Monday, June 29, 2009

Terrible Yellow Eyes

There are some projects that appear in the blog world and fade away, hardly being noticed. And then there are some that are just so wonderful that they have to be noticed. I've been reading about this blog for a while now and just had to mention it.

I'm a big fan of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Of course so is every other person on earth it seems like. But Cory Godbey is a bigger fan than most. He started Terrible Yellow Eyes by posting some of his own "Where the Wild Things Are" inspired art. His pieces are beautiful and unique and very fitting for the book. But Cory didn't just stop with his own art. He then began sending invitations to other artists to submit their Sendak themed art. They sent, he posted, and what we get is an amazing tribute blog to an amazing book. All of the pieces are incredible. It is amazing how 32 pages can inspired a huge variety of art. Some show alterative images from the story itself. Others show what happens after the book or are told from the Wild Things perspective. They are all unique and wonderful. For anyone who loves this book you must check the blog out.

For those unfamiliar with the book (go get a copy! What are you waiting for!....I'll wait) the blog's name references the lines "and rolled their terrible eyes" and "of staring into all their yellow eyes" in reference to how Max tamed the Wild Things.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Show and Tell

Illustrators are a mostly mysterious crowd. Authors and artists in general tend to be a bit of an odd group that way. While people can recognize movie stars and television actors in the grocery store, I could be sitting right next my favorite author waiting for a bus and not know it. Some authors gain a type of notoriety but most of them are not instantly recognizable. But we know their work. 

I can recognize a Sendak drawing anywhere. I'm pretty familiar with Eric Carle's work. Quentin Blake's work I could pick up out of a line-up. And I'm fascinated by the authors and illustrators behind the work. I love to read biographies and biographical sketches of my favorite storytellers. So when I found Dilys Evans' Show and Tell: Exploring the Fine Art of Children's Book Illustration, I knew I had to take a look. 

The book mixes biographical information with an examination of the illustrator's style. Profiles include such big names as Hilary Knight, David Wiesner, Paul O. Zelinsky, Harry Bliss, David Shannon, and Lane Smith to name a few. Each chapter discusses a different illustrator, providing images from their work, anecdotes, critique, and personal quotes to paint a picture (pun intended) of the artist. I know a good number of illustrators, particularly newer ones, but I got introduced to a couple new ones through this book. I'm always fascinated to see the very different types of illustration that ends up in books. 

The artists talk about their influences, the evolution of their art, their big breaks, and why they do picture books. Evans intermixes an exploration of a particular scene or book, highlighting the unique style of the illustrator. The book is not designed to teach illustration technique but I found myself learning a lot from these masters of the craft. I do believe that children's book illustration can be an art. This book reiterated that for me. I found this to be a wonderful book for anyone interested in picture books, illustration art, or art history. 

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Tin Forest

As part of this new blog I've been picking up children's books randomly. Some of them have been okay, some of them have been terrible, and some have been completely and utterly charming. The Tin Forest by Helen Ward falls under the latter. This is one of the cutest and most interesting books that I've never heard of. I picked it up because of the illustration on the cover and brought it home to read.

The story is about a little old man who lives in the middle of a junk pit. This junk, mostly metal and mechanical rubbish stretches for miles and miles. Every day the man tries to haul away and dispose of the trash. Every night the little old man dreams of a forest filled with birds and plants and animals. And every morning he realizes that he is still surrounded by junk. So one day he decides to build himself a forest, entirely out of the scrap metal lying around. He builds trees and flowers out of tin. He builds birds and cats and other creature out of the metal. It is a forest of sorts. But real birds find the tin forest. They come and settle in the metal trees. They bring seeds and the seeds bring flowers. Trees grow. Slowly a real forest starts to grow in the tin forest. The growing forest brings in new animals. Until in the end, the little old man has the forest of his dreams.

I remember the first time I reread The Lorax as an adult and realized the powerful environmental message the book told, that had been hidden to me as child. The Tin Forest feels very much the same way to me. The environmental message along with the "follow your dreams" message are incredibly strong in this book but it doesn't overshadow the story. This is a gentle story that tells about loneliness and how struggle will make things right. The little man is beautifully illustrated to show his initial sadness, particularly when he tries to clear away the trash. The illustrations by Wayne Anderson are detailed and precise, particularly in the beginning. Perhaps it was just my interpretation but they appear to get softer and more rounded as the book goes on and the real forest grows. The words and the images blend well together and the reader actually feels like they are there in the rubbish pile and then in the tin forest.

I am shocked that I have never heard of this book particularly with the number of excellent reviews that it has gotten. The book was even turned into a play by Puppetcraft, a puppet theater company out of the UK. But the story is poignent especially now with the growing amounts of mechanical trash that we toss out each year. And the beautiful story reminds us that even in our growing dependence on electronic materials we are still always in love with nature and the forest. The tin forest is a beautiful place but it is even more beautiful with real trees and real animals. This book was a wonderful find and I look forward to adding it to my growing collection.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

And Tango Makes Three

Banned Book Week is traditionally at the end of September (this year Sept 27-Oct 3) and I always make sure to read a banned book during that time. But when I was in the library this weekend and noticed a copy of And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Pete Parnell, I knew I had to pick it up. This book has become one of the most banned or challenged books ever in the few short years since it was published. Frankly, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Plus I love penguins.

The book, which is based on a true story, follows Roy and Silo a pair of male chinstrap penguins who bonded at the Central Park Zoo in New York. The two become a couple and spend years of their lives together. The keepers at the zoo noticed that the couple were attempting to hatch a rock they found. They clearly had the same parental urge that all that other penguins did. So when one of the other penguin couples produced two viable eggs, the keepers gave one to Roy and Silo to hatch. The two were loving and attentive parents and Tango was born. The three instantly became a family. The book leaves the story there. There has been considerable attention paid to the real penguins who have moved on since the book was published.

First and foremost I have to say that a book based on a true story probably shouldn't be challenged. It is not as if the authors made up two male penguins who decided to couple. This is what happened. The book tells the story in something of a documentary way. While the relationship between the penguins is anthropomorphized a little it is mostly just a true story about some unique animals. It felt a little more like a nonfiction book than a fictionalized one. I am curious about where the challenges are coming from. I did not see that as an attempt to convert children to homosexuality or even a book that focused heavily on the homosexual nature of the penguins. If nothing else I found this a cute story about an unlikely romance and wonderful parenting. Children would possibly have questions at the end of the story, depending on the age, but that could be a perfect time to open a discussion about differences.

The illustrations by Henry Cole are beautiful and soft. The focus is often on the two penguins but I was particularly taken with the illustration on the first pages of Central Park. I'll have to look to see what other books Cole has illustrated. The book is an enjoyable story and I found myself interested in learning a little more about the real-life penguins. I still say that any book that makes a child dig deeper into a subject is a good thing. Or perhaps this book is challenged because of the curiosity it arouses (sarcastic soapbox moment, yeah we don't want to promote curiosity in our kids. That would be bad). All in all I thought this was an enjoyable book that children would enjoy. I just don't see that much of an issue.

Monday, June 8, 2009


Finding out that Quentin Blake has books of his own was a little like winning a contest. I stood at the library terminal glancing through the hundreds of books that he's illustrated for others until I came upon Clown. And I literally jumped for joy. Then I checked to make sure it was in and then rushed to pick it up before anyone else could find it. I drove home and then sat down on the couch and started my afternoon reading with it. I didn't even wait for my coffee to finish brewing. And that should tell you a lot.

Some of the first chapter books that I loved were all by Roald Dahl. The BFG was a particular favorite. And of course all of those were illustrated, at one time or another, by Quentin Blake. He has illustrated for Roald, Dahl, John Yoeman, Dr. Seuss, Russell Hoban, and Michael Rosen just to name a few. At least 360 books bear his very recognizable style. His collaboration with Daniel Pennac on The Rights of a Reader is next on my list of books to buy. But I had no idea that he'd done books of his own. Apparently I've been living in some kind of cave.

Clown has to be one of the cutest stories you will ever see. This wordless book follows the adventures of a toy clown who is tossed out, along with some other stuffed creatures, at the beginning of the book. He escapes from the trash can and set out (with some new sneakers) to get help for his stuffed friends. He encounters all types of kids but they aren't able to help him for various reasons. Some are pulled away by parents, others think he is too dirty and old for their children. He is finally flung way high into the window of a single mother and her two children. The mother is at work and the children want to help the clown. But first they must help take care of their mother. The clown helps the children clean, cook, and make the dingy little apartment brighter. Then they rush down and save the toys. Everyone, even hard working mom, ends up happy at the end.

Blake is a master at taking just a couple lines, a bit of color, and creating some deep emotions. The triumph on the little clowns face when he finds his "new" shoes is enough to make you want to buy the book. The illustrations are alive with so much emotion and mood that no words are really needed to make this story complete. I'm sure children will enjoy adding words and dialogue to the book but I found the wordlessness made the message that much stronger. Blake inadvertantly tackles the subjects of poverty and altruism in this little book. The clown is constantly tossed out by well-to-do parents and ends up bringing immense joy to a family who is poor. We feel for the clown because of his constant concern for the other toys. He is a hero, saving the unfortunate and by doing something nice for others finds a home. The moral is there although a bit more subtle than that.

The book is done in Blake's regular ink and watercolor style. His line work is interesting because he uses what seem like fast haphazard strokes but they always come out perfectly. The clown itself is a model of this. He seems to be quickly drawn but Blake creates such deep emotions on such a small character. The reader knows what the toy is feeling through a simple raised eyebrow or body posture. This is an adorable book, filled with emotion and excitement. Even without words Blake is a master of storytelling.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


I would bet you have never read anything like Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston.  I had certainly never read anything like it. I picked up the book this week at the library mostly because of the recommendation of Mark and Andrea at Just One More Book. If you love children's books and aren't listening to their amazing podcast, you are missing out. Not only do they discuss some wonderful children's books, but they have some great author/illustrator interviews. And do not (and I mean it) miss their recent Rock Stars of Reading tour. 

I'm not sure what I was expecting with Zorgamazoo but it defies pretty much any ideas I could have had about it. First I was under the assumption that this was a picture book. I kept checking in the new picture books to find it. But that's not the case. The story is a chapter book, full of adventure and excitement. It does have some pictures but they are small black and white illustrations along with some interesting typography. But the most amazing thing about this book is that it is all told in rhyme. Yes, all 280 pages or so of this book are told in rhyme. I'm no poetry expert so I'm not sure what the actual rhyme scheme is. I found I read it mostly as rhyming couplets. 

At first I was sure this would distract from the story. But the rhymes that Weston chooses are very natural sounding. It really doesn't feel like he is stretching too far for any of his rhymes. Instead the rhymes keep the story moving at an almost frantic pace. The story follows Katrina Katrell who is a bright inquisitive child living with a terrible guardian who is convinced she is crazy. When her guardian hires a doctor to give her a quick lobotomy (try explaining that one) she escapes and meets up with Morty the Zorgle, a bumbling creature who's the son of a famous Zorgle explorer. But Morty doesn't like excitement. The two are thrown together on an adventure to save some Zorgles that have disappeared. I don't want to go too far into the plot for fear of spoiling it. Please believe me when I say you must read this book. It is a fantasy adventure that was literally out of this world.

I'm a big fan of rhyming although all of the rhyming books I have ever seen tend to be picture books. That kind of wordplay isn't normally sustained for too long a period of time. But Weston pulls it off flawlessly. Not only does he create a magical book of rhymes but he creates a story that has excitement, danger, and likable characters. I could not put this book down. I had to keep turning the pages to find out what odd situation the two would get into next. The plot is silly and poignant at the same time and children will love this book as a read aloud. The rhymes are just so perfect. I am in awe of the work that this book took to create. The author makes what had to be an incredibly tough book to write seem effortless. An amazing book. You have seriously never read anything like this. 

Picture Book to....Picture

I published this over on my other blog but felt it fit better here. We'll see how the migrating thing works. 

A friend of mine just mentioned recently on Facebook that they were making a film out of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. If I had to list my absolute favorite picture book from when I was growing up, it would be this book. I never got tired of reading it or looking at those great pictures of a town buried in food. (Apparently I was a hungry child.) Sony Pictures is making the film and I normally have high-regard for what they do. I watched the trailer and I'm a bit...well...concerned. Add that to the already dubious Where the Wild Things Are that is coming out from Warner Bros this year. The visuals look amazing for this film but somehow I know they'll get the tone wrong.

For those who know me I'm normally incredibly harsh to films based on books I've loved. The movies are just never as good. I am reminded of my Grandmother who saw Gone With the Wind for the first time and declared it was terrible. If anyone brought up the film she would scowl and say it was rubbish compared to the book. I'm guessing that's where I get my attitude. The trailer for Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs focuses on a young inventor who creates a food making machine that goes wrong. Of course this character never appeared in the book. There were really no characters in the book, other than the grandfather and the kids. The book was wonderful because it was so sedate. It told the story of the town in a documentary style. The town itself became the main character. The movie looks to be zany in a way that makes me nervous. I know it's tough to stretch a 32 page book into a film but the question remains, why try? Just read the book.

I have to give credit where credit is due though. There have been a couple movies that have lived up to the picture books they were based on. The one I'm thinking of in particular is Meet the Robinsons by Disney. The film is based on the book A Day With Wilbur Robinson by William Joyce and matches the zany bizarre world that Joyce creates. Perhaps the film is so good because Joyce was involved in the design and screenplay. The book and screenplay are very different (with many added characters) but it is done while staying true to the tone of the book. The dialogue is hilarious, particularly the newly created Bowler-Hat Man. Its a very quotable film that somehow manages to be touching at the end. I've even talked to people who've cried at the end of the movie, a rarity for an animated film. So I have to admit, there was a film that actually compared well to the book. Now I'll just have to hold out hope for the others.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


I've been struggling with my drawing lately. I want so badly to illustrate my own work but learning to draw is slow going. So I draw things that kind of look like real life things. Kind of. And occasionally I get discouraged. So Ish by Peter H. Reynolds is a bit of a godsend. I have to buy this book. No if, ands, or buts about it. 

This simple but powerful book follows Ramon, who loves to draw. He draws constantly. He will draw anything and everything. One afternoon his brother glances over his shoulder and makes a comment about his drawing. It is devastating to Ramon. He suddenly feels that his drawings are no good. He is constantly crumpling his papers and tossing them. And finally he gives up. He feels that he is not good enough to draw. But Ramon's little sister uses one little word to turn Ramon's feelings around. Ish. His picture of a vase is not perfect but it's vase-ish. All of his images are ish. And Ramon realizes that there is nothing wrong with not having perfect drawings. Perfect-ish is good enough. 

This is an incredibly simple story with incredibly simple drawings but it was amazingly powerful for me. I think every artist should either buy or receive a copy of this book. Creating is hard. The critic inside all of us constantly tells us we are not good enough and that we should stop. This story is a wonderful reminder that the inner critic is only one voice. The drawings are simple ink and watercolor but they are warm. There is a lot of energy in the pictures and Reynolds sets the mood well with his choice of colors. Ramon's dark time of doubting is done with muted browns and greys and his revelation, courtesy of his sister, is all yellows and oranges. This is book with movement and energy. And a wonderful message. 

Children will love the images and the easy to read text but may not fully understand the message. Adults on the other hand will be clamoring to buy copies for themselves and their artist friends. We all doubt ourselves. This book reminds us that it is okay to create even if your work is not perfect. And that's a lesson that we can never hear too often. I can't recommend this book highly enough.  

Friday, June 5, 2009

Edward in the Jungle

I'm not sure if I should admit this but I'd never read David McPhail. Somehow I had managed to get through childhood and life without picking up one of his incredibly numerous and wonderful books. My trip to the library last weekend had me stopping in the M's looking for Meghan McCarthy when I stumbled onto Edward in the Jungle by David McPhail. I knew the name (how can you be interested in picture books and not have?) so I picked up the book.

This book reminds me so much of when I was growing up. I was a pretty imaginative child and would always tell myself stories (a habit that continues to this day. :-)). And in my stories I was always the heroine in some amazing adventure story. I was never one to play house, more interested in playing pirates, or archeologist explorer. I would describe the places and dialogue, so much like Edward does in this story.

The book follows Edward who loves to read adventure stories, particularly the Tarzan books. He even has some play animals just like the ones Tarzan hangs out with. One day Edward is reading on the shore when a crocodile (the only animal that Tarzan doesn't like) comes up and tries to eat Edward. He is afraid but then his literary hero saves him. A very real Tarzan sweeps down from the trees scoops up the boy and rescues him. Then he takes him to meet his animal friends and shows Edward how to call the animals to his aid. When Tarzan is called away to help a friend animal, Edward is chased back to the river where he was saved. There is the crocodile again but this time it is being taken by two men. Edward debates what to do but finally calls the animal friends to him and saves the crocodile.

I love the seemless blend of reality, Edward's house and figurines, and fantasy, Tarzan and the animals. This is exactly the kind of story I would have made up for myself as a child. The moralistic story is done with a light hand and Edward is a wonderfully believable character. He is not a hero like Tarzan is and McPhail makes him very unsure of himself in the story. Edward is just a normal shy bookish boy who gets involved in an adventure.

The illustrations are wonderful. They images are somewhat dark, like the jungle should be, with a rich palette of colors. The colors are well blended, giving a bit of a fuzzy appearance to everything. This provides a sense of energy and movement to the book. And in all honesty this is a book about action. The story is about living out an adventure that you have in your head. The book seems very much like a dream. I loved it. For a girl who has read and reread The Jungle Books over and over, this was a wonderful story. Now I have to go back to the library and pick up more David McPhail.