Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Past, Present and Future Brunch

Movable books, wordless books, and a Newbery winner with a bum rap are among the topics of today’s Sunday brunch which, as usual, offers up random information and opinions on children’s books from the past and present. And, hey, the first item is even about a book from the future!


A couple weeks ago, a book buddy in Connecticut told me there was an ARC (advance reading copy) of Shaun Tan’s forthcoming book, TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA, for sale on the internet for only eight dollars. Remembering what a collector’s item the author’s previous title, THE ARRIVAL, has become, I quickly ordered a copy. The seller described the book’s condition as “slightly bent on the right side, pages are fine otherwise.” When it arrived, the volume turned out to be more than “slightly” bent. The top and bottom corners were crushed from first page to last, and there was another big indention in the middle that ran through the entire book. As bent as the cover and pages were, the CONTENTS of the book -- Tan’s stories and illustrations -- are even more bent! This is a seriously strange volume. THE ARRIVAL showcased Mr. Tan’s artwork and proved he could sustain a full-length narrative without a single word of text. TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA proves that in addition to being a magnificent artist, Shaun Tan is a master of the written word. These short elliptical tales, by turns mystical and fantastic, will ignite the imagination and leave the reader thinking long after the last (bent) page is turned. There’s the story of “foreign exchange student” who sleeps in a teacup and travels on a wind-driven leaf, Grandpa’s tale of a calamitous pre-wedding sojourn with Grandma, a vignette about a “nameless holiday” in which beloved objects are placed on the roof as offerings, and an explanation for what happens to all the poems people write but “never let anyone else read.” The illustrations -- in black-and-white, sepia, and full color -- encompass a variety of styles, ranging from primitive to comic to fine art, and will leave readers wondering if the eccentric pictures inspired the twisted stories or the twisted stories inspired the eccentric pictures. Whatever the case, I predict that this book will be one of 2009’s most-talked about (not to mention most thought-about and sought-after) titles. Order your copy now and get ready for a mind-bending experience.


Shaun Tan’s hypnotic and dreamlike THE ARRIVAL tells a novel-length story without uttering a word -- a rare achievement. It’s even hard to write a picture book without words, though the genre includes some classics (THE SNOWMAN by Raymond Briggs, the “Carl” books by Alexandra Day) and Caldecott winners, most notably David Wiesner’s recent FLOTSAM, as well as his 1992 winner TUESDAY, which only contains four words of text (“Tuesday evening, around eight.”)

I was thinking about this a few days ago when I came across the book THE MARVELOUS MISADVENTURES OF FUN-BOY by Ralph Cosentino, a humorous volume whose illustration style reminded me of Japanese anime.

Though advertised as "wordless," this book made me realize that writing without words (is that an oxymoron?) is easier said than done. Presented in panels, the two-page tales in Cosentino’s book are sometimes truly wordless:

But words do sneak into the volume in the form of sound effects (a boy shouts “Wheeee!” on a slide and “oouff!” when he falls off) and, in fact, understanding a tale is sometimes contingent on reading the words within the illustration:

It’s good to see that sometimes words are necessary.


I don’t think we need to worry about wordless volumes taking over the children’s book world (what would M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing be without words? Nothing.) but there does seem to be a trend toward emphasizing art over text in books for young adults and children. Of course graphic novels are a legitimate, respectable genre and can be considered a true art form, but I wonder about this new trend of re-imagining established works of children’s fiction in graphic form. 2009 is going to bring new versions of Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children as graphic novels. At first I found this an intriguing idea...until I learned the new volumes are only going to be 32 pages a piece. Those aren’t books. They’re comic books. Besides, considering the state of today’s publishing world and the fact that many people in that industry have been laid off in recent weeks, I worry that there will soon be less emphasis on nurturing new talent and more emphasis on recycling old, popular books by dead authors (who can’t demand more money) into graphic form. I will venture a guess that HarperCollins -- which has prostituted the Laura Ingalls Wilder books into so many unnecessary remakes that the series should now be called LITTLE HOUSE OF ILL REPUTE (or LITTLE HO for short) -- will soon be offering these titles as comic boo-- I mean, graphic novels. Give them time. Five...four...three...two....


Speaking of picture-dependent books, my friends at the bookstore told me that they couldn’t keep Rufus Butler Seder’s book GALLOP! on the shelf last Christmas season. Now another holiday is upon us and Mr. Seder has a new book out, SWING!

Using a technique called “Scanimation,” these amazing volumes create motion right before your eyes on the page of a book. GALLOP! focuses on animals (chimps swinging from trees, turtles swimming) while STRIKE! has a sports theme, with kids biking, skating, and kicking soccer balls. How is it done? According to the author’s website “the technique combines parallax perception (your angle of view) with moiré-style multiple-line patterns to create the illusion of motion. When a scrambled image layer is viewed through a striped decoder layer, a series of sequential pictures is revealed to your eye, and your brain links this succession of images together, creating the illusion of motion.”


All I know is that these books are infinitely browsable and lots of fun. In the greater scheme of things, they’re probably no more than this decade’s Magic Eye (remember “put your nose against the page, then slowly raise your head until the picture emerges in 3-D”?) but, nonetheless, anyone who collects toy, movable, and novelty books will want to add these volumes to their shelves as an example of a new and fascinating technological breakthrough.


Last week’s discussion of endpapers led Sarah Miller (author of the outstanding Annie Sullivan novel, MISS SPITFIRE : REACHING HELEN KELLER) to write: “I'm more partial to textured endpapers than artwork. (Have you seen GREETINGS FROM PLANET EARTH? The endpapers feel sorta like the surface of the moon looks. The Pinkney's book on Ella Fitzgerald also sport a great texture/color combo.)”

I do remember those neat endpapers from GREETINGS FROM PLANET EARTH by Barbara Kerley and also recall some similarly impressive textured endpapers for PAINT THE WIND by Pam Munoz Ryan, also published last year. I’ve often wondered why only occasional books merit these types of special touches -- textured endpapers, colored endpapers, an embossed drawing on the front cover of a book, the author’s signature in gold ink on the front panel, etc. Do these things show that the publisher considers this a book of exceptional merit or distinction? Was there extra money in the book’s budget for these additions? Were they negotiated by the author? I’d love to know. And I wish more books were similarly bedecked and bedazzled.


The other day I came across this children’s book by Margaret Atwood.

I did not know that this Canadian literary author had ever written a children’s book. The copy I discovered, published by Groundwood in 2006, was a reprint of a 1978 McClelland and Stewart edition and contained this note from the author:

I drew this book in the very early days of children’s book publishing in Canada. We could use only two colours, as three would have been too expensive to print; hence the blue, the red, and the odd brown that is a combination of the two. I hand-lettered the entire book for the same reason: to save on costs. I had a background in poster design and printing – in my university days in the late fifties I’d had a little serigraph poster business that I ran on the ping-pong table – so I knew how to do the lettering. The drawings were black and white pen-and-ink – I then indicated to the publisher which of the two colours should go where. The techniques were primitive - -there were no computers then – and the results look a little primitive as well, but I remain very fond of this book, for sentimental reasons.

I enjoyed the intriguing info about Ms. Atwood’s life (the poster business run on the ping-pong table) and career (illustrating and hand-lettering a book) but was surprised that the late 1970s would be considered “the very early days of children’s book publishing in Canada.” Is that really so? I guess I need to research that myself. Even though I’ve spent my whole life in the Detroit area -- watching Canadian TV and listening to Canadian radio stations -- and can see Canada right across the river when I look out the windows at work, I’m woefully uninformed about the publishing practices of my next-door neighbors.


THE DAY BEFORE YESTERDAY, December 5, was Ann Nolan Clark’s birthday. She was born December 5, 1896.

YESTERDAY, December 6, was the anniversary of Ann Nolan Clark’s death. She died December 6, 1995 at the age of 99.

This author has been on my mind ever since I read a discussion of her Newbery-winning book SECRET OF THE ANDES on “Heavy Medal : A Mock Newbery Blog” which can be found here:

Anyone interested in the Newbery...and what may win the Newbery next month...will love this blog, which is written by Sharon McKellar and Nina Lindsay. I find it informative, opinionated, occasionally frustrating (like, when their opinions don’t agree with mine), but always fascinating. Ms. McKellar recently decided to tackle the great 1953 Newbery Medal controversy. You know the one. It’s the argument everyone uses when they want to diss the Newbery: “One of the most popular books of all time, CHARLOTTE’S WEB didn’t even win the Newbery! That year it went to a book called SECRET OF THE ANDES which NOBODY likes!” McKellar decided to read both books “with Newbery criteria in mind” to figure out “why SECRET OF THE ANDES might have been the winner although CHARLOTTE’S WEB has certainly stood the test of time/popularity better.”

You can go to the Heavy Medal blog to read all of Sharon McKellar’s conclusions, but I’ll quote a couple lines here: “I found SECRET OF THE ANDES to be a quite outstanding book. The language is poetic. Rich and sometimes heavy, the novel is full of lush descriptions, profound thoughts, and quietly strong characters.”

I breathed a sigh of relief when I read that. Although I grew up disliking ANDES as well, probably because of the CHARLOTTE controversy, a few years ago I went back to read the book when I wrote an essay on Ann Nolan Clark for the volume CHILDREN’S BOOKS AND THEIR CREATORS, edited by Anita Silvey, and came to similar conclusions: “Winner of the 1953 Newbery Medal, the novel is often cited as an especially poor selection because it defeated E.B. White’s CHARLOTTE’S WEB. The controversy may cause readers to overlook many excellent qualities found in Clark’s book, including beautiful, rhythmic prose and a rich appreciation for the Incan heritage. Its minor flaws -- plot elements that strain credibility and a slow, introspective tone -- do not prevent SECRET OF THE ANDES from being a rewarding work.”

Actually, as I read many of Clark’s books in preparation for writing that essay, I realized what an important and talented writer she was. An employee of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Inter-American Educational Foundation, she explored Native cultures in many outstanding poetic works including IN MY MOTHER’S HOUSE and a series of readers that were written in both English and Navajo.

Here, for endpaper fans, are the Jean Charlot endpapers of her beleaguered (but, c’mon, it’s really a good book) SECRET OF THE ANDES:

TODAY, December 7, is Pearl Harbor Day. The best Pearl Harbor novel I know is UNDER THE BLOOD-RED SUN by Graham Salisbury -- definitely worth tracking down if you haven’t read it yet.

TOMORROW, December 8, brings the announcement of the five titles shortlisted for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award. 2009 will be the first year this award is presented (the debut of the Debut Award!) According to the American Library Association:

The William C. Morris YA Debut Award celebrates the achievement of a previously unpublished author, or authors, who have made a strong literary debut in writing for young adult readers. The work cited will illuminate the teen experience and enrich the lives of its readers through its excellence, demonstrated by:

* Compelling, high quality writing and/or illustration
* The integrity of the work as a whole
* Its proven or potential appeal to a wide range of teen readers

I can’t wait to see what books are nominated. I intend to read all five and then evaluate the titles on this blog. I hope you will join me in reading and discussing these books.

TWO WEEKS FROM THURSDAY is Christmas. Many years ago my favorite writer, M.E. Kerr (AKA Marijane Meaker) placed an ad in her Long Island paper saying that she wanted to start a writer’s group. The huge response lead to the creation of the Ashawagh Writers’ Workshop in East Hampton, a group that Ms. Meaker still leads. Oh how I would love to be a member of that class, though I must say that one can also learn a lot just from reading her books -- a lot about writing, a lot about life. I never stop learning from them. Marijane Meaker reports that the writers of Ashawagh Hall have come up with a good idea for the holiday season: “Last night the class voted to buy as many books for gifts as possible. As you know the book business, like so many, is in chaos. So many top editors being fired.”

Good idea! I took tomorrow off work to do some Christmas shopping and will spend most of that time in bookstores. Maybe if we all “buy as many books for gifts as possible” we can help, in some small way, to save the publishing industry.


Sarah Miller said...

If you'd like a completely unbent copy of Shaun Tan's latest, let me know.

As for endpapers, your remark about PAINT THE WIND reminds me that Pam Munoz Ryan seems particularly blessed by the Textured Endpaper Fairy. ESPERANZA RISING has endpapers embossed with roses, and I recall BECOMING NAOMI LEON being similarly impressive, though I can't remember exactly what they look and feel like off the top of my head. Bright orange, maybe...?

wife2abadge said...

The minute I saw Gallop come in to the library I moused over to Amazon and bought it for my nephew. What a cool book!

Sandy D. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sandy D. said...

Interesting shot of the Jean Charlot endpapers. It caught my eye because I just finished dissing Charlot's illustrations in another Newbery winner (...And Now, Miguel) here:

The Secret of the Andes endpapers are way prettier than those in Miguel. Maybe part of it is the colors used.

Sorry about the deleted comment, I couldn't stand seeing a horrible grammatical error up there. I wish we could edit comments on Blogger.

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