Chapter Books

OLD BOOKS in the NEW YEAR

I am a junk shopper. A user of used things. An enthusiast of thrift. Like most people, I’ll never argue with a bargain, but my inner-Scot is really not the main driver when it comes to shopping used.

Newness is a must for certain things (swimsuits, underwear, etc.), and the convenience and predictability of what you find in regular stores is inarguable. By contrast, at an emporium of used stuff you rarely see the same thing twice. You can’t go in looking for anything too specific, and you have to enter the process with an open mind. Merchandise there lacks crisp, packaged anonymity; every item has a history — and in that history there are stories, real and imagined.

In my junk shopping I watch for old photos to use as writing prompts and inspiration. My latest, obsessive craft project involves felting old wool sweaters so they’re a current quarry too. And always, there are books, especially — of course — children’s books.

I regularly find used children’s titles I’ve never seen before, and no matter where a book falls on the overall “greatness” scale, it usually offers inspiration ripe for the repurposing and, as often, delightful glimpses into the history of the field.

I recently came across a trove at Benton Antiques in central PA.

RunawaySquash The Runaway Squash (1976), a Little Golden Book story retold by Gale Wiersum and illustrated by Bunky, gives a new (old) twist to that folksy, pumpkins-run-wild/pumpkin-profusion theme that shows up in various autumn favorites (Too Many Pumpkins, by Linda White, Megan Lloyd ill.; Pumpkin Town!, by Katie McKy, Pablo Bernasconi ill., etc). This was the first time I’d encountered  a member of the squash family growing so fast that the kid who planted it had to hold on for dear life as the thing tore across the land and overtook everything it touched. I’ve had fun mulling the pumpkin-as-bucking-bronco and pumpkin-vine-as-vehicle mashups.

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I’ve long loved Harper’s “I Can Read Book”s from the 60’s and 70’s, so Leonard Kessler‘s Last One In Is A Rotten Egg (1969, Harper & Row) jumped out at me. I did a double-take when I saw that the cover features an inter-racial group of kids — in a pool no less — at a time when kids books were just beginning to diversify (not that they ever made it that far).

I found Kessler with the help of the generous folks at Purple House Press, who reissued some of Kessler’s out-of-print books, and connected with him through his daughter, Kim. Kim asked her dad about the book’s inclusiveness and whether it had been an issue. She reported back, “He said his editors simply said, it is your book, you make the call… he just felt strongly that his books should reflect real life, and that meant people of all different colors.” His rationale is perfectly straightforward and sensible — while the editorial climate he describes seems unimaginable.

Alexander SoamesKarla Kuskin‘s Alexander Soames: His Poems (1962, Harper & Row) is written at that same early-reader level. Alexander tells his mother “I prefer to speak the speech I speak in poems,” and his mother balks, trying to get him to STOP speaking in poems (never mind that she rhymes a fair bit herself — and not at all ironically). The book drags in the middle as the mother character repeatedly sets Alexander up to speak short, sweet poems, yet there is something so compelling — and right — about the idea of a child character who speaks this way — playing with words and just speak-loving language as we tend to hope kids will.

LittleBoyWithABigHornAnd, there was this little gem, The Little Boy with the Big Horn, (Jack Bechdolt, Aurelius Battaglia ill.) — which belongs alongside my favorite other Karla Kuskin title, The Philharmonic Gets Dressed (1986, Reading Rainbow Books, with Marc Simont ill.). Mid-century Illustrator Battaglia‘s work in this book blew me away (scroll through this great, graphic-filled tribute to see more). The farmer character’s voice made me laugh out loud too: “Drat. The old muley has fallen into the ditch again.” “You can’t play the horn here. It’s enough to sour their milk.”

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Since I’ve landed on a book about a kid with a horn, I’ll end with a musical tribute. Scott Bradlee’s great ragtime cover of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” makes a better (and more apropos!) case for the fertile and generative pastime of “thrifting” than I ever could.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wimmelbooks and Taking Noticing

Once upon a time, fresh out of college and a little wide-eyed, I had a boyfriend who had grown up on Richard Scarry. That boyfriend’s world overflowed with Anglophiles and intellectuals and Scarry —in a twist of misdirected intimidation — acquired a certain aura of kid-lit-mystique for me. (I assumed that these unknown classics were English, too, which of course made them that much more fabulous.)

In fact, Scarry (1919-1994) was a prolific American author-illustrator, and his books are nothing if not accessible. His full and detailed illustrations in the Busytown books and others offer up a simple sort of engagement that young children adore: innumerable details and visual story fragments that let kids look and search and spy and name — and where they can’t name, ask. Kids spend their days doing the same thing out in the real world, noticing and engaging in visual play with whatever grabs their attention. But books like Scarry’s add the dimension of a beloved adult’s lap.

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Scarry’s picture books are essentially beginner-wimmelbilderbuch or wimmelbooks. German author-illustrator Hans Jurgen Press  (1926-2002) coined the term in the mid 20th century and it translates loosely as “teeming picture book”; the format clearly owes a debt to the 15th and 16th century paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder. But Press’s books incorporated the element of the hunt, making the visual meander more goal-oriented: instead of the eye simply wandering as it would in staring out the side of a stroller or a car window (or at a Bosch painting), it has something to find in these books’ considered and dense illustrations.

Bosch’s GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS (wikicommons)

Martin Hanford’s Where’s Waldo books, Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick’s I Spy series and Graeme Base’s AnimaliaThe Water Hole and others all fit under the heading of ‘wimmelbook’ too.

 Animalia Wheres Waldo ISpy

Mitsumasa Anno, in the wimmelbooks he created, gave new twists to the form as he moved past pure density of imagery. In Anno’s Animals, he masterfully turned the game on its head, hiding prey in landscapes that he drew to seem anything but full. And, in Anno’s Counting Book, his detail-rich illustrations play with number and one to one correspondence, introducing a new, mathematical dimension to the hunt.

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 Writing recently about JonArno Lawson and Syndey Smith’s new book Sidewalk Flowers (Groundwood Books), Maria Popova describes the book in terms that connect to the poignancy wimmelbooks have for this particular historical moment too. A wordless tale, Sidewalk Flowers follows a girl as she walks through the city holding her father’s hand; throughout, her attention to details on the street contrasts with her father’s chronic digital distraction. Popova dubs the book “a magnificent modern manifesto for the everyday art of noticing in a culture that rips the soul asunder with the dual demands of distraction and efficiency.

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Kids excel at noticing, being observant and tuning in. Adults: not so much. And these habits of mind are precisely what wimmelbooks demand.

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A wimmelbook with more contemporary styling, Lotta Nieminem and Jenny Broom’s  Walk This World was published in 2013 by Big Picture Press, a new-ish partnership between Templar Co. Ltd. (UK & Australia) and Candlewick (US & Canada). Big Picture’s introductory video features Bosch and frames Big Picture’s undertaking as being about creating “illustrated books for people who like to look at pictures and discover something new each time.” It should be fun to see what else Big Picture Press publishes and what new twists and turns the form takes as other authors and illustrators experiment. Maybe they will turn out a few more ‘modern manifestos’ or, at the very least, create some stellar new encouragements for kids (and their adults) to focus for more than a few minutes on images that aren’t moving and don’t require electricity.

 

PAIN

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From birth my first daughter’s eyes watered constantly. She rubbed and rubbed and rubbed at them, to no avail. Mira’s tear ducts were clogged, meaning that they couldn’t drain properly and frequently got infected. When we asked the doctor if it was hurting her, the answer was an unequivocal ‘No’. But, the doctor continued, the longer the problem persisted, the less likely it would resolve itself on its own.

So at about 14 months, we took Mira in to have her tear-ducts un-plugged. The procedure was simple (though not for her first time parents): a little anesthesia, a quick probe in each tear duct, two “pop”s, and that was it. Problem solved.

When she came home and the anesthesia had worn off, though, her baseline, overall mood seemed clearly to have made a quantum leap. We may have imagined it, in some sort of projective rationalization in response to the guilt of having put our baby under, but I don’t think so. She really did seem happier.

The experience set me to wondering about how young children experience pain: whether, at that age, the physical sensations they are born with just get rolled into their “normal” like so many other aspects of the lives they land in, or whether kids actually understand pain in some way similar to us adults.

Foot

The past three-plus weeks I’ve been grappling with a tremendous amount of physical pain, thanks first to a late-emerging post-operative staph infection in the site of a foot surgery I had in mid-November, then to a second surgery, and then to an antibiotic that wasn’t quite up to the job. Which has brought me back to thinking about pain. A lot.

In a low moment in the hospital I decided to list the various instances and types of pain I’ve experienced in my life, categorizing and trying to rate them (excessive physical pain most definitely brings my crazy to the surface). It’s navel-gazing stuff that only the bored and unfocused (and drug-addled) can bother with, but my effort at classification does speak to some of the existential angst that can ride on the heels of intense, unpleasant, irremediable hurt: your are unable to control the one physical thing that is totally and undeniably yours — your body; you are powerless in the face of an insanely strong and unbending force; and you are completely alone in the knowledge that the pain is your and yours alone — that others (and even you, later) may have some inkling of the intensity, sorta kinda, but that you and you alone are living it, right here and now. If anybody REALLY understood, they would never take so long to answer the call button — or to retrieve your meds. (A selfish and childish urgency? Yes. But real? Yes again.)

All this, too, got me thinking about how pain and its near-cousins (fear, loneliness, etc.) are handled in children’s literature. Not surprisingly, the physical stuff is pretty hard to capture or convey. But other sorts of pain — the emotional, psychological (and, yes, existential) — under-gird a lot of the books that impact me most strongly. Don’t get me wrong: I love silly books, beautiful books, books that surprise and books that are informational. But the books that trade in pain get hold of me and hang on in a totally different way.

Skellig

I borrowed a copy of David Almond’s Skellig from Mira (now 11 years old) last week. I’d read the prequel, My Name Is Mina, over the summer, and loved it; Skellig did not disappoint. The book is about nothing if not fear and pain — of losing a sister, of a family out of control. And at the same time it is a story about beauty, connection, dreams, love, birds, angels, looking and seeing and being present, and all manner of other important stuff.

When I was little I was a big fan of Evaline Ness’s picture book Sam Bangs and Moonshine. The motherless Sam is alone in the world and prone to talking “moonshine” — with one of her moonshine stories almost leading to the death of a young friend. Plenty of pain there.

Sam Bangs n Moonshine

It’s not for nothing that the percentage of orphans in kids’ books is so much higher than the percentage of orphans in the world at large. What is more painful to a child than losing — or the fear of losing — his or her parents? Likewise, stories about not fitting in — about thinking differently, looking different, living different, being different — abound.

And kids are drawn to the books that take on this heavy stuff (so much the better if the author is able to mix in some humour too). Finding a mirror for one’s own pain and fears and feelings of isolation is a powerful way into story. And learning empathy in the process is a great gift too: we are raising these small people to be adults, after all, and empathy is important.

Speaking of which: at another low moment in the hospital I fantasized about, how, when I was released and healthy again, I would invent a pain simulator for doctors and nurses that would render that fuzzy “where is your pain on a scale of 1 to 10” question obsolete. My simulator would instead allow patients to simply wire themselves to their caregivers for a moment or two so that the caregivers could truly feel patients’ pain levels. That way you might achieve something closer to true empathy. And, you probably wouldn’t have to wait forty-five minutes for your percocet either.

SMALL THINGS

My husband is Jewish and I was raised Catholic. Pre-nuptial imaginings of our future life together involved lots of talk about religion. And holidays.

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We planned to raise our future-children Jewish, which meant we would celebrate Chanukah, but I knew that there were Christmas traditions that I couldn’t shed: the tree wasn’t particularly important to me, but the Advent calendar and Christmas stockings were. I loved the Advent calendars my mom got for us when I was a kid: simple, cardboard jobs with a little window you opened each day of December to reveal the sweet pictures hidden beneath. That daily reveal — and the repetitive cycle of anticipation and pleasure — mimicked the culminating experience of Christmas morning in miniature, and it was a joy.

We worked out a happy mish-mash, and once the kids came and were old enough to question our arrangement the line of reasoning we offered was that because I, their mother, was raised Catholic, Santa fills the stockings my mother knit for us. And because they are Jewish and celebrate Chanukah he doesn’t do additional big gifts for them. (Santa is nothing if not fair.)

As for the Advent calendar: the logic there — if you want to call it that — involves fairies and is much more tenuous. (To share it would be to heap doubt on the idea that I might be able to craft artful stories for children, so I won’t.)

I made an Advent calendar as a sort of embroidery sampler (each pocket attached to the base with a different stitch) when my children were young, and it has been home to an array of lovely things: beads, seashells, polished rocks, and painted acorns; miniature plates and bowls and doll furnishings; funny words, math puzzles, charms and fetishes; and, most recently, a menagerie of needle-felted and wooden animals to grace our Christmas tree (the kids prevailed upon us for this addition to the holiday repertoire a couple of years ago).

The items that go into the pockets of our calendar share one common characteristic: they are all SMALL.

Small things matter to little kids. When my daughters were little there was rarely an outing — neighborhood walk, playground visit, hike, or trip to the grocery store — that didn’t result in the bringing-home of special rocks. For a while small, sloppy cairns built up on various counters and shelves around the house, until finally on one late-night, dog-walking jaunt I pulled a huge old pickle jar out of the trash of a local deli and created a repository for the girls’ geological findings.

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In addition to pebbles and rocks, my younger daughter had an eye for other tiny treasures too. At the end of days when she’d gone to a neighborhood playground or park, I’d find her pockets filled with countless odds and ends: pencil stubs, plastic-coated paper clips, limp pieces of deflated balloon, plastic hair clips and their parts, and little pieces of all sorts of trash. All brightly colored.

In the spring, flower heads and flower petals dominated the collections. And on especially lucky days she’d find what she termed “gem jewels” — those flattened glass marble things. Utility be damned: she was collecting bits of color and light. And she insisted her clothes conform: she required pockets. Every day.

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The girls are now 9 and 11, and I still find rocks and acorns and the like in the laundry — though not with the same frequency. And to this day they still build amazing structures and worlds around and with their small things.

VM Brilliant Plot

Last winter I discovered the Violet Mackerel series, a lovely set (currently six books strong) of beginning chapter books from Australian crafter (or “maker of things”), Sociology professor, and author Anna Branford. Violet is a 7 year-old, big-thinking, youngest-child with a strong attachment to small things. At the start of the series she lives with her single mom and two older siblings, and over the course of the books she negotiates moving house, expanding her family with a new parent, moody pre-adolescent siblings, making new friends, having her tonsils removed, and the like.

Written for early readers (1st or 2nd graders in the U.S.), the books address Violet’s struggles and challenges in ways that feel neither over-burdensome nor pat. In each story Violet develops and plays with a different theory relating to small things: the Theory of Finding Small Things, the Theory of Giving Small Things, the Theory of Helping Small Things, the Theory of Leaving Small Things Behind, etc. With these theories she negotiates and makes sense of the people and world she knows.

Through Violet Mackerel, Branford teases out and articulates the richness of the miniature worlds and small realities of early childhood. Offering us stories of how, through small things, one particular child comes to understand big ideas like caring, sharing and leaving, Branford gives language to the thinking and drives that are behind the way that young children relate to the small things they find and create. And she adds dimension to our own adult understanding too, which is no small thing at all.

Racism with Grace

 

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I had foot surgery a couple weeks ago, and in the percocet-addled aftermath I apparently spent so much time down the rabbit hole of thinking about animals in picture books that I missed the unfortunate events surrounding Daniel Handler’s (aka Lemony Snicket) M.C.ing of the recent National Book Awards ceremony.

On November 19, Daniel Handler presented author Jacqueline Woodson the award for her beautiful Brown Girl Dreaming, which Woodson describes as “a story of my family, moving from slavery through Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, and end[ing] with me as a child of the ’70s”. And then Handler made a Watermelon Joke.

Woodson described the incident in an eloquent, thoughtful response a week and a half later (November 28) on the Opinion Pages of the New York Times.

As I walked away from the stage to a standing ovation after my acceptance speech, it was the last place in the world I thought I’d hear the watermelon joke — directed by the M.C., Daniel Handler, at me. “Jackie’s allergic to watermelon,” he said. “Just let that sink in your mind.” Daniel and I have been friends for years. Last summer, at his home on Cape Cod, he served watermelon soup and I let him know I was allergic to the fruit. I was astonished when he brought this up before the National Book Award audience — in the form of a wink-nudge joke about being black.

She continued,

In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from. By making light of that deep and troubled history, he showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.

Woodson’s pain and her thoughtfulness — and, of course, her great talent as a writer — are all evident in the editorial, which is well worth a read in its entirety.

Handler, meanwhile, was immediately contrite via twitter and elsewhere, following up with what The Guardian has dubbed a “110,000 apology” by making a sizeable donation to the WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign. (The campaign, in myriad ways, is working to draw media attention to the issue and to foster greater diversity in children’s books and in the publishing industry. And there are less than 24 hours to go in the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, so if you haven’t done so already, please take a minute to GIVE!) As importantly — if not moreso — Handler did not attempt to build a card-house of excuses around his behavior; instead, he owned his own racism.

It was a horrible incident; I am certain that everyone involved wishes they could rewind time and erase it. But it is also, of course, nothing new.

How it was handled — with honesty and grace on all sides, and with an eye towards both the personal and the systemic — is the best one could hope for. And it is a spirit to strive for in the moments when we confront our own, and others’ racist words and actions.

 

THE ART OF CHOOSING: Raymond Almiran Montgomery Junior (1936-2014)

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The one CYOA book that we own because — you know — the SEA….

Remember the “Choose Your Own Adventures” books? The man credited with turning them into the phenomenon that they became — R. A. Montgomery — died on November 9. Given that there were several different authors in the series (all of whom were actually credited, contrary to the standard practice for series like the Warriors books “by Erin Hunter”, or the Nancy Drew books “by Carolyn Keene”), the CYOA books were literary to varying degrees — not that high-brow literary was ever their main thrust. Kids love reading the books again and again for exactly the reasons Montgomery and the first book’s writer, Ed Packard, conceived of them: they heighten readers’ sense of agency and involvement in story. They “allow the reader to become the participant.”

Montgomery’s death and the obituaries that followed have carried reminders of the theory behind the books (this obit at the CYOA website provides great biographical background; another at obitoftheday.com riffs on the books’ format). In Montgomery’s 2010 interview with video game critic and historian Matt Barton, he shares much of his thinking too.

Montgomery began his working life as an educator, exploring gaming as a way to reach kids who were struggling with what he viewed as “rote, assignment-based and punitive” methods of teaching. Through gaming, he sought to involve kids more directly in their own learning and break down their resistance.

He went on to study game theory and simulation design. The way Montgomery saw it, task-oriented, goal-driven simulations and role play — well before they became the stuff of on-line and video gaming — have permeated various fields of study and learning for ages: architects build models of buildings, boat designers test hull shapes in wave tanks, law school students engage in mock trials, and when you learn CPR you pound the chest of a plastic dummy. The list goes on and on. And really: what is a young child building with blocks doing, if not testing her understanding of the world and how it works?

So, why not apply the same ideas to books? Montgomery said of CYOA, “It’s finally saying to you: you’re involved… making choices… Implicit in the choice is an ethical or moral approach or decision, but that is never spelled out, and it is never sold… It’s just an exciting way of getting people involved in their lives. And I had always hoped that this would make some profound changes in the way that people make decisions about their lives, about the lives of their children, about politics [and] all the rest. And I’m still very optimistic about that.” He continued, “I think all these gaming situations open up a world to people — whether they be kids or adults — that allows them not just to fantasize, but to indulge in exactly what CYOA does, which is to pretend without the risk of the real world. To try stratagems out, to develop an approach…”

We have a family game that we learned somewhere which consists rallying questions back and forth that share this basic structure: “Would you rather be a _____ or a _____.” (spoon or fork? english muffin or table? cat or tree?). The idea is to answer quickly and intuitively. And then explain your reasoning. (The William Steig/Harry Bliss book Which Would You Rather Be? emerged from this same game, I think). We’ve been playing it since our kids could first string words together, and the range of thinking behind people’s choices never ceases to surprise.

The CYOA books’ second person narration demands — repeatedly — the seemingly simple act of making a choice. “You are a _____. If you decide to “A”, turn to page ___. If you want to “B”, turn to page ___. ” Like it or not, you are the protagonist. Your choices are, of course, limited to just A or B. But really, how often aren’t your choices in life limited (aside from when you’re staring at a blank screen or page… ahem). Being permitted and required to choose as part of the act of reading, you help construct a story. And at the end of the day, the act of making choices — of being conscious and mindful about how and why we opt for this or that alternative — is integral to being human and to constructing the narratives of our own lives.

Whether Montgomery’s wish for the books to ‘change the way that people make decisions in their lives’ has panned out or not, I don’t know. But the books definitely do encourage children to make decisions, again and again and again, and I can’t think of anything bad about helping kids strengthen the sense of their own agency — in lives real or imaginary.

Beyond Expectations: when a writer and an illustrator collaborate

“There are no wrong roads to anywhere.”

-Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

 

Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth, 1961) is really an Architect. As the story goes, Juster won a Ford Foundation grant to write a grown-up, architecture book about urban perception, but ended up penning The Tollbooth instead. He shared drafts with his upstairs neighbor, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and the two ended up partnering on the book.

Last weekend was homecoming weekend at the University of Pennsylvania, where I got my Masters in Landscape Architecture, and where Juster completed his architecture studies in 1953. In honor of the weekend Penn’s School of Design invited alumni to a screening of the documentary film The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations.

Part animation, part comedy and part buddy film, Beyond Expectations is filled with the two men’s smart conversation, as well as interview chat with historian and critic Leonard Marcus, author/illustrator Eric Carle (who’s Museum of Picture Book Art Juster designed), New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (read him on the Toolbooth here), actor David Hyde Pierce (the inimitable reader of the audio book version), and a trip of un-named kids. Throughout, Juster and Feiffer’s conversation flows with the push and pull of an old married couple’s: their stories and quips unfold with hilarity and impeccable timing — and a beautifully rich sense of shared history.

Post-screening, Juster was joined on a panel by the film’s director, Hannah Jayanti and (at Penn for the second time in as many weeks) Leonard Marcus, who’s The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth was released in 2011 in honor of the book’s 50th Anniversary. At some point in the discussion, Juster responded to a question about how his architectural education influenced his approach to writing by describing how, in design school, you learn a method of breaking down and working through a design problem from many angles — as opposed to simply looking for an answer. His response shared a thread with one common read of The Phantom Tollbooth as a paean to the virtues of a liberal arts education. The book is very much about the journey, not the destination, and Juster is clear about his distaste for educational approaches that assume there is one right way of doing things.

The film and subsequent conversation also conveyed a powerful sense of both the idea and the fact of an intense, working relationship between author and illustrator. The physicality of the illustrations’ relations to the text, as well as the import of the geographic proximity of the two neighbors as they worked — are all captured sweetly in the film’s affecting animated sequences.

Juster and Feiffer clearly have tremendous respect for one another, and at the same time harbor no delusions about each other’s imperfections — instead finding real joy and humor in them.

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Feiffer’s illustration of The Whether Man — based on Juster

In an interview with Alex Stadler at the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2011 that I since came across, Juster describes his and Feiffer’s dynamic as they worked on the book saying,

It developed into a kind of a game where he would try to subvert the illustrations and I would try to make things he couldn’t draw. Near the end there’s one group of demons called the ‘Triple Demons of Compromise’, which I invented just for him. One is short and fat, one is tall and thin, and the third is exactly like the other two.

That most illustrators and authors don’t collaborate directly is something of a surprise to most people outside the industry. (At some point during the film, one of the interviewees — I forget who — quips that editors nowadays don’t let the illustrators and authors of picture books work together because they need to make sure that they (the editors) still have something to do.)

It’s hard to talk about it from the position of never having published a picture book. But seeing a dynamic like Juster and Feiffer’s, I wonder about the opportunities missed by the full separation of the jobs — and the personalities. At the 2014 Winter SCBWI conference in New York during a picture book panel discussion, either Peter Brown or Oliver Jeffers — again, I can’t remember which — lobbied gently for more openings in this relationship. I remember being struck that the comment was a real push against the tide. (In my notes from that panel discussion I did find the words of editor and moderator Arthur Levine, who, on the subject of author-illustrator collaboration, declared “Fits are entitled to be thrown,”  implying that the potential for creative conflict and drama might be a deterrent for editors.)

There are contemporary pairings that seem possibly to defy the preferred order — like Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka, or Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett. (Anyone have any good links or references that talk non-PR-ish-ly about the nature of those partnerships?) And Ursula Nordstrom’s letters, compiled and edited by Marcus in Dear Genius, offer plenty of reminders that separation wasn’t always the norm, feeding — like the Sendak in the Sixties show — nostalgia for that great, bygone era in children’s book publishing.

 

The Soundkeeper

The Soundkeeper

One last, wonderful quote from The Phantom Tollbooth — which I can’t resist sharing:

 “Why, did you know that there are almost as many kinds of stillness as there are sounds? But sadly enough, no one pays attention to them these days. Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”

                                                                                                                            -The Soundkeeper

Despite silence, there is still so much for the senses to take in in the moments described and, yet, words fail to really capture them. That Juster is both a synesthete and a great lover of language and word play gives special poignancy to this particular passage. And, too, it speaks aptly to our era of relentless sensory onslaught.

BANNED!

Nothing says “READ ME” like a hot pink “BANNED” label slapped onto the cover of a book.

Ban_shelf

This particular bookshelf sits in the children’s department of my local library, the Free Library of Philadelphia Parkway Central Branch, and is typically home to a changing collection books that fall into a particular category or theme (think “Summer!”, “New Releases” or “Chanukkah”). I have only ever seen one person at a time standing in front of it, but when I passed by this Tuesday there were a full four, browsing books and chatting with a nearby librarian — not counting the toddler who was busy de-shelfing the lower half of the display, book by censored book.

We are nearing the end of BANNED BOOKS WEEK 2014 (September 21-27, 2014). The American Library Association, one organizer, offers gobs of information and background on the contemporary state of censorship in the U.S., and The Huffington Post’s BOOKS section is full of discussion about “the value of unhindered expression”, including this handy little infographic post on the what’s, where’s, why’s and who’s of current banned and challenged books.

For this collection, the FLP Children’s Department librarians culled through their collection for any titles that appeared on the frequently challenged or banned list.

Of the ones they pulled out, And Tango Makes Three is perhaps the most obvious: we can’t have it seems like there could possibly be anything good or right or even ok about two males — of any species — rasing young. Right?

Ban-Newberry Ban-tango

My recollection of the details of Julie of the Wolves was foggy, but as it turns out, in the key interaction that compels young Miyax/Julie to run away (to the wolves), her husband, Daniel, pushes her to the floor and tears her dress. That scene has been construed as “rape”, and therefore age-inappropriate. Author Jean Craighead George — delighted to be on a list with the likes of Mark Twain — refuted that interpretation.

No matter that that simple act of violence provides a great entry point for a conversation with kids about the very real issue of violence against girls and women.

The objections to A Wrinkle in Time seem to have been varied and multiple, but almost all are religion-based. At the same time that the book is criticized for being too Christian by some, others take issue with the nature of its Christianity, with claims of sorcery, black magic, new-age-ism and the belittling of J.C. (Madeline L’Engle was the writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan for a stretch, so it is no surprise that religious themes emerge in her work.)

Most surprising of all: Where’s Waldo?. Seriously? Waldo?!

Ban-waldo

Turns out that among the umpteen bjillion tiny figures that Martin Handford used to hide Waldo, is a woman sunbathing topless, on a beach. Facedown, originally, she has been surprised into exposing herself by an ice-cream wielding young boy. No need to waste your time searching for the titillating little tidbit; here it is:

Sadly, after controversy bubbled up over this image in the original, 1987 edition of Where’s Waldo, illustrations were modified to eliminate the bather (I just checked my kids’ copy which, amazingly, is from 1987, and she is still there in all her glory). Not to worry though: the would-be censors overlooked various other savory tidbits in Handford’s various Waldo books, from human sacrifice to tranvestitism to torture-as-entertainment, all highlighted in this Toplessrobot blog post from a few years back. Unchallenged, it would seem that none of these offenses is quite as dangerous or subversive as a breast, though. Go figure.

Behind The Scenes

Last Friday night was one of our favorite annual Philly events: MEMBERS’ NIGHT at the Academy of Natural Sciences (now of Drexel University). Every year for one night in September, the Museum stays open late. From 5pm to 9pm, they invite members in, and scientists and researchers and students and volunteers stay for the evening. They unlock the doors to their back offices and labs and storage rooms, and visitors get to to stroll “Behind the Scenes” and dig in to a whole range of cool science demonstrations and activities.

ANSP diorama

Our favorites this year ranged from the lighter — climbing into a diorama and dusting dinosaur skeletons (a perennial favorite among the younger set) — to the more serious: making microscope slides of water samples from nearby creeks and searching for diatoms; watching the dissection of a giant chiton; talking birds with a team of scientists as they taxidermied new specimens; and chatting with Curator-Entymologist Greg Cowper about a species of island-dwelling walking stick once thought to be extinct that — thanks to a bunch of super-zealous rock climbers trying to summit another island outcrop in the region — was later rediscovered.

unnamed-1

A diatom from the Monoshone Creek in NW Philly.

If you’re accustomed to going to the Academy on a regular day, and are familiar with the front of the house, Members’ Night reminds you that what you see out there is just the tip of the iceberg, collections-wise. And, you develop this sense that the exhibits are really a freeze-frame of the living, growing, evolving hotbed of research and study that exists both behind and beyond. The generations of boxes and jars and shelves, filled with endless specimens and marked with handwritten labels in unimaginably beautiful script, remind you of the institution’s history too.  (The ANSP was the first Institution of its sort in the US; founded in 1812, it was formed more than 50 years before the AMNH in New York and almost 100 years before the Smithsonian’s NMNH in D.C.)

Each Members’ Night, Academy Fisheries Scientist Paul Overbeck is posted out front with a boat and a collection of creatures pulled from nearby waterways, and Museum Director and CEO George W. Gephart stands right inside, greeting visitors personally. And I think they actually remember us! 

One year, we were visiting with Ichthyologists, looking at jar upon jar of preserved sea creatures, and we asked a question about the dwindling population of sturgeon in the nearby Delaware River. We ended up being led through a warren of back hallways and stairs, turning on lights as we went, and down into a basement room where across from a sailfish (that my kids remember fondly), sat a dusty, taxidermied sturgeon that had been pulled from the Delaware sometime in the 1800’s. That jaunt became legend in our house, and was dubbed ‘The Behind the Behind the Scenes’ tour.

The whole experience reminds me of From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (by E.L. Konigsburg) or Dogs Night (by Meredith Hooper) or The Night at the Museum (by Milan Trenc — yes, it was a book first). All these books trade in ideas of off-hours, secret goings-on in esteemed museums, and their stories let kids in on those unexpected worlds. ANSP’s Members’ Night shares the magic of those fictional stories. And on top of that, the narratives that kids discover and tap into at Members’ Night involve both real, tangible work and the adventures and discovery and wonders of the natural world. And, honestly, things don’t get much more magical than that. (And apropos of that magic: check out Richard Conniff’s lovely Opinionator piece from last Sunday’s NYTimes, “Useless Creatures“.)