietly beseech the powers-that-be, a metaphysical response will alter a naturally ordained chain of events, and bring this intended sequence to a screeching halt.  Sidman, in the most perfectly placed and evoked sixty-six words one can possibly imagine in the pages of a picture book has conjured up some spiritual forces -represented on Earth by stone angels in the park- and there is no chance to parlay wishes a la The Monkey’s Paw, the change here is one of permanence, an improbable meteorological aberration willed by positive application that will comfortably blend in with a documentation of prior weather-related events. Continue Reading »

duiztak

by Sam Juliano

It happened again.  In the four years I have written the Caldecott Medal Contender series there is always at least one title that doesn’t grab me initially, but when it does kick in the appreciation is cathartic.  Mind you the first connection with the book yielded multiple aesthetic dividends, and the concept was and remains rather ingenious, but there was something about the liberal use of white space that bothered me.  Perhaps I expected a brisker narrative pace or the mastery of that subtle picture book component regularly exhibited by Jon Klassen.  Or perhaps I may have been too impatient that day to sort out the insect language that was ushered in on the cover in grand style by way of one of the largest of voice bubbles.  But Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis in scheme alone requires far more than a cursory exploration.  Anything less than that is likely to result in a fragile opinion imminently doomed to reversal as soon as some extended scrutiny is offered up.  The final conclusion after a more intensive exploration of the forty-eight page work is no longer one wrought with reservations, but a firm conviction this is one of the treasures of 2016.  No wonder then, that various on-line prediction sites have been regularly touting the book as major contender, a position that actually first surfaced a few months before the book actually released.  Such was the advanced hoopla after some of the art was seen, but the respect for Ellis, who created the fabulous Home the previous year.  For me it is deja vu all over again.  Raul Colon’s Draw! was one of my two or three favorite books of 2014, yet for several months after it released I couldn’t seem to get behind it emotionally.  All that changed in a big way. Continue Reading »

uncorker

by Sam Juliano

The following is a transcript of a student-teacher interview conducted at the beginning of December in an undergraduate class in children’s literature taught by Dr. Katherine Smith at Jersey City State University.  The interview was the final stage of an assignment each class member was required to complete.  The specifications required that each student sponsor a picture book that they will propose for the Caldecott Medal, due to be announced in late January of 2017.  The student, Kaitlyn Mercado chose The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas with illustrations by Erin E. Stead.  (transcript begins)

Professor Smith:  Hello Kaitlyn!  (Kaitlyn responds in kind)  Please hold up and identify your choice.

Kaitlyn Mercado:  Professor, my book is The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles, published by Dial, written by Michele Cuevas, with the illustrations by Erin E. Stead.

Professor Smith:  Thank you Kaitlyn.  Can you talk a little about why you chose this title?

Kaitlyn Mercado:  Professor, I am a big fan of the Steads, Phillip C. and his wife Erin E.  I was thrilled when their first book together, A Sick Day for Amos McGee was awarded the Caldecott Medal six years ago.  The woodblock and pencil work in that book was so precise and exquisite.  Amos is an irresistible character in his ill fitting clothes, but his friendship with the animals under his watch is so genuine.  The book has elements of Goodnight Moon and a much older 1965 Caldecott Medal winner called May I Bring A Friend?  Philip is both an author and illustrator, but Erin only illustrates.  Eric sometimes does the art for other authors.  I really love And Then It’s Spring, which she illustrated for Julie Fogliano.  Her art is so sumptuous.  This past year was huge for the couple.  In addition to this book for Erin, Philip was the sole creator of two other great ones, Ideas Are All Around and Samson in the Snow.  I pretty much fell in love with The Uncorker… as soon as I saw the dust jacket cover. Continue Reading »

library-1

by Sam Juliano

One page turn from the conclusion of Anne Rockwell’s  Library Day a beaming fair-haired boy with a red shirt named Don D’Angelo (Italian-Irish perhaps?) is shown holding a newly-processed library card to the Byram Public Library.  For those baby boomers growing up in the 60’s a library card was the key to the world.  In households where books were not a priority item in the family budget, the library was the place to secure copies of the latest picture books, biographies and young adult novels.  The issuance of a card to enable borrowing was one of the earliest opportunities for young people to demonstrate responsibility.  While some had a penchant for losing books and incurring late fines (two cents a day) most students took full advantage of the privileges a card with bring them.  All it took was a rubber date stamp on the back end papers and the removal of a white card -similarly stamped- for the library to keep track of who held what.  Usually you were allowed two weeks with the option to renew  Books and magazines were the basic loan items, and that longtime archive of library holdings, the card catalog with its narrow roll out drawers led you to them.  The library to be sure was a meeting place for students looking to hang and find ways to avoid doing their work, but those were served up with eviction notices by vigilant personnel.  Possession of a card was just the impetus a child needed to take up reading in a hands on manner. Though the public libraries have experienced a meteoric overhaul in the years since there was a line spanning months to get hold of a copy of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are or for older kids Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith, the love for reading hard copy thrives, and age old practices continue to hold sway to the present.  A young boy’s unbridled excitement at securing the power to take advantage all that a public library offers within his age specifications lies at the heart of a picture book that celebrates a unique institution that remains one of the proudest cornerstones of any community. Continue Reading »

la-la-land-1

 © 2017 by James Clark

      La La Land (2016) approaches us as a peculiarly naive boy-meets-girl story, with an archaic musical façade. It lulls the viewer into an effervescent Debbie Reynolds’ diversion about show-biz ambition, somehow goofy and uplifting at the same time. It insinuates that the bad old 21st century is, when all is said and done, as cute and sentimental as before. But, on further inspection, its “before” turns out to be the world of Jacques Demy (1931-1990), who was neither cute nor sentimental. (I must interject, at this point, that this glowing refinement of the Demy aesthetic is, to me, an almost incredible gift! The exposition to follow, however, becomes attentive to that rally’s making any headway.)

The first encounter—bristling with  Singin’ in the Rain’s cliché of hate-at-first-sight—takes the form of her (Mia) giving him (Sebastian) the finger during a stressful LA traffic jam. Before we see them, however, we see that same freeway when clogged with convertibles and alight with song-and-dance hopefuls bounding skyward and frolicking lyrically upon what has become a virtual (cement) stage from which to display their resilience and wit. The troupe are Southern-California casually clad as they sing and dance in unison as if they were close acquaintances. Or, as if they were a company of carnies, headed for their next gig (Rochefort, France) by way of the suspension ferry-bridge which, in 1967, still served that town as occupied by members of the cast of Demy’s film, The Young Girls of Rochefort.

The song in the bottleneck, “Another Day of Sun,” conveys that paramount to their experience is the tough slog to become movie stars. (“Could be brave or just insane… reaching for the heights.”) The salsa current stresses the staccato cadence of a life of self-assertion, self-promotion and withstanding refusals and harsh discouragement while leaving room for Michel Legrand-resembling musical topspin. The phrase, “another day of sun,” pertains to gratifying opportunities in the offing every day. What it strikingly lacks—despite brio—is full-scale joyousness and lightness; and that soaring is what the Legrand pop/jazz instrumentational-only motif induces from the dance-carnies. No one declares anything on that Pont (bridge) Transbordeur. It all comes down to bodies in buoyant dance motion, joining with the natural and constructed surround as a delicious mystery, in contrast to a battlement to be scaled. The travelling music and motorcycle marketing soon experiences a defection of two of the ladies (opting for romance with two guys from Rochefort); but they had had that afternoon on the bridge. Their local replacements, twin sisters (one a musician, one a dancer), however, prove to be far more driven to public grandeur; and it is with them that the protagonists having a bad day in another day of sun coincide and with them who get under the skin of our up-to-the-minute persons of interest. Continue Reading »

6gdubev

by J.D. Lafrance

Hal Ashby directed some of the best films to come out of the 1970s, exploding out of the gates with four motion pictures over five years. They were all quirky comedy-drama hybrids that, in terms of subject matter, couldn’t be more different and yet are united in the sense that they all feature offbeat protagonists. They focus on outsiders that exist on the margins of mainstream society, like the death-obsessed young man who falls in love an unflappable, optimistic septuagenarian in Harold and Maude (1971). In its own way, The Last Detail (1973) is a comedy tinged with drama and one that features marginalized protagonists in the form of two veteran United States Navy petty officers that have to transport a young sailor from Virginia to New Hampshire and end up learning something about themselves and each other along the way.

At the time, Ashby was coming off the commercial and critical failure of Harold and Maude when Jack Nicholson told him about The Last Detail. Then up-and-coming screenwriter Robert Towne had adapted Darryl Ponicsan’s novel of the same name with the actor (they were close friends) in mind. Nicholson was on an incredible run of classic film roles that started with Easy Rider (1969) and continued with two Bob Rafelson films – Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). His role in The Last Detail would yet again demonstrate his power and versatility as an actor, resulting in him being crowned Best Actor at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival.
Continue Reading »