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- Jose Lucio, self-published author of Heave Ho!


Spark: A Book About Thought (2107)

Written and Illustrated by Esty Raskin

Inside>Out Press

What is thought? Where does it come from? My suspicion is that it has to do with complicated biological processes involving chemicals and stimuli, but then again, I'm not sure how the garage door opener works.

Spark is a deceptive book... deceptively simple. There seems to be something far deeper beneath the surface, and some very passionate, personally-held ideas by the author, Esty Raskin, though I'm still parsing what exactly they are. At the moment, I can say with certainty that there is this little fellow named Spark. He exists inside of our heads. He speaks through us, but can also be buried beneath too much language. He makes us happy and he makes us sad. He seems to be both us and not us.

Thought is the paintbrush of our experience, she writes. Reality is presented to us via thought.

She seems to conclude that reality is made up only of our experiences of it.... Which I believe is where the age-old conundrum of If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? comes from. I wonder how Spark would respond to that? I'll have to ask him.

The character design reminds me a bit of the Mister Men series by Roger Hargreaves, all bright colors and simple line work, very clear expressions. I liked the creative use of typography... something I don't seem much of in picture books.... the text circles and spirals and heads off at 90-degree angles, it all seems very thought-out, as does her use of color. 

Spark has something to say and something to hear. Look for my upcoming conversation with the author for more insight into this creative piece!


Beautifully Different (2016)

Written and Illustrated by Dana Salim

DS Publishing

“Why can’t we all be the same?” asks young Yousuf of his father as they lay upon the carpet of their home, assembling Legos together one afternoon. “Maybe if we all looked the same and enjoyed the same things, everyone would be nice to each other!”

His father agrees that the world would indeed be a far better place if everyone was exactly the same in every way, and they then resume their Lego-construction in silence.

No, just kidding. In actuality, his father entreats Yousuf to close his young eyes and play the Time Travel game with him! In this new, alternate dream reality, Yousuf has now traveled to a time period in which talking baboons serve as boat captains and large, magical birds can be summoned by shouting, “Kalabazooo!”

It’s not immediately apparent how this fantasy world can address Yousuf’s questions about individuality… but Yousuf doesn’t look like he minds much, as he bounces around a mysterious island filled with lush valleys and beautiful flowers and…. ugly, thorny weeds?!

“What’s going on? Why is it getting dark and cold?” Yousuf shivers in fear as dark storm clouds move in, threatening to destroy this paradise. As darkness enshrouds the land, up from the earth twist the weeds… grotesque tentacles covered in long, sharp spikes. They seem to have a mind and sinister purpose of their own.

“The Weeds have come to scare off each Flower!” Yousuf’s father explains, as the child recoils in fear. “They hate those different, and they have such power!”

Yousuf must find within himself the power to ward off these terrible Weeds, protect the beauty of the Flowers, and in so doing, learns a lesson about the importance of individuality and in being different.

The illustrations are colorful and expressive… the feel of the book seems to me to be inspired by Dora the Explorer. Any child who responds to that style of cartoon animation will undoubtedly enjoy Yousuf’s journey on the island, and I liked the sudden shift in tone when the weeds sprung out and everything instantly becomes quite foreboding. There’s a clear progression from one event to the next, but is suffused with the dream-logic of a child’s imagination.

The story ends with three quotes, each poignant in of themselves, but the juxtaposition of their sources are in of themselves furthering of the book’s themes:

“None of you shall become a true believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself. – Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)

“I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things. – Mother Teresa

“The good man is the friend of all living things.” – Mahatma Gandhi


A Conversation with Terry John Barto

Before writing children's books, Terry John Barto directed and choreographed more than 200 regional theater productions. In addition, he was the creative mind behind numerous television and cruise ship shows throughout the world.

He currently lives in Los Angeles and was good enough to talk about two books he wrote which I reviewed recently:
Nickerbacher, The Funniest Dragon and Gollywood, Here I Come!

What themes connect these two books?

Following your dreams, perseverance, and being true to yourself.
What was your own journey like? Was working in theater something you wanted to do as a child?
I'd always put together little shows in the living room when I was young, making tickets and charging admission for my family to come. The productions became more elaborate and I forced my little brother to perform on the pool's diving board.

In High School, I was in a singing group that got me interested in performing. I trained as a dancer and performed in theater productions and various roles at Disneyland, then choreographed a group called The Great American Entertainment Company founded by Bob Jani, who had created the Main Street Electrical Parade! I continued choreographing several musical theater shows and a few years later was directing as well.

So having worked in theater, why did you decide to pursue picture books?

While I was directing a show, an actress had asked me to be part of her new production company. She thought I had good story-telling abilities - as a director - and wanted me to help hone her ideas. We developed scripts for animation and out of one story, we created dolls. The company only lasted a couple of years, but I gained so much experience that I could then add to my resume.

I sent it out to about a hundred animation affiliated companies and got a response from the VP of Walt Disney Television Animation. He encouraged me to start developing my own ideas. One thing led to another and along the way, I met an editor who encouraged me and worked with me to develop these picture books.

Do you work with comedians in your theater work? Did any of them influence the character of Nickerbacher?

I performed with someone that had become a comedian, and consulted with her on Nickerbacher. I passed on a bunch of jokes…. some were tossed aside and others were tweaked. The comedy was the hardest part!

I contacted another comedian friend with regards to the overall story. She had a suggestion for the approach that a comedian would take... when Nickerbacher is practicing in his room, I had originally written - He auditioned and auditioned. After awhile, he finally got his big break. My friend told me that comedians practice on audiences and prepare, so that line became - After many hours of practicing and preparation, he finally got his big break. 

On a side note; In Nickerbacher's room, the pictures on the wall are supposed to be his idols, and they are my comedian friends that helped!

How much back and forth did you have with the artist with regard to character design and the overall look of the books?

For Gollywood, Here I Come!, I tried to get an artist who was extremely busy so I worked out all the scenes in advance. Ultimately, she couldn't do it and I ended up with a great artist from Italy, Mattia Cerato. I e-mailed him the scenes that I had already developed and for reference, sent him a book about Southern California in the 1950's. I had specific ideas for each of the characters, even the smaller parts.

With Nickerbacher The Funniest Dragon, Kim Sponaugle and I created the scenarios over the phone. We went page by page, then she set out to draw preliminary sketches. Before she did the coloring, I offered suggestions and insight.

Is writing children's book been just a part time hobby for you, or has it become the new focus of your career?

I continue to focus on my writing career and have other projects I'm working on.

For example, Nickerbacher, The Funniest Dragon has evolved to a newly released chapter book called (just) Nickerbacher. This time I've taken a step further of what comedians do. They speak from personal experience and truth., so Nickerbacher learns that being a comedian is more the puns and jokes. It's about telling a compelling story. All 3 books can be found on my author page at Amazon. amazon.com/author/terryjohnbarto

 Part of the Conversations with Storytellers series.


Gollywood, Here I Come! (2014)

Written by Terry John Barto

Illustrated by Mattia Cerato

The book opens with an impressive and expansive panorama of the town of Gobbleville, filled with buildings of all shapes and sizes, swimming pools, taco huts, trucks and buses. In the far off distance, beneath the setting sun and a passing zeppelin, loom the large, white letters, “Gollywood!”

The artist, Mattia Cerato, specializes in maps when he's not illustrating stories, and this definitely seems right up his alley. 

From here, the scene zooms in on a parade marching down the main street. Anamazie Marie LeBelle is leading the Wattle View School Marching Band, tossing the baton high into the sky and imagining all the great things to come in her life! And no sooner is the parade over, than Anamazie has time only for a quick change of clothes before arriving at the theater for her next passionate calling, a patriotic tap dance on Gobbleville’s Got Talent!

 Thunderous applause roared from the audience as Anamazie landed in the splits and belted out the last note!


Gobbleville's Got Talent!
From there, the author charts Anamazie’s meteoric rise to fame, as she at lasts finds her way to Gollywood, securing the starring role in The Turkey and I, directed by the famous J.B. Tuttlebaum... with only a few bumps along the way.

“I can’t work with this!” her co-star, Jake Quigglemap shouts as he storms off the set, after Anamazie has messed up a scene.

"You will star in my next motion picture!"

"I can't work with this!"

But all is well that ends well, and end well it does. Anamazie gives an inspirational final adieu to her former classmates, “My mom says you can do anything if you work hard and never give up!” and then it’s back to her limo, away from the blinding flash of the paparazzi, and she’s back on her way to Gollywood!

As he did also with Nickerbacher, the Funniest Dragon, which I reviewed last time, the author Terry John Barto writes a story about a character finding their calling and following their dreams. 


Nickerbacher, The Funniest Dragon (2015)

Written by Terry John Barto

Illustrated by Kim Sponaugle


Nickerbacher is a dragon with bushy eyebrows who spends his days and nights lazing before a tall tower, guarding the fair maiden entrapped within, the set-up for many a standard fairy-tale. But Nickerbacher doesn’t want to be part of a standard fairy tale, he’d rather be out preforming stand-up comedy at a nightclub.

“Why did it take me forever to cross the road? Because I’m always a-draggin!”

But dragons don’t perform comedy. Dragons fight knights. Dragons breathe fire. Dragons do dragon-things.

“Every dragon has a duty to guard princesses!” growls his frowning father, a much larger dragon whose eyebrows aren’t even a tad bushy.

“But I want to tell jokes!” Nickerbacher pleads.

His father isn’t having it.
"You're not supposed to make people laugh, you're supposed to scare them!"

Nickerbacher seems resigned to this life when finally that other standard storybook trope, the brave knight, makes his appearance. His name is Prince Happenstance, and he has come to rescue the princess and to do battle!

Nickerbacher, however, has only one weapon in his arsenal. “I’m a comedian. I’ll slay you with laughter, Prince Fancypants!”

"Don't you think I'm funny?"

The art by Kim Sponaugle is fun and expressive. I liked the design of all of the characters. She creates a convincing-looking dragon that works as well in a medieval setting as he does even after he’s donned a loud bow tie and jacket, standing onstage before an audience of anachronistic theater-goers.

“You know what happened to the dragon whose dream came true?” he asks his adoring crowds. “He lived happily ever after.”

Hm… seems I recall hearing that line in a movie somewhere…  But perhaps this is a fairy tale after all!

"Ladies and gentlemen, the Comedy Castle presents...."


The Cat From Hunger Mountain (2016)

Written and Illustrated by Ed Young

Paper collage

Philomel Books

This book is dedicated to 'the strange virtue in deprivation, an unwanted and the least understood gateway to humanity and life's riches,' which is not the most straightforward of dedications, but Ed Young does not make orthodox picture books.

There is a simple lesson in this story: the importance of not wasting food, but it is wrapped up in so much beauty and mysticism, that it seems to have come directly from some ancient Buddhist text... albeit one with a talking cat.

Young has again used paper collage as his medium, and to great effect. The snowy landscapes are especially vivid, and the cut paper is used well to show the cold breath coming from the mouth of his wandering Lord Cat. A few pages later, and the cut-paper is now a beige, barren landscape where famine has persisted for several years... even the long, red paper strip to signify blood coming from the beak of a hunter bird had a special vibrancy to it. I don't often think of paper-collage being so detailed and precise. Young fits it all in perfectly. I could feel the movement from one land to the next, the proportioning of the characters, the distance between them.
Hunters gifted him with rare meats...
Lord Cat is the main character who lives at the top of a tall pagoda atop Hunger Mountain in extreme opulence, while all around him his subjects wallow in hunger and misery. He only ever eats half the bowl of rice given to him each day, and demands the rest be taken away. It almost seems like its his way of rubbing his wealth into the noses of his many servants. All the meanwhile he shouts, "There is more rice to harvest!"

"Are you blind? Can't you see the bowl is half-empty?"
But all good things must eventually come to an end. Famine eventually overtakes his kingdom, reducing all to waster. For the first time, Lord Cat must leave Hunger Mountain, and go wandering through the land, conversing with beggars and becoming a beggar himself. Like the Buddha, he discovers the true meaning of contentment and happiness.

The famine persisted a second year.
 To this day, if you enter this temple in the foothills of Hunger Mountain, you'll find an urn in the shape of a cat. From it you can take out a tab with an inscription that reads, Only I know what's enough."


I am Pan! (2016)

Written and Illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein

Roaring  Book Press

This book immediately caught my eye with its exuberant cover and title-as-declaration. In an era in which the word-count for the average picture book is ever shrinking, I was impressed by its heft when I lifted it from the shelf. Nearly 80 pages of story!

The books follows the lifespan of Pan - from his birth to his... death? Do gods die? We do get an answer of sorts. We also witness the passage from one era to the next, from an ancient world in which the gods are very real beings whose antics have very real consequences, to a modern world wherein the gods have become myths and stroll about incognito.

"Most of the retellings of the Greek myths I've seen take the stories and characters quite seriously. Or they treat the gods and goddesses as superheros, telling us how great, grand and powerful they were," writes Gerstein. "But from my reading, [they] could also be bad-tempered, silly, jealous, vengeful and ever stupid... that's what these myths are: gossip about the gods."

Following the momentous occasion of Pan's birth come ten stories of Pan's life, which chart how he charms and delights all of the gods - which is why Zeus names him 'Pan.' Pan meaning all, "because he delights ALL our hearts." It doesn't take him long before he wears out the patience of the gods with his unending pranks and mischief and is banished to Arcadia.

Pan falls in live with the moon, with nymphs and with his echo. He does battle with Monster Typhoon. All of the stories are funny and clever, and filled with enthusiasm. I think my favorite was "The Great Music Contest" in which Pan and Apollo try to outdo each other musically, with Mount Timolus serving as judge. After a few pages of childish banter, Gerstein includes two gorgeous double-page spreads back-to-back, one demonstrating Pan's prowess on the pipes, and the other demonstrating Apollo's skill on the harp. Each image is stunning, and make for a great contrast amidst so much foolishness.

In the end, Pan brings out the best in everyone he comes across, gods, nymphs and humans. "A perfect deity for kids," Gerstein writes. "Because though fully grown, at least he's one of them."

All hail Pan, goat-footed, two-horned lover of noise and chaos. God of music and confusion, sleep and shepherds, goats and goatherds, duck and duckherds, cows and cowherds, beekeepers and bees!


A Wolf at the Gate (2015)

Illustrated by Joel Hedstrom

Mennonite Worker Press

I first met Mark Van Steenwyk during the 2014 Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC. He and his family were a part of our makeshift encampment, and though the festival was in a state of near-constant downpour, our children nonetheless delighted in all the glorious mud.

He was there to talk about his recently published book, TheUnkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance (2013, InterVarsity Press). I am unsure if A Wolf at the Gate was gestating at that time, though its themes are certainly very much in line with the rest of Mark's social-justice-oriented work and writings.

The story is based on the legend of Saint Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio, originally written in the Fioretti di San Francesco in 1390. In that tale, good ol' Saint Francis fearlessly approaches the cave of a fierce and bloodthirsty wolf which had been terrorizing a small mountain town in the far northeastern part of the Italian province of Perugia.

"Brother wolf," says Saint Francis, "Thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God; for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer. All men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee, and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies; but I will make peace between them and thee, O brother wolf, if so be thou no more offend them, and they shall forgive thee all thy past offences, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee any more."

"I've always wondered what the story would be like from the wolf's point of view," Mark writes, and in so wondering, he fills in the whole of wolf culture, a culture in which oral storytelling is just as important as learning to hunt.

"It is better to be hungry with neighbors than it is to be well-fed alone," is one of the lessons passed down from elder wolf, but the central story? Simply thus:

"We were the Lords of the Forest.

Then the humans came."

"Humans don't just kill to survive. Sometimes they kill out of rage. And they don't just eat to survive; sometimes they eat when their belly is already full. They are violent and greedy. They aren't like any of the other beasts in the forest; they want to own it all.That is why we hide deep in the shadows and high in the mountains. We wait and watch. We live in fear."

I was surprised at this books's length - 78 pages, which includes several beautiful full-page illustrations by Minnesotan artist Joel Hedstrom. It is a volume with some heft, but not due to any excess verbage on the part of the author. To the contrary, I found Mark's prose clean and direct. The heft comes from the burst of storytelling. This is no mere re-telling, but rather The Wolf of Gubbio is a canvas upon which to paint several thematically connected stories, all informed by Mark's commitment to social justice and child-like sense of wonder.

The central wolf character was born all red, and is referred to as "Blood Wolf" throughout. The only explanation given is that she was born under the red glow of the Hunter's Moon. Narratively, it makes for a nice distinguishing characteristic and a kick-ass moniker, but it really affords Joel some awesome graphic opportunities. The stark contrast between the red wolf and the black eponymous gate works so well, it makes me wonder if Joel came up with it first, and Mark only then incorporated it into the story. Everything feels big and mythic and full of purpose.

In the story, Saint Francis is referred to as "The Beggar King." He is wise and saintly, and now that Blood Wolf has forsaken the teachings of her parents and terrorizes the small village, it is he who must make peace... not through any supernatural means - he has no mystical powers - but only wisdom. But even he falters when considering Blood Wolf's many questions about the inequity and injustice that she witnesses.

"Beggar King, why do some families live in big houses while others live in small houses? Some even make houses for chickens and dogs. Yet many beg and have no homes at all?"

This is a fable with no easy answers. We are confronted with the greed and selfishness which seems inherent in all living creatures, yet must believe that they can be overcome. The story follows the life of Blood Wolf as she helps the denizens of Stonebriar in more ways than one, and even charts the years following her death and memorialization. She "tried to rule through fear, but learned to serve with love."

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