Monday, May 28, 2012


In my continuing effort to read all the books in the anthology 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, I took home Fox, written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Ron Brooks. I'd never heard of the book before but minutes after reading it, I can't get it out of my mind. I'm haunted by this book.

The story is simple about a magpie with a burnt wing that can't fly and a one-eyed dog who has trouble seeing. The two are the best of friends and protect each other. Each day the magpie sits on the dogs back while he runs so she can feel like she's flying and the dog has a second pair of eyes to see. "Fly Dog Fly! I will be your missing eye, and you will be my wings." It's a sweet friendship based on need and tenderness. When a fox arrives, the magpie is worried. And it becomes even more worrisome when the Fox tells the magpie to ride on his back to really feel like she's flying. Magpie resists for a time. She's loyal to Dog. But finally she gives in. Fox takes her for a long fast ride until he reaches the desert. I won't give you the ending. It was not something I was expecting. It's the reason I'm haunted by this book. I can't stop thinking about where and how the author ends the book. I loved this tale of sweet friendship and betrayal. And I can't shake it.

Ron Brooks' illustrations are rough and haunting as well. He uses multiple wispy lines to create the characters and the setting. Brooks hand lettered the book to give it a very primative feel. In fact the whol books seems like a folklore tale. An Aesop's story in vivid color. The colors are lovely. Brooks uses multiple media to create both his characters and the worlds they live in. The cave and the desert and the woods are represented with the same wispy lines but look distinctly different.

I've read several books since reading Fox and although there are many that I've wanted to write about, this story pushed it's way to the top. It's not the kind of story that I typically like although the friendship is wonderfully rendered. I loved Dog, loyal Dog with his one white sightless eye. He is presented as quintessential dog. But this story would have been something that I'd read and considered done if it wasn't for the ending. I'm haunted by it. I can't stop thinking about Magpie and Dog. And for me that is why this book is powerful. It's one of the more powerful picture books I've read in a while.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

John, Paul, George, and...Ben

I'm sure I've mentioned before how much I love Lane Smith's work. I fell in love with Lane's work at The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, his first collaboration with Jon Scieszka. Since then I've read and looked at everything that Lane Smith has done. I own most of his books and I love almost everyone. But John, Paul, George, and Ben has a special place in my heart. I giggle every time I read it. I laugh out loud repeatedly. I love the history, both pretend and real. And I love the characters.

This is really the story of John, Paul, George, Ben, and Tom. John Hancock, Paul Revere, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, that is. All the men who had a role in forming the United States. Lane imagines them as boys and shows off how their early personalities affected their later contributions. He looks at each of the men separately, mixing historical facts with invented stories. While the facts are fun, it's what Lane invents that makes this book. For example, Paul Revere used to be in the bell ringers chorus (before they invented fun, Lane comments) and because of the loud bells, he can't hear himself talk anymore. So he yells. As a store clerk in his father's store, the yelling does not go well (You need extra extra large underwear?). As a rider warning about the British attack, the yelling makes him a hero. The yelling is all invented. And is giggle inducing. And the stories just get better from there. Ben Franklin has to be my favorite (but I'll save that for you to find).

Lane Smith's illustration work is what got him his start. And he's on top of his game here. Mixing formal portraits with gross caricature, he creates a book that's both zany and beautiful. He makes the background paint look cracked to give the book an aged feel. The muted colors look faded. But the characters are what make the book. George Washington (looking a bit like Charlie Brown) has oddly cracked teeth in reference to his later need for dentures. Paul Revere has his famous tri-corner hat and a huge mouth that is always wide open. Ben doesn't yet have his famous spectacles but he's instantly identifiable. The artwork is perfect. The stories are funny and the book makes me happy. Lane even provides a section at the end with historical facts about each figure and lays to bed some of the popular myths. So I could even say it was educational as well.