by Sam Juliano

TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.  

-Edgar Allan Poe

A model of word economy and one of literature’s most celebrated works of psychosis and depravity, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart is probably America’s greatest short story writer’s most famous story of all.  It is usually the first one taken up in Junior High classes, and the one that regularly makes its way into literature textbooks.  Though it is as macabre as some of the author’s equally venerated stories (most especially The Cask of Amontillado, The Black Cat and The Fall of the House of Usher) it is distinguished  by the fact that every word contributes to the purpose of moving the story forward.

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Much like several entries in the Roger Corman film series based on Poe’s works, a continuing children’s picture book series by Jennifer Adams and Ron Stucki attributes its creation to the inspiration from the respective work, in this case The Tell-Tale Heart.  The new book in the ‘Baby Step’ Lit series, Edgar and the Tattle-Tale Heart is actually a sequel to Edgar Gets Ready For Bed, and it owes just as much to Poe’s iconic poem “The Raven” as it does to the short story.  Adams makes no bones that her book is aimed at the pre-K set and is intended to teach a valuable life’s lesson while affording its juvenile readers their very first introduction to a writer they will be examining later in the more advanced grades.  Edgar and the Tattle-Tale Heart doesn’t overdo the Poe references, rather it throws out a few characters that makes the connection with the literary counterparts, with the goal of developing in the readers and interest in literature at the earliest age. Continue Reading »


by Sam Juliano

The people of Christchurch, New Zealand considered their former commonwealth’s Queen Elizabeth as someone who was strong, powerful and of course regal.  They thought the same things about a resident silvery brown elephant seal who against all odds swam in the “sweet, shallow” waters of Avon River that ran through the center of the city.  When she wore herself out she’s use her flippers to access the shore,  and nap in the sunshine, cooling herself by flipping big clumps of wet mud onto her back.  She is soon befriended by a boy named Michael who looks for this wondrous mammal enroute and on the way home from school every day, often calling out “Elizabeth!  Hello, Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas!  Are you there?”  When he was lucky he’d be recipient to a snort and a look from her dark brown eyes.  But then things in Christchurch got hairy, when Elizabeth ventured beyond the riverbank to dangerously stretch out across a two-lane road, much appreciating the warmth from above and below.  After one car swerves into a rock and another barely misses her back flippers, she slides down the riverbank, belly-flopping into the water.  But the near-miss sets in motion a story of watery transience that finally ends on a happy note.  The renowned long-distance swimmer and adult author Lynne Cox teamed up with the Caldecott Medal winning illustrator Brian Floca to bring the emotional and inspiring story loosely based on a real-life situation to exquisite fruition in Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas. Continue Reading »

number one sam

by Sam Juliano

Number One Sam’s racing car exponent’s entire life centers around sporting triumphs.  This theme of competition and winning at all costs is explored in this irresistible picture book by Greg Pizzoli, one that re-emphasizes a time-worn adage on sportsmanship and the insignificance of competitive prowess, when it goes up against life’s far more vital concerns.  Pizzoli, who last year treated kids and picture book aficionados to the Geisel award-winning The Watermelon Seed – a vibrantly colored work about a watermelon-loving crocodile who becomes distraught after swallowing a seed, believing it will grow inside of him – has again offered up a real charmer that holds up repeatedly to classroom employment. Continue Reading »

sam cover

by Sam Juliano

What often seems to get lost in the shuffle is that the two initially intrepid protagonists of Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s exceedingly popular Sam & Dave Dig A Hole are a model duo of ineptitude.  Like a good stage mystery where the audience knows more than the interacting characters, readers get the advantage of seeing what Sam and Dave continue to barely avoid, even while their wily dog is on to what its masters, farcically missed by earthy inches.  Diamonds are above, below and to the side of them.  When they get really close to shoveling into them dead-on, they take  a snack break and dubiously change directions, while their ever-astute pooch easily enough senses what they continue to avoid.  As the folly of their The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Shoot Straight-style exploits become more pronounced Klassen gives visual enhancement by making the diamonds bigger and bigger.  In one instance when their treasure is just about staring them in the face (three-quarters of a double page spread is occupied by a colossal sized jewel) they re-direct their focus, while the canine friend looks squarely at the find, no doubt thinking “How stupid can you guys be?”  Eventually these dirty faced prospectors’ arduous excavation forces them to take a rest that soon enough leads to deep sleep. Continue Reading »

victoria cover

by Sam Juliano

Queen Victoria’s reign of 63 years and 7 months is the longest in British history.  The era that bears her name is remembered for Pax Brittanica, a time of peace, prosperity and confidence.  The time was noted for industrial advancements and for the great literature that was written during the peak years of her power.  Victoria is too-often regarded as a stodgy monarch with stiff upper lip and humorless personality.  Yet Gloria Whelan and Nancy Carpenter takes a much lighter approach to how the queen maintained a far more disarming lifestyle away from the eyes of the public.  In free-wheeling, whimsical verse Whelan sets up the mise en scene straight away:

Queen Victoria looked out to sea/It was blue, it was cool, it was nice as could be/The day was so hot; the sun so bright/Her petticoats itched and her corset was tight/She whispered a wish, it was only a whim/”How grand it would be to go for a swim.”

To accentuate the joyful, even irreverent demeanor of the queen’s fun-loving kids, who are undaunted by the stately behavior expected of the royals, Carpenter visualizes a state of domestic anarchy.   Hence, the ink and watercolor art that is captured digitally always keeps a special eye for the humorous possibilities of each tapestry.  After the Queen conveys her fancy her lady-in-waiting collapses, stating unabashedly: “It would be a disgrace to see more of the queen than her hands and her face.”  The queen backs off, realizing that she’d have to wear all her petticoats, dresses and shoes if she were to to swim in the ocean, and that wouldn’t be very practical.  Prince Albert (one recalls all the self-annointed geniuses in James Thurber’s Caldecott Medal winning Many Moons) decides to search for a way to allow Her Majesty to indulge in her aquatic passions “while keeping the populace from glimpsing your knees.”  He enters the royal library, a real hotbed of familial interaction (one of Carpenter’s most delightful spreads shows Victoria in a pink dress fanning herself on a couch while one son plays chess with an attendant, another sits on a twirling globes, while a boy makes faces behind a telescope negotiated by his sister and another daughter engages with a sling shot.  A younger child is busy with a quilt pen and a parchment on the floor.  Albert suggests a devise that hurls heavy rocks in the air, but Victoria is afraid she might be the victim of target practice.  Then a sudden revelation: Continue Reading »



by Sam Juliano

The fact that Melba Doretta Liston was the first woman trombonist to hone her craft with the big bands in the 1940’s and beyond would in itself make a picture book on the subject an inherently inspiring chapter in musical history.  Starting up on the trombone at age seven qualifies Liston as a child prodigy, and her ascendance to the top level of her anointed profession sends out the message to young aspirants that when there is a will there is a way.  Little Melba and Her Big Trombone parallels the social indignities hoisted upon the African-American community that were examined exhaustively in Powell and Christian Robinson’s picture book on Josephine Baker (“whites only”)  Much like the protagonist of that spirited real-life story, Liston was born with her special propensity from an young age in music infested Kansas City.  The year she entered the world was 1926, this this swinging mid-America city was a hotbed for jazz, and the main fix for programmers.  From her earliest remembrances Melba was attuned to the sounds of blues, jazz and gospel (author Katheryn Russell-Brown sizes this up in more specific terms as “the plink of a guitar, the hummmm of a bass, the thrum-thrum of a drum, the ping-pang of a piano, the tremble of a sweet horn) and during the run of those formidable years notes and rhythms occupy her during the day and at night, when her sleeping hours were curtailed.  The old-fashioned box radio in the family room was another source for musical satiation, and the course-voiced piano virtuoso Fats Waller was a favorite.  Her player piano skills coaxed domestic dance session in her home.  Then, at age seven, she convinced her mom to buy her a trombone at a traveling music store, though the very idea of a little girl playing such a long and unwieldy instrument brought on laughter.  Melba, though, was an only child, and she granted her request. Continue Reading »

quest cover

by Sam Juliano

Aaron Becker was a frontrunner for last year’s Caldecott Medal, and ended up with one of the three honors that were awarded.  His wordless picture book Journey became an instant classic upon release and its success and exceeding artistry inspired Becker to commence with a trilogy, of which the ravishing Quest is the second chapter.  In picture book land, the wild anticipation for parts two and three size up as the equivalent of how cinematic Tolkien admirers waited on The Two Towers and The Return of the King, after the exquisite The Fellowship of the Ring.   To be sure, there is always something especially novel about the first installment of anything.  Some are obstinate in the way they assess the a multi-part work, always seeing the first as the establishing aesthetic.  Yet, most discerning film fans will cite  the final installment as the most all-encompassing and majestic, the one that will  ultimately be remembered over the long haul.  Children’s literature fans are a bit more skeptical, though in another sense they are overprotective of an adored book that set the bar high.  Still, Becker moved forward undaunted and his Quest is every bit as superlative as its predecessor.  Kirkus was right on the money when they opined:  “This book proves to be more exciting than its predecessor, emphasizing adventure over evocative metaphor.”  Becker certainly does broaden his canvass and deepens the conflicts while diversifying his exotic scope.  It is like comparing Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island with his Around the World in Eighty Days.  Bigger is not always better, but the same could be said of the reverse proposal.  Had a work of Quest’s artistic stature been released first, I do believe it would have wowed the committee and various award givers as resoundingly as Journey did.  But I am getting ahead – Quest is in the Caldecott hunt, and has been named by a number of critics and book lovers as one of their supreme favorites of 2014.  I’d venture to predict that the third part of the trilogy will also impress many. Continue Reading »


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