Archives for posts with tag: reviews

Nitwits, Noodles and Pumpkins

Most stories for children feature a protagonist who is involved in solving his own dilemma. This makes the story more satisfying because we typically assume the role of the main character and enjoy the sense of achievement. Mouse, for example, in WHOSE MOUSE ARE YOU takes action. Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel succeed first by taking action and then by shifting perspective.

Noodlehead stories provide a similar sense of achievement for the reader, but in a very different way. Jan Thomas’ new PUMPKIN TROUBLE provides a wonderful hoot of an example. Duck, Cow and Mouse are all noodleheads. Duck falls into his carved out pumpkin. Runs for help. Duck and Mouse assume it is the pumpkin monster. Duck hears their screams and also begins to run from the monster (not realizing he is the supposed monster). The flight continues till Duck (unable to see with the pumpkin over his head) crashes into the side of the barn.

Cheers all around. All three are grateful for escaping the monster, and Duck gets credit for destroying the monster he never knew he was. The reader’s sense of achievement comes from knowing more that the characters. Noodlehead characters offer the child the opportunity to celebrate his developing sense of logic and reason. The chance to laugh is thick icing on the cake.

Picture Books Discussed

PUMPKIN TROUBLE by Jan Thomas. Harper, 2011.

IN THIS MOMENT

THE PHILHARMONIC GETS DRESSED illus. by Marc Simont.

“…a good essay…must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out.”   Virginia Woolf

Ultimately, concept picture books are essays. They invite children to explore new perspectives, new realities, and experience their world in a different way. Concept books may be deal with ideas as seemingly simple as counting, colors or opposites. Such books help the child find order in the world. Yet, other concept books can go far beyond order, and celebrate the complexity and wonder of the world. These books have a great deal to offer the child in her journey from egocentric toddler to an understanding of being part of a much wider world

Three outstanding, yet very different picture books, invite the child to explore the realities of time, self and simultaneity.

AT THE SAME TIME by Tom Tirabosco shares a brief text based in the truth of “and at the same time” a multitude of things are occurring near by and around the world. Gentle evidence that one’s private world is not the only world.

Silvio Freytes’ IN JUST A SECOND also takes an expanding look a moment, but does so with a more intimate and interactive view. A specific geographical moment is a weave of all the experiences of those reacting to one another. Some directly. Others with a silent glance. But everyone is affected by what he notices as are the people that notice the man reacting to something else they hadn’t noticed.

If you subscribe to the “butterfly effect” every action or moment eventually effects all other actions and moments.

Karla Kuskin’s wonderful THE PHILHARMOIC GETS DRESSED not only explores simultaneity, but also the eventual confluence of those separate realities within a moment. In this case it is the reality of one hundred and five people getting dressed for work. One hundred and five lives coming together in the same moment and “turning the black notes on white pages into a symphony.”

THE PHILHARMONIC GETS DRESSED Illus. by Marc Simont

The seemingly mundane subject that brings you sighs of wonder just might be your next picture book. And, in turn, make your readers’ world more interesting.

Picture Books Discussed

AT THE SAME TIME by Tom Tirabosco. Kane/Miller, 2001 (1997).

IN JUST ONE SECOND by Silvio Freytes. Illus. by Flavio Morais. WilkinsFarago, 2009 (2007).

THE PHILHARMONIC GETS DRESSED by Karla Kuskin. Illus. by Marc Simont. HarperCollins, 1982.

 

EVERYTHING OLD CAN BE NEW AGAIN!

Two of the first things children in North America learn are animals and the sounds they make. Having mastered which animal emits which sound; mixing them up provides preschoolers a chance to celebrate their mastery by laughing at the mix up. If you’ve seen one picture book about animal sounds and/or mixed up animal sounds, you’ve probably seen a dozen. So, why even touch the subject? You just might bring a fresh and refreshing twist like Emma Dodd with MEOW SAID THE COW.

Initially British and just published in the U.S. this book with wry, sly, and boisterous illustrations puts multiple new spins on farm animals and the sounds they make. Cat resents Rooster’s early morning crowing. What to do? Dodd’s storytelling takes such bold steps the reader has no choice but to believe and follow along. Cat, known for his magic powers, casts a spell.

The next morning Rooster, cries a quiet, “squeak, squeak, squeak.” Pig goes cluck. Chickens go oink etc. When the animals figure out the confusion is due to Cat’s magic they band together and demand Cat undue his spell.

Cat finally agrees, and all returns to normal. Well, almost everything. Even magic can go awry. Cat is now the one that wakes the farm each day with a noisy “Cock-a-doodle-doodle-do!”

Both fun and funny, MEOW SAID THE COW begs to be read aloud and savored by all you love writing picture books

P.S. Take note that there is a steady amount of rhyming, but it so rarely calls attention to itself the rhymes are felt rather than noticed.

MEOW SAID THE COW by Emma Dodd. Arthur A Levine Books, 2011 (2009).

Mail Call

There are many ways to tell a story and share the interactions between two people. One way is reading the letters the two people write to one another. The letters between John and Abigail Adams share a vibrant story in American history. Collections of letters are regularly published, and read by those eager for an inside look at people’s lives.

Letters can also be a form of fiction. Because the primary audience for picture books has limited if any ability to write, it is not a common form in children’s books. Still, Karen Kaufman Orloff has now demonstrated twice how letters can be a vibrant and tongue-in-cheeky form of picture book fiction.

I WANNA IGUANA published in 2004 captures every child’s desire for a pet, and that child’s never-ending attempts to bargain. By making the story a cycle of notes from child to parent and parent back to child, Orloff is able to “cut to the chase” and focus on dialogue like a play. Choice of words, phrasing, and tone become even more significant. As readers, we discover the relationship between the boy and his parents through their letters.

It is a wonderful book to read aloud to children. As writers, we can also learn a lot from studying how Orloff develops character through dialogue. Not only what is said, but also how it is said. And in addition, the tone and the love beneath the words.

We can also learn a lot from Orloff’s dedication to the sequel I WANNA NEW ROOM published in 2010.

“For my editor, Susan Kochan, who guided me and waited patiently until I got it right.”


Good writing takes time. Sure, there is the occasional strike of lightning, but time and patience are a writer’s wise friends. I WANNA NEW ROOM is solid sequel about this family that writes notes to one another. A large part of the solidity is that it shares a fresh story,  acknowledges the passage of time, and takes the main character to a new level of maturity.

May we all be as fortunate in our lives and writing.

Books Discussed

I WANNA IGUANA by Karen Kaufman Orloff. Illustrated by David Catrow. Putnam, 2004.

I WANNA NEW ROOM by Karen Kaufman Orloff. Illustrated by David Catrow. Putnam, 2010.

LOOK AGAIN!

Why We Read…and Write

I of III

As human beings we are plagued with the desire to create boundaries. This is this and only this. You are you and not one of us. In this spirit, we might ask what the former curator of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art could possibly have to do with picture books? Plenty, if we take the time to relax and look again. There is always more to see in what we think we’ve already explored.

I have long been intrigued and inspired by the following quote from THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE by John Szarkowski.

“If the photographer could not move his subject, he could move his camera. To see the subject clearly—often to see it at all—he had to abandon a normal vantage point, and shot his picture from above, or below, or from too close, or too far away, or from the back side, inverting the order of thing’s importance, or with the nominal subject of his picture half hidden. From his photographs, he learned that the appearance of the world was richer and less simple than his mind would have guessed. He discovered that his pictures could reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things, and that these mysterious and evasive images could also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful.”

"The Octopus" Alvin Langdon Coburn. 1912.

Even if one isn’t a photographer, who hasn’t spent time as a child leaning off the edge of the bed marveling at how the world looks upside down. Or, watched a giant tree move when you look first with just the right eye then the left.

A few days ago serendipity brought the discovery of a wonderful early reader / picture book that demonstrates Szarkowski’s quote in just as many words. GALEN’S CAMERA by Jill Kalz encapsulates the joys of looking at the world from a slightly different angle or distance. And, as Galen’s camera does that, it also inspires the world of simile and metaphor. In a (supposedly) mere 112 words spread through 24 pages, Kalz introduces her reader to a boundary-free world that is rich with overlapping realities.

GALEN'S CAMERA

Look again.

Books That Encourage One to “Look Again”

*THE ARCH by Joel Meyerowitz. Little, Brown & Co., 1988.

GALEN’S CAMERA by Jill Kalz. Illus. by Ji Sun Lee. Picture Window Books, 2006.

*THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE by John Szarkowski. The Museum of Modern Art, 2007 (1966).

TAKE ANOTHER LOOK by Tana Hoban. Greenwillow, 1981.

THE TURN-AROUND, UPSIDE-DOWN ALPHABET BOOK by Lisa Campbell Ernst. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

*WRITING THE AUSTRALIAN CRAWL: VIEWS ON THE WRITER’S VOCATION by William Stafford. University of Michigan Press, 1978.

*Published for adults

The Alchemy of Ideas

People are forever asking writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” Many assume they arrive like pearls dropped from above by a muse resembling Tinker Bell. Some writers believe they do. Others strap on pith helmets and go hunting. Still others announce they are blocked, locked in a box that lets nothing in or out.

Valeri Gorbachev’s picture book WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA, MOLLY? is wonderful to read and share with children. It also has a great deal to offer any writer in search of ideas. Primarily, that it is not so much a search for ideas, but rather an openness and receptivity to what arises in one’s life. And, an openness and receptivity to seeing what arises from different perspectives.

Molly loves words and loves to write poems, but she can’t find an idea. Friends arrive to discuss what they make for Turtle’s birthday gifts. When they all decide to draw Turtle a flower Molly says they can’t all give the same gift. “We need to think.”

Rabbit, Goose, Frog, Pig and Molly (mouse) all go to the spot where they do their best thinking. Fortunate are writers and artists who know their spot! All but Molly return with an idea. Unfortunately, all of them have the same idea. They’ll draw a tree for Turtle!

So, where do writers get their ideas? Molly discovers her idea in what appears to be a problem. There are differences to be found even within similarity. Problems may spark possibilities. Each friend draws a tree for Turtle, but a tree in a different season. And Molly writes a poem for each tree and season.

Gorbachev’s story concludes (and reopens?) with Molly wondering if “I will get another big idea tomorrow. I am ready for it.” Where do writers get their ideas? By being open and ready for them.

WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA, MOLLY? by Valeri Gorbachev. Philomel, 2010.

"What One Sees" by Richard Stine. 1995.

Outside the Box:

Nurturing Fresh Ideas

from THE NAKED CARTOONIST

As writers we are frequently asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Although usually expressed with genuine interest, the question is thoroughly off the mark. Ideas are not discovered at a “where”, but rather through action. We are also frequently told, “You need to try thinking outside the box.” One way to do this is to actively step outside our box–look outside our genre and outside writing for guidance and inspiration. Two of my favorite books on the action and play of creating are by a jazz violinist and a cartoonist for THE NEW YORKER. My third favorite source or activity that nourishes “outside the box” thinking is exploring books, websites and blogs that focus on the visual arts. A favorite recent discovery is the work of a photographer who had a create deal of fun drawing new realities for dead flies. Trust me. You’ll see.

FREE PLAY: IMPROVISATION IN LIFE AND ART by Stephen Nachmanovitch is a mega-multi-vitamin for anyone in the arts. My copy bought in 1993 has been highlighted in multiple colors over the years and its margins continue to record new thoughts and impressions. Sample quote: “Practice gives the creative processes a steady momentum, so that when imaginative surprises occur they can be incorporated into the growing, breathing organism of our imagination.”

THE NAKED CARTOONIST by Robert Mankoff is a rich blend of humor, reflections on creativity, and specific exercises to stretch one’s thinking. Sample quote: “…boredom is your creative friend. When you’re bored, you seek stimulation. If you are denied external stimulation, you’re forced to make do with what’s in front of you.”

from THE NAKED CARTOONIST

Photographer Mangus Muhr’s witty creations that began with dead flies demonstrate the power of both imagination and context. A seemingly nothing becomes quite something once we give it a relative place in the world.

Laundry

If Muhr can create so many different contexts for a dead fly, we have the same scope of possibilities for any character or sliver of story that captures our imagination. If, that is, we stay active: asking questions, playing with juxtapositions, and forever leaping outside the box.

Married

As Robert Mankoff says, “Getting ideas is like getting a loan. If you already have money, it’s easy to get more. Likewise, if your mind is already stocked with ideas and associations, more are likely to come your way.”

Cossack Dance

Related Books & Sites to Explore

DEAD FLY ART by Mangus Muhr. (photographer) http://muhrgalleri.area81.se/#11.27

FREE PLAY: IMPROVISATION IN LIFE AND ART by Stephen Nachmanovitch. Tracher, 1991.

THE NAKED CARTOONIST by Robert Mankoff. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2002.

Letters from the Past to Nurture Our Future

When it comes to picture books, studying and celebrating the past can only improve our efforts. One way to do this is exploring the creative interactions between author and editor. If you haven’t read DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM do it soon. If you have no idea who Ursula Nordstrom was find this collection of her letters immediately.

Collected and edited by Leonard Marcus, this volume of Nordstrom’s letters shares the evolution of countless books, authors and illustrators during her years as head of Harper children’s books. Want to read how she wasn’t sure HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON would make a successful book? Go to page 83. If you think long-in-print books like DANNY AND THE DINOSAUR were written in a single draft think again, and read page 103. Read page 198 and discover that A BIRTHDAY FOR FRANCES was originally titled TELEVISION FOR FRANCES and went through many revisions.

From GOODNIGHT MOON to THE CARROT SEED to WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE to FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS and beyond, Ursula Nordstrom was encouraging, challenging, and celebrating her authors.

Enjoy!

DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM collected and edited by Leonard S. Marcus. HarperCollins, 1998.

 

"Yours Truly, Louisa" by Simon Puttock

 

Louisa the pig has opinions.  The farm is too dirty, and the farmer should do something about it.  To that end she writes a series of anonymous letters to the farmer.  He tries to make improvements.  But Louisa wants more and more improvements. Simon Puttock’s wry fable moves at a lively pace.  Crisp scenes and dialogue drive the story that eventually finds Louisa leaving the farm in disgust.  And, of course, returning once she discovers the grass is not always greener (or cleaner) on the other side.

Puttock’s story appears to be simple, but evolves with a deft shift as to which character truly has a problem and who is responsible for resolving it.  The gem of Pottock’s writing is that he begins with the demanding child or self-righteous adult as the “victim” and concludes by showing that the “victim” has the power to affect his own dilemma.

As  serious as that may sound, Yours Truly, Louisa remains light-hearted and playful thanks to Pottock’s text and Jo Kiddie’s deadpan illustrations.  Cheers.

Puttock, Simon.  Yours Truly, Louisa.  Illustrated by Jo Kiddie.  HarperCollins, 2009.  ISBN: 978-0-06-136634-5