Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lost & Found

I haven't written any reviews of young adult books lately.  But that doesn't mean I haven't been reading young adult books.  It just means that with the Cybils and the reading I focused on for awards season, I've written way more picture book and nonfiction reviews.  But I had this really special book I've been longing to share with all of you.

I was first introduced to Shaun Tan, an Australian author and artist, when The Arrival was published here in the United States in 2007.  It is an amazing graphic novel about relationships, immigration and family.  So I was looking forward to reading Lost & Found, an omnibus of three short stories that had been previously published.  This is just as classic in its themes, art and emotions.  What I want to stress to you is that this book resonates for adults just as much as it connects with teens.  Teens may be more comfortable than most adults with the graphic style.  But Tan does not often use the comic book panel style, so adults may be willing to give Tan's work a try.  Then they'll be sucked in by the feelings behind these stories.

I want to describe Tan's artistic style before I start describing the stories.  Because this is a graphic novel and because I don't have a way to present pages from the book for you to look at, you'll need to be able to envision his style.  Tan has a genius way of combining a realistic world with elements that are out of the ordinary.  There are mostly familiar things, so if you scan the illustration, you might not notice anything different.  But then, looking at the details, you see things that don't fit.  On a beach full of sunbathers with umbrellas, everything looks normal and peaceful.  Then you see the large, red...thing hunched over in the middle of the beach-goers.  The thing is industrial, almost like an enormous red pot-bellied stove, but it's not quite that either.  It has legs, a tail, a spiky head.  He takes a familiar scene and gives it an edge, something that makes you just a little uncomfortable.  You can look at that red thing (or many other elements in this book) several times and never quite figure out what it is or how it works.

Tan also uses collage and text to great effect in his work.  Text is present in several ways.  Each story has its own, individual typeface. "The Red Tree"'s typeface is more of a typewriter style, while "The Lost Thing" looks like it was neatly copied into a composition notebook.  And "The Rabbits" is done in a mostly capitals typeface which looks angry and unstable, fitting its theme.  But there is also text everywhere you look.  Many of the backgrounds of the illustrations are made up of ads, newsprint, signs and other forms of text.  And the collages lend a lush, inscrutable look to the illustrations - because Tan has painted over text and sketches and other illustrations, you can almost (but not quite) see what's going on behind the larger illustrations.

The first story is "The Red Tree".  It opens with a girl peering down at a red maple leaf swirling in the water.  She is floating in a paper boat.  You can clearly see that she is unhappy - the paper the boat is constructed from has words like "nothing", "worse", and "darkness" on it.  She looks hopeless.  And as the story takes shape, her isolation becomes overwhelming.  She is shown walking, hunched down, with the shadow from an enormous fish covering her.  She tries to ascend a ladder to a paper house - clearly there is no real way in.  Words surround her.  I've never seen depression expressed like this, and I believe many teens and adults will connect with its raw emotion.  And just when the girl seems to have given up all hope, she returns home at the end of the day.  And there, waiting for her, is that red leaf on her floor, growing into a lush tree.  It's magical, and a powerful expression of hope.  The girl, who has been mostly looking down throughout the story, suddenly looks up at the tree and her  face lights up.

"The Lost Thing" is the story of a boy who sees that large red thing I referenced earlier.  He sees that no one notices it and that no one comes to get this enormous...thing.  All of the adults around him just look right past it, or hurry past it on their way to other things.  Visually, this story is very industrial.  There are factories, steam pipes, gadgets and workers everywhere.  Even the backgrounds of this story are filled with work plans, diagrams and text on hydraulics.  When the boy can't find anyone to care for this thing, he and the Lost Thing go on a journey to find a place where the Lost Thing should go.  In the end, the boy states that he, too, has gotten too busy to notice the Lost Things which are clearly still around.  He has shed the majority of the trappings of childhood, but holds onto this one story to remind him of what he has lost.

Finally, there's the story "The Rabbits".  This is a story written by John Marsden, another Australian author, but illustrated by Tan.  These are the most unsettling, threatening illustrations in the book.  The story begins with rabbits  who come to the unseen narrator's land.   As rabbits do, they multiply, beginning to overtake the land.  The rabbits speak differently, build their own houses, and remake the narrator's land the way the rabbits want it, without regard for the people who were there first.  They fight wars against the narrator's people, they destroy the landscape, and most terrifyingly, the rabbits steal their children.  This story is shocking and heartbreaking.  Tan's illustrations suit the stark text perfectly.  The rabbits are oddly shaped, yet have human characteristics, including canes, top hats and spectacles.  They definitely give off an evil feel, yet you can see prosperity and innovation in the way they create.  The rabbits are in contrast to the landscape, with rich colors and empty spaces.  This is another story where both adults and teens will come away with questions and issues to think through.

All of these stories contain so much to think about and connect with.  I strongly urge you to find this book and take time with it.  It will be well worth your while.  There are no easy answers here, and I know that's why many readers will embrace it.

Lost & Found.  Shaun Tan.  Arthur A. Levine: Scholastic, 2011.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Quite Contrary Man

I'm not sure what it is about The Quite Contrary Man that keeps drawing me back.  I first saw it mentioned on a list somewhere this fall (and while I have a vague memory that it was an early Mock Caldecott reading list, I can't find it anywhere.  Sorry!).  I read it, liked it a lot, and thought I might blog about it.  But I had a lot to write about at that time, so I returned it.  Then Cybils season began, and it was on our list, so I checked it out again to read it.  It was due, and then I returned it for a second time.  But I put it on hold again so I could finally write about it.  There are some flaws here for me, but this book has really cast a spell on me.  It also seemed to cast a spell on Fuse#8, as it made her 100 Magnificent Children's Books of 2011.

Joseph Palmer is the Quite Contrary Man.  Hyatt says that "people called Joseph Palmer the most contrary, headstrong fellow in all New England!"  On the first page, Hyatt uses context to define "contrary" for readers who might not be familiar with the word.  She describes Palmer as "stubborn since the cradle", "pigheaded", and as above "most contrary, headstrong fellow".  So there is plenty of explanation to give readers an idea of how this man lived his life.

What there is not, on the first page or any other, is an actual date associated with the tale.  Hyatt begins the tale by stating "Back in the days of your great-great-great-great-grandparents..."but I think this folksy expression does a real disservice to readers.  I can't even figure out what year that might be - how would young readers do the math and even get the date right?  For the record, not even the historical note gives an exact date for the action retold here.  Hyatt gives some general ideas about the date - she says "thirty years later, during the Civil War" and "Now, more than a hundred and fifty years after Joseph Palmer went to jail".  And these vague references to date only come in the historical note, located on the very last page of the book.  I think this makes it harder for readers to really connect this story with the timeline of American history.  It's also a flaw when considering this book as nonfiction.

But now that I've gotten my biggest pet peeve out of the way, I want to talk more about the strengths of this story.  Joseph Palmer is a man who is very different from his neighbors.  The townspeople make an effort to look very similar - plain and proper.  Yet Joseph Palmer chooses a distinctive way to stand out from the crowd.  He grows an enormous beard.  And I do mean enormous - Hyatt describes it as flowing "from chin to belly and from elbow to elbow".  Palmer is eventually known simply as Beard Palmer.  And as can often happen when people do something dramatic to assert their individuality, others got angry with Beard Palmer.

But Beard Palmer isn't called the Quite Contrary Man for nothing.  He sticks to his guns and maintain his beard, even though his preacher tells him the beard makes Palmer look like the Devil.  He even quotes Bible verses back to the preacher.  And when men try to hold him down and shave him (with modern-day echoes in the Ohio Amish beard-cutting attacks), he fights them off.  He is even finally put in jail, where he languishes for an entire year, refusing to cut the beard the whole time.  He is one contrary man, all right.

One of the things I like best about this book is its themes.  Joseph Palmer knows he isn't hurting anyone by growing his tremendous beard, he's just showing his individuality.  And the fact that he is willing to stand up for his right to be different is something that he is definintely recognized here.  Sure, it's told with a little bit of humor, but Hyatt doesn't go over the top with Palmer's story.  Children will be able to recognize the threat of peer pressure and religious pressure throughout, and see how Beard Palmer's stubbornness helps him rise above all of that.

Many of Brown's illustrations are glorious. I wish I could show some of my favorites, but you'll be able to recognize them when you check the book out.  Though I haven't really talked about it here, the text focuses on Palmer's family - how they deal with a father who is ostracized and jailed for his beliefs.  Some of Brown's best work features the entire family (even Palmer's mother!).  On the very last double-page spread, the Palmer family dances in the road outside the jail.  There are smiles and delight all around.  The moon is yellow and full, casting the family's shadows ahead of them.  Many of the text blocks are wrapped in wooden twigs, entwined with vines.  This adds to the folktale feel of the book, and so does Brown's depiction of the infamous beard.  It truly has a life of its own as it wrestles its way out of the jail cell window, or stays sedately calm during church services.  The illustrations mostly keep the story on the light side.  Yet there are emotional pictures too, such as when Beard Palmer's son waits outside a prison window for his father's letter.  The young boy knows the letter, complaining about prison conditions, will only make things worse.  He is hunched down by the window, with sadness and longing on his face.  These illustrations really help convey the spirit of the text.

I only wish there had been more back matter to go with this story.  Even though it is told in more of a folktale style, perhaps a bibliography or more complete information on Joseph Palmer would have been welcomed.  But it is an interesting look at a man who just didn't want to be like everyone else.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.
The Quite Contrary Man: A True American Tale.  Patricia Rusch Hyatt; illustrated by Kathryn Brown.  Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2011.

borrowed from Lewis and Clark library

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Do you consider yourself a tree-hugger?  A tree lover?  I wouldn't have called myself a tree lover previously, but I would have said that I could certainly recognize their importance in our environment.  After all, trees can be their very own ecosystem.  And having grown up in California, I also would have guessed that one of the largest trees in the world would be located in Redwood National Park.  But reading this book made me realize that I just didn't know that much about trees in general.  And like any good nonfiction book, it made me want to learn more.

Celebritrees was a nominee for the Cybils award for nonfiction picture books.  Preus is an award-winning author, having won a Newbery Honor award last year for her 2010 novel, Heart of a Samurai.  So before I even opened this book, I had the expectation that this was going to be a well-done, interesting book.  And it definitely did not disappoint.  Preus looks at fourteen famous trees.  Can you believe that there are fourteen trees that are famous for their height, age or some other trait?  It is truly incredible and the stories Preus tells here are just as fascinating as the trees themselves.

She begins by looking at trees in general in the introduction.  The introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book, and this one is very reader-friendly.  She uses tidbits of information to draw readers into the main text of the book.  Did you know that treetops have held orchestras or party houses?  Did you know that the seeds of the American Revolution were sown under a tree?  Unfortunately, this is all you get to know about these little tidbits, as they aren't included in the main text, but this is a great jumping-off point for interested readers.  Trees can also be culturally important, and Preus shows just how important some of them are to countries around the world.

Each of these trees is showcased on its own double-page spread.  She uses a combination of facts and a more narrative style of informational text to get readers engaged.  The facts include the type of tree along with its general location (more on that later).  Then Preus tells more of the tree's story in a few short paragraphs.  For instance, the Major Oak is located in Sherwood Forest.  There is an enormous hollow in the tree that is the stuff of legend.  Robin Hood and his Merry Men were believed to have hidden within that hollow.  However, Preus continues on to mention that visitors compacted the soil and starved the roots, almost killing the tree.  She also describes the tree today as "a miniature nature preserve" which provides food and shelter for animals, birds and insects. 

There are so many interesting trees described here.  I was really surprised by some of the facts that Preus includes in this text.  I mentioned that many trees are only given general locations within the text.  Preus explains to readers that many of the most majestic trees' exact locations are kept secret to protect the trees.  Some of them need to be protected to maintain their root structures, like the Major Oak.  Others need to protected from vandals, or to keep their fragile trunks intact.  I had never known this before, and thought this was an example of the kind of information that keeps readers interested in this book.

This leads to my biggest concern about the illustrations.  Gibbon does a great job illustrating these trees.  But I can't help but wonder if these trees would have been better illustrated by photographs.  With photographs, readers might have been able to see these trees in their own environment.  They might also be able to see the finer details of the leaves if close-ups were used.  That being said, I do understand why their obscured locations probably made it impossible to obtain photos of these trees.  And Gibbon's illustrations have some definite advantages too.  Hyperion, a 379 foot tall redwood, is shown next to both a skyscraper and the Statue of Liberty.  This gives readers a visual measurement to go along with the written description.  It's very effective to see that redwood, strong and tall, towering over one of our country's greatest symbols.  The General Sherman, which Preus describes as "so wide that twelve people standing with their arms outstretched can't reach all the way around its trunk."  And Gibbon is able to show those same twelve people, dwarfed by the enormous tree, stretching their arms in vain. 

There is strong back matter to accompany this great text.  Preus includes four pages of additional information about all of the trees.  This is really valuable, as it expands on some of the things she mentions in the main text.  She includes comparisons to other types of trees as well.  She compares the enormous Hyperion to the arctic birch, which can only grow to ten inches tall because of the extreme weather.  There is also a list of suggestions for readers on how to help grow celebritrees.  These are primarily environmental suggestions, but they are worth reminding readers about.  Did you know you shouldn't take firewood with you when you are camping?  It may have tree devouring beetles in it which might destroy the trees around your campfire.  I had no idea!  There is also a bibliography and a list of websites too.

This is a really unusual book.  It made me look at trees in a whole new light, and it may even have made me into a tree lover.  Plus it inspired me to try and plan some trips to visit the celebritrees here in the United States.  Preus and Gibbon did a terrific job bringing this subject to life. 

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.
Celebritrees: Historic & Famous Trees of the World.  Margi Preus; illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon.  Henry Holt & Co, 2011.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Friday, January 13, 2012

Basketball Belles

Maybe now that the Cybils shortlist has been announced, you might think that I'd be done talking about Non-fiction Picture Books.  But you'd be wrong!  There are still lots of great books to talk about from our original list of books.  And many of them were books I hadn't heard about before this process, so I want to make sure you know about them too.
Basketball Belles: How Two Teams and One Scrappy Player Put Women's Hoops on the Map is a title that was nominated for a Cybil award.  Its author, Sue Macy, is perfectly suited to write this book.  Her other books are primarily nonfiction, and Macy examines with a keen eye topics in women's history and also sports.  So a book about the first intercollegiate basketball game is right up her alley.

The story in this picture book focuses on Agnes Morley.  It's told in a first-person style, so you see the game and everything leading up to it through Morley's eyes.  Agnes has grown up in New Mexico on a ranch, so she is used to tough, strenuous, dirty work.  But Agnes tells readers that her mother sent her to Stanford, hoping that college would "make me a lady".  Apparently Standford hasn't done exactly what Mrs. Morley had in mind.  From the very start of this story, Agnes is in motion.  Even before the game begins, she is shown running through the streets of San Francisco.  Her energy and enthusiasm along with her strength (developed at the ranch) make her a formidable guard on Stanford's first women's basketball team. 

Macy seamlessly works in facts about the differences between women's and men's basketball.  For instance, the first woman to adapt basketball into a game for women divided the court into three sections.  Each woman player is assigned to a section, where they stay for the whole game.  Macy describes the basketball as a "big, stuffed, leather ball" - a far cry from the ball we all know today.  But to me one of the most interesting differences between the game played in these pages and today's games was the score.  Stanford wins the game (a hard-fought battle) by a score of 2-1.  No, I didn't mistype that.  And it's pretty incredible that Macy can describe this game, and keep readers' interest, even without many baskets.
Stanford and Berkeley are playing the first intercollegiate women's basketball game, and it's not without controversy.  Berkeley's team does not want any men to be allowed to watch this historic game because they "don't feel it's proper for women to perspire in front of men".  Yet five hundred women show up to cheer their teams on at this game.  Morley retells what happens when a shot knocks the basket off-kilter and janitors have to be called: "Out they come, the only men in the building.  The assistant stares at us so intently, he almost knocks the janitor off his ladder!"  This effectively emphasizes how unusual this game and these teams were.  This short episode within the larger game allows Macy to comment on the situation  without adding historical bulk to the action of the game.

But there is one thing I found missing in this story.  The date of the game is nowhere to be found within the text of the story.  Maybe this choice was made purposefully - after all, the story is told through Morley's voice, and it might have been difficult to work the date into the retelling.  And the period illustrations definitely give the reader some historical context.  But I kept wondering about the date, in multiple readings, and would refer back to the date in the back of the book.  I will tell you that Macy does a fabulous job with the back matter for this story.  There is an extensive author's note with additional information about the game and Agnes Morley's life.  Macy has also included a timeline of women's basketball, a resource list with a bibliography and places to visit and a Stanford team photo.  I feel strongly about back matter.  Not only does it add to the authenticity of the story being told, but it can act as a springboard for readers' further investigation.

I would be remiss if I didn't spend some time discussing Collins' illustrations.  They match perfectly with Macy's text.  The text is full of action words - teammates "dive on top of me", a Berkeley player "throws a stinging pass".  This sense of movement is echoed in Collins' illustrations.  In almost every picture, someone is moving, and Collins does an amazing job translating that movement onto static paper.  They are running down the floor, girls are struggling for the ball and cheering at the win.  Collins really demonstrates the passion that is present in women's basketball from the very first game.

One of the techniques that is most noticeable in this book is his use of shifting perspectives.  The cover is a close-up of the basketball as Morley frantically dives for it.  There is a full-page illustration of women's feet pounding down the court with the cheering crowds glimpsed through players' legs.  The constantly shifting perspectives give the feeling of a modern-day televised basketball game, with multiple cameras following the action.  It helps add to the quick pacing of this book.  Readers can truly see the action in these double-spread paintings.  Some of the paintings have white backgrounds (much like the cover illustration) which focuses attention on the small details of the game.

The only negative about the illustrations (andI'm willing to contend that this may be more of a book design problem) is that on some pages the text seems to be haloed to make the black text stand out against darker shades in the illustrations.  What readers see is a little bit of light yellow or white around the words on those particular pages (like the one with Agnes Morley runnning past a streetcar on her way to the game).  This was probably done to enhance the text's visibility on these pages, but it instead made the text seem blurry to me, and gave it a slightly dizzying effect.

All in all, though, Agnes Morley is a compelling figure to follow through this game.  I think basketball fans would really enjoy this story particularly.  They might compare and contrast the game depicted here with the game they play today.  Either way, they'll come up a winner.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.
Basketball Belles: How Two Teams and One Scrappy Player Put Women's Hoops on the Map.  Sue Macy; illustrated by Matt Collins.  Holiday House, 2011.

My copy given by the publisher for review for the Cybils panel.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Secret River

It's been almost two weeks since my marathon Frances blog post, and I'm sorry there haven't been any posts.  It's not for a lack of material, believe me.  I have a huge pile of books to write about!  But last week on Sunday (when I usually write blog posts) we were all coming down with what ended up being a mammoth cold that knocked all of us out for the week.  That is a worry because my Frances is scheduled to get her tonsils and adenoids out next week, so we're really focused on getting healthy this weekend.  I'm aiming to write two posts to catch up this weekend.  I have so much to write about!

The Secret River was published this year to much fanfare and a little bit of controversy.  Rawlings wrote this story before she died in the 1950's.  This short story was originally published posthumously in 1956, with original illustrations by Leonard Weisgard.  A note at the back of the book says that The Secret River is Rawlings' only work written especially for children.  The work she's most famous for, The Yearling, wasn't intended for children at all, according to the note.  It's easy to see why a book written by a famous author, illustrated by a Caldecott-winning couple, would be published to much fanfare.  The controversy is a little harder to understand.  It boils down to whether or not this publication of the story is eligible for a Caldecott or not.  This book has an original copyright date of 1955, which seems to make it ineligible for consideration.  After all, in the Caldecott criteria, it states that "If a book is published prior to its year of copyright as stated in the book, it shall be considered in its year of copyright as stated in the book. The intent of the definition is that every book be eligible for consideration, but that no book be considered in more than one year."  This is something that was heavily discussed this year (this links to Fuse #8's blog post on the School Library Journal website).  The general consensus is that there have been other titles that earned Caldecotts for their illustrations even though the text had been previously published, including Ox-Cart Man, The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, and A Child's Calendar.  But of course, none of us are on the Caldecott committee, so we'll have to wait to see how this year's committee interprets the criteria.

Of course, there wouldn't be controversy and fanfare over a pedestrian book.  The illustrations by the Dillons are worth every moment of discussion.  The short story was written in the 1950's, but it has a very contemporary theme at its core.  It is set in Florida (a common setting for Rawlings' work), and it is told through the point of view of a young girl named Calpurnia.  At breakfast, her father announces that hard times have come to their forest.  When she asks for an explanation, he tells her "'It means that everything is hard, and especially for poor people.'"  Calpurnia's family is visibly poor - her father's overalls are patched in several places and there is a curling calendar page tacked onto the wall as art.  Her father tells Calpurnia that people are so poor that they won't be able to buy the fish he catches and he'll have to close his fish market.  Obviously, this strikes a chord with today's American children as well.  Children are still hearing and internalizing their parents' financial worries today.

But Calpurnia decides to take matters into her own hands.  Calpurnia is a smart and brave child, and she goes to find the wisest woman in the forest to help her solve the problem.  Mother Albirtha tells Calpurnia about a Secret River where she can catch big fish, so that "hard times can become soft times".  Calpurnia isn't just smart and brave, she is generous.  When she finds the Secret River and catches quite a few fish, she passes some of them out to hungry animals on her way back to town.  The fish she catches help the town rebound, one person at a time.  Calpurnia's generosity starts a new optimism for everyone.

This story is a unique combination of historical fiction and magical folktale, and this is exactly how the Dillons chose to illustrate it.  In many illustrations, townspeople are dressed in period clothes, doing the daily business of life.  They are struggling - you can see it in their faces.  But then there are the illustrations that look at life through Calpurnia's imagination.  For instance, towards the beginning of the story, Calpurnia is daydreaming a song about bees.  The illustration on that page is a close-up of Calpurnia's face, surrounded by a halo of flowers and enormous (placid) honeybees.  The colors are lush, the look on Calpurnia's face is one of dreamy determination.  It is beautiful, and perfectly shows the dichotomy of this short story.  There is the security of the historical setting (Calpurnia's neatly braided hair and checked dress) and the flight of fancy of the folktale (the imaginary bees and flowers that surround her brain).

Each double-page spread includes one almost full-page illustration.  The paintings are framed by a creamy white one inch border.  The border sets off the painting, giving it space to breathe.  Many of the paintings have so many details to pore over, so the border also gives the reader's eye a place to rest before moving on.  There are also patterns and textures everywhere in the illustrations.  As Calpurnia returns from the Secret River, she runs into a hoot-owl.  The owl, shown on the facing page, is large and menacing.  His talons grip the branch and look like steel or iron.  His eyes are enormous, fierce and threatening.  But what's best about this owl is the pattern in his feathers.  Throughout the feathers are the faces of other owls, looking just as angry.  They all glare at Calpurnia, echoing the danger she finds herself in.

There are also spot illustrations scattered throughout the book, on the pages with the text blocks.  Many of these smaller illustrations focus on Calpurnia or her beagle, Buggy-horse (so named because he is sway-backed).  They add to the overall feeling of this story, allowing the Dillons to use the larger illustrations to highlight one larger element of the story.  The bigger pieces have whimsy, mystery and bravery.  The Dillons have brought this story to life in a whole new way.  They truly do deserve a Caldecott for these gorgeous, imaginative paintings.  Go fishing in The Secret River and see what you discover.

The Secret River.  Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings; illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2011.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library