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Picture Books in the news
Illustrated by Karen Clarkson
Cinco Puntos Press
When Indian storytellers and writers get together, we often ask, "How much can we tell them?"
I'd love to be a fly on the wall at one of those get-togethers. It turns out, Tim Tingle has quite a bit to say in this book, put out by good ol' Cinco Puntos. The story goes to a lot of places. Beginning with a rousing bee sting on the bottom, feeding chickens and doing chores, to a stone thrown in anger and fear, a cut across the face, and a really beautiful image of Tim's grandmother as a young woman, holding her hands to her face with blood seeping between her fingers, her son's tiny hands reaching up with curiosity. It reminded him of sweet cherry pie filling, bubbling up from the criss-cross crust of Mawmaw's pies.
This is 'saltypie,' the taste of the blood, the sting of the bee. "It's a way of dealing with trouble, son. Sometimes you don't know where the trouble comes from. You just kinda shrug it off, say saltypie. It helps you carry on."
All of these stories come from Tim Tingle's familial recollections. He's working through these feelings of anger, hostility, which he had as a child, trying to understand why the universe wasn't fair.
The identity of the stone-thrower was never discovered, and it's interesting how it's not a central part of this story. It's just something that happened, and soon makes way for the story of Tim's grandmother recovering her sight decades later. "Maybe it was a stone of misunderstanding, thrown by a boy who simply didn't know," writes Tim. "...let us forgive him. Let us teach his grandchildren, so they will pocket their stones and extend a hand in friendship."
There's quite a bit going on in the afterward to the book, I found it to be as interesting, if not more interesting, than the story itself. In response to the question, "How much can we tell them?" he writes:
Can we tell them that the vast majority of children's books written about Indians in America were not written by Indians? Can we somehow convince them that this matters?
I haven't done a Leonard Everett Fisher book in a while, and I was surprised to see that this one was from 2001. Whenever I hold one of his books, they always seem to have the feel from a bygone era, not something nearly so recent. Paul Galdone has the same effect on me. There's nothing at all flashy or ironic about anything he produces, his books are uniformly handsome and solid.
In this volume, we get exactly what the title promises: the Gods and Goddesses of the Norse people, including fan favorites Odin, Thor and Loki, but who here are given no more special attention than Frigga the goddess of Marriage (from whom 'Friday' comes) and Bragi the God of Poetry. I do appreciate, however, that only Loki's designation is given qualifying quotation marks: "God" of Mischief.
After all the characters have been introduced and their relationships between one another spelled out, it all comes to a head in the final entry: Ragnarok: The Last Battle. Everyone dies, and in very specific ways: Odin will be swallowed alive by Fenris the wolf, Fenris the wolf will be killed by Vidar, and on and on, a death chain. "Once the gods are dead, the last two surviving giants would gulp down the goddesses of Asgard, and then devour the suin, the moon, and the stars. Then they too would disappear. Finally, the great tree Yggdrasill collapses, bringing down the entire universe, leaving behind a cold, empty, and black universe."
This really does sound like the death of the universe, the Big Crunch as some call it, though Stephen Hawking thinks the cosmos will just spin out further and further until everything is too far away from anything to survive. But I prefer imagining everything being devoured and collapsing, the oscillating universe, the Big Bang followed by a Big Crunch followed by another Big Bang and so on. I guess the Norse agree: "After a while, the dark void would give way to a new universe. New worlds would be born. And the gods and goddesses would rise again, to rule a world without evil."
But will they be the same gods and goddesses? Or different iterations of the old gods? How can they say for certain that there will be no evil? Perhaps everything will be doomed to repeat itself. Freya's husband Od will leave her once again, and again she will cry herself to sleep with tears of gold.
Illustrated by James Stimson
Illustrated by Neil Waldmen
Pran watercolors and Micron archival inking pens on Arches cold-pressed watercolor paper
Boyds Mills Press
Tonight is the first night of Chanukah... not to mention the night before Thanksgiving and my son's birthday. There was some snow in the wind on the walk home from the train station, but it became mere rain - cold rain - as I finally approached our house.
I have several books on Purim reviewed on this blog, but none on Chanukah. I am trying to remedy that oversight. This story is a based on "A Letter to the Almighty," the author informs us, which was collected in the book Folktales of Israel published in 1963, edited by Dov Noy. But she doesn't stop there. "Meir Amrusi recorded the original tale," she continues, "as told by his Tunisian-born father."
It's been around for a long while.
Something which struck me as similiar to this as many of the other Jewish folktales I've reviewed on this blog, is that God does not make an appearance, nor is there anything supernatural about the proceedings. It all hinges on a grand misunderstanding. Hayim, the poorest man in his village, writes a letter to God, asking him to please provide the oil necessary for Chanukah, lest the entire village goes without their holiday for the season. The letter is carried off by the wind, and lands in the hands of Ger Yehudah, a wealthy merchant, who assumes the letter is from God... You see how these things happen.
The faith in God is what is important, to be a man of faith is what is most praised. The story charts the lives of both men, strangers to each other, and their eventual meeting, which is moving for both of them.
Perhaps I was wrong when I said there was nothing supernatural:
From that time on in the village, there was never a year without Chanukah. The rain was a friend, the olive trees blossomed, and there was oil enough to light the menorahs.
Berol Primacolor pencils
We're coming up on Thanksgiving, and this is a good one to read if you think Turkeys might be good for something other than eating. It's based on a Navajo story, though the form of it reminded me of the Lenape tale Rainbow Crow. In Rainbow Crow, the earth was about to be consumed by snowfall, but in this tale, a "wall of water" is headed towards the land, first spotted by the Crow, and all the animals must figure out how to escape.
I like the threat of impending doom, and it is great to see how the animals work together to escape. There is no single easy solution, they must all share ideas and use their abilities to ensure that they are all safe.
Mouse has the idea to hide in the giant reeds.
Beaver gnaws an opening in them.
Spider weaves a web so they can climb to the top of the reeds.
Wasp seals the opening back up again.
All of the animals are accounted for... excepting the Turkeys. Where are the Turkeys? Eagle goes gliding over the earth, seeing the oncoming tidal wave, but also the Turkeys, running for their lives.
"Hurry!" Eagle shouted. "You can make it!"
Later, safe and sound, the Turkeys explain, "You forgot the seeds."
Then he spread his feathers, letting the thousands of seeds that he and his wife had collected fall to the ground - the seeds the People would need to rebuild and survive after the flood waters receeded.
Illustrated by Tom Wrenn
This is a silly one - so silly I was at first skeptical as to its origins. It doesn't seem like an Indian folktale, it reads more like the kind of story the dad who thinks he's the funniest dad in the universe would tell his children, right up to the punchline, a pretty groan-inducing pun. But I like groan-inducing puns, and I happen to think I am the funniest dad in the universe, and I realize my own xenophobia as I write this. Puns and silliness are far from being inventions of western civilization in the 21st Century, after all.
The King has dirty feet, it is true. And he is racking his brains - and the brains of every man, woman and child in his kingdom - to figure out just how he can possibly take a bath in the river, get all cleaned up, but then keep his feet clean upon exiting the river. It is a conundrum of dire porportions! The premise is ridiculous, but from there everything builds like a well-told joke, until, lo and behold...
"You can all go about your business and stop making so much fuss," says the old man. "Go on home now. Shoo. I said shoo!"
Hey, this one was pretty good. This is the third volume of The Adventures of Nzumah, all written by Naa Korkoi Abotchi, and published by Matador - who were good enough to send me these complimentary copies.
I couldn't find much information on Abotchi, other than that she was born in Ghana and now lives in Harrow. "[My] series has been inspired by conversations with her grandmother," she writes in her author bio, "whose story telling was legendary and who has been a very important part of [my] life. She is still very much alive when I remember the stories every day."
Nzumah is back in another story-within-a-story. This book follows from The Ugly Chick. I liked that in this one, we are given some more details about the world the story takes place in. Before, all we knew was that Nzumah was the son of a king. As this story opens, the kingdom is given a name, the Bantu kingdom, and we are told that it is, "surrounded by hills in a secluded valley... hidden from the world."
Althistorywikia.com is the wiki page for fictional places and histories, so I'm not really sure what's going on here, or why it's significant.
What I am sure about is the fact that in this story, Nzumah struts around his village, going from the market to the story hut, dressed in a new outfit that the youngest of his father's wives had given to him. But... how can he play when he's wearing nice, new clothes???!!!
Fortunately, the tale of the Proud Peacock is told to him, and the day is saved. Phew!
Funny to think the last time I reviewed this basic story, it was for the Maynard Moose tale, The Uglified Ducky. Now here it is again, but told with complete earnestness. It's not a moose being raised by ducks, but an eagle being raised by a hen, at the foot of Mount Killimanjaro, which is a good place for a story to take place.
This is the first book in a trilogy of books about a young boy named Nazumah, the son of a King, to whom the great lessons of life are imparted via storytelling.
This was a strange book for me to read, and I'm having a lot of trouble saying anything about it, I'm afraid. I'm so used to reading children's books which somehow subvert the presumed expectations of the readers, or find some ironic twist... but this is pretty much a straight-up ugly duckling story. Hen raises the ugly chick, turns out its an eagle, and Nazumah realizes, "We are all special in different ways and should learn to respect each other."
Illustrated by Rex White
I thought this one was just great, it has a real cinematic quality to it. I've reviewed a few books now that have attempted to begin their stories before the dawn of time, though I think they've all thus far been of the Judeo-Christian ilk. But the beginning of time is the beginning of time, I suppose, and inky blackness is inky blackness.
Long ago, Pan Gu walked in the void of the heavens. He was all there was and he was alone, so Pan Gu never smiled.
Pan Gu is drawn as a quick little illustration in the lower right-hand corner. He looks like an unfinished sketch, with all of the extra pencil strokes retained. He has a worried, pensive expression, not what one would expect from the Creator of All Things.
For the next several pages, Pan Gu moves about the pages, creating a world that is only a dull brown seed.
The show doesn't really start until page 7, a double-page spread of the black dragon. In contrast to the previous sketches, this character appears to be rendered with cut-paper. He is large and foreboding, containing as he does, all of Pan Gu's knowledge and logic. I like that they took their time before showcasing this and the true artistry of the book.
It builds to a crescendo as the white dragon is introduced, containing all of Pan Gu's ideas and dreams, but both are equally ferocious. "Darkness chased the light which then chased the darkness in return. They fought tooth and claw, and caused chaos in the void as each tried to put an end to the other." The artist is able to do some cool things with the imagery, bright flashes of light shining from their claws.
Finally, their battle descends upon the Earth, a tiny, stationary planet in the midst of the cosmos. And as the two equally-empowered dragons continue their never-ending fight, the Earth slowly begins to rotate.
But then comes a real narrative twist, as we're suddenly on the planet Earth, where a boy and his grandfather are fishing as the sun rises.
"There is wisdom in the balance between light and dark, ocean and land, even dreams and logic.
Each controls for a time, but must give way to the other for its own sake."
"What about young and old, Grandfather?"
"Yes. I suppose especially then."
Gouache and ink
16 point Clarendon Semibold
This is the complete tonal opposite of The Magic Tree, I can't help but wonder how intentional the contrast was. The Magic Tree was all blues and blacks - which perfectly fit the downbeat story - but Arrow to the Sun is full-on blinding yellows and golds and shades of orange.
The first image is - fittingly - the sun itself. Within its center stands a god, holding his bow, sending a fiery shaft to the earth, "the spark of life." But this isn't an origin story. It's divine conception.
He's called only 'the Boy,' and its not clear if he or his mother understand what has happened.
...the other boys would not let him join their games. "Where is your father?" they asked. "You have no father!" They mocked him and chased him away.
And so begins his quest. It's a classic game of threes. The Corn Planter, the Pot Maker, the Arrow Maker... Ah. It is Arrow Maker who has some answers, and the ability to shoot the boy back to the sun in order to become reacquainted his his father.
But all is not so easily resolved:
"Perhaps you are my son, perhaps you are not. You must prove yourself. You must pass through the four chambers of ceremony - the Kiva of Lions, the Kiva of Serpents, the Kiva of Bees, and the Kiva of Lightning."
I'm glad I'm not the only reviewer who noticed that the illustrations - especially here during the Kiva Trek - really do resemble the graphics from an old Atari game. I can imagine moving the Boy from brightly colored Kiva to brightly colored Kiva. However... this book was published in 1974, and the Atari console didn't come out until 1977! Strange... unless McDermott had some hidden connection with the Atari corporation!
Upon the completion of his tasks, the Boy is given his father's blessing, and he returns to the earth a second time - the Second Coming? - to bring his father's spirit "to the world of men."
|"Father, it is I, your son!"|
Henry Holt and Company
This was a really wonderful read, and hard to come by. I'd somehow missed this one all these years.
It has a much different feel than Anansi the Spider, which is readily apparent just from the cover. Anansi was bright red! Anansi was grinning right us! In The Magic Tree, the colors are muted. The expression on Mavungu's profile is hard to read. This is a downbeat tale.
It begins with brothers - Mavungu and Luemba - one inexplicably favored, and one not. Mavungu leaves his home in shame. McDermott is so sparse with his prose: "One night he left his home," is all we're given, but the dark, highly stylized images show an epic journey through the nighttime rivers of the Congo.
Finally, Mavungu finds a thick tree growing from the water which blocks his path, and from the unfolding of the leaves comes a beautiful woman. These images remind me of the unfolding of a paper snowflake, colorful and mysterious, I could imagine the movement of it. The woman loves Mavungu, and transforms him into a lover worthy of her, with the only caveat that he must never tell of the Magic Tree.
It is hard to keep such a delicious secret, and the maddening dilemma along with his return to his home forms the remainder of the story. I have to say, I was surprised at the ending, and the finality of it.
He forgot those who loved him. And he gave his secret to those who did not love him at all.
Henry Holy and Company
Gerald McDermott died on December 26th of last year, just a couple of weeks ago, as I write this. He was 71 years old.
I think back on it, and I think that his books - and especially this particular book, Anansi the Spider - were the most influential in getting me interested in storytelling through picture books.
I always loved picture books since I had been a kid, but it was when I was put in charge of the children's section at the Penn Bookstore that I really came into contact with picture books in a meaningful way, and Anansi the Spider was a book I found right away.
|Three of the six: Game Skinner, Stone Thrower and Cushion|
I am drawn to the Trickster tales more than any other, and Anansi is the Trickster of all Trickster. I read this book often to groups of children who would come in for storytime. The story is about Anansi and his six sons: See Trouble, Road Builder, River Drinker, Game Skinner, Stone Thrower and Cushion, and how they each use their unique skills to rescue their father from a series of unfortunate events. It's a very fun read for children, and uses elements of puzzle-solving in addition to storytelling.
|"He fell into trouble."|
Re-reading through it tonight, however, I realize that there isn't very much tricking going on in this particular Anansi story, which makes it stand in contrast to many of the Anansi picturebooks which have followed. Anansi seems strangely passive. Events happen to him, and the story ends with him being unable to make up his mind. I think McDermott became a much more engaging writer as his career unfolded, but there's still a wonderful elegance in this story - its both simple and complex - and the colorful, geometric illustrations are such a standout it feels as though you've read something elemental.
I like that word, 'continuity,' in this context. It shouldn't come as a great surprise to learn that Gerald McDermott was good friends with Joseph Campbell, and was the first fellow of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. The subject of storytelling is one he took quite seriously, and permeates his entire career, as we shall see.
|The God of All Things|
Illustrated by Margot Zemach
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
In a faraway land, on a sunny spring day, the sky was as blue as the sea, and the sea was as blue as they sky, and the earth was green and in love with them both.
This kind of prose always comes as a surprise when I pick up a picture book, a genre in which words are typically chosen for their conciseness. I had assumed - incorrectly - that Margot Zemach was simply adapting an Isaac Bashevis Singer story as a picture book. It didn't occur to me that the Nobel Prize winning author of Enemies, a Love Story and Yentil the Yeshiva Boy was equally well-regarded for his contribution to children's literature, and that he actually wrote picture books.
As far as I can tell, this story springs entirely from Singer's imagination, but it certainly reads like a classic folktale from long ago, beginning with one of my favorite folksy motifs: the wager.
Mazel and Shlimazel - which sounds like something Laverne and Shirley would chant on their way to work - are the names of two spirits, walking unseen through the world of humans, one representing good luck, the other bad luck, and of course they get to arguing about who is more powerful. They decide to test their powers on a young, poor boy.
"What can take you a year to accomplish, I can destroy in one second," boasts Schlimazel.
Mazel, on the other hand, has a full year - an entire year! - to use all of his powers of good luck to turn a poor boy into a great man with riches, with power, with a beautiful princess by his side, the whole deal. Page after page, Singer details all of the great, lucky things which happens to this boy, one triumph begets another, and another, on and on. "Cards and minstrels sand of his deeds. High officials came to him for advice." It seems he could not possibly be more assured of his fortune.
But then, after the lucky year is up, Schlimazel is given exactly one second to destroy absolutely all of it, which he does in an extremely clever and effective manner. I'll leave it to you to find the book and see how he does it.
A part of me kind of wishes that had been the end of the book, that it had ended on such a clever punch line, but it continues on toward a happy ending, in which all is not lost and Mazel is shown to be in the right. Ah well. I kind of wanted Mazel to be taken down a few pegs. I admired Schlimazel's craftiness more than Mazel's altruism.
Illustrated by Susan L. Roth
("Cut paper?" you ask. "Is that really the best description you can give for the interior artwork? You can't even tell us what kind of paper?" Okay fine. According to the book: The illustrations are rendered in collage using paper collected from all over the world: red umbrella paper from Thailand, a cranberry colored envelope from Tibet, a blue from Japan, a dark green from Italy, and many other places. Several kinds of paper were handmade, including the mottled white of the rabbit, made by Sheila Swan Laufer, and the gray of the squirrel, marbled by the artist. So there.)
This is a fun book which, for me, went in a surprising direction. What would you have supposed the story to be about, judging from the title and from the cover? A great ball game? Indeed, but that's only the backdrop to the more pertinent tale of how it is that bats are considered mammals and not birds.
This story has apparently been told in Native American tribes all over, but Bruchac writes in the introduction that this particular version is based on a story told to him by an Oklahoma Muskogee elder, Louis Littlecoon Oliver, who died a few years before this book was published. Here is the argument which is central, which type of animal is better? Those with teeth or those with wings? The argument rises in intensity throughout the animal kingdom, until finally Bear and Crane decide to settle things through a friendly little bout of lacrosse.
Anyway, the lines are drawn and the game is about to commence, when suddenly Bat swoops down, trying to determine which side he belongs on, for he has both teeth and wings. Grudgingly, the toothy-animals accept him on their team.
The game then commences, and takes place over the course of a full day. I really like the way Susan Roth is able to imitate darkness settling in using only her cut paper collages. And lest you think that there is some larger moral emergent, as the animals realize that both teeth and wings are equally important, not so. The story ends with clear winners and clear losers, and the repercussions help to explain some puzzling present-day animal behavior.
Illustrated by Geraldo Valerio
This Balinese folktale concerns a gecko who cannot for the life of him get to sleep because the infernal fireflies which are "blinking their lights on and off... on and off..." He goes to find the ruler of the jungle, Elephant, and demand that action be taken!
A simple request, perhaps, but little does either animal suspect, in the tapestry of life, one thing is connected to another. The fireflies absolutely cannot cease their blinking ways, for if they did, someone might accidentally step in the buffalo poop left in piles all over the road.
Fine then. Elephant finds Buffalo.
|Some things you just have to put up with.|
"Oh, yes. Rain washes holes in the road every afternoon. I just fill them up the best way I know how. If I didn't do that, someone could stumble in the holes and get hurt."
Well then. If Gecko is to be satiated, then it is to the Rain that Elephant must appeal.
Eventually, events wind full-cycle, as both Gecko and Elephant come to understand that if one doesn't allow the fireflies to blink at night, then after a series of cause-and-effect, there might not be any mosquitoes for Gecko to eat at night. Or, as Elephant puts it, "This world is all connected. Some things you just have to put up with. Now go home and go to sleep."
Watercolor and pen on paper
Text set in Palatino
Margaret K. McElderry Books
I’ve said before that Warwick Hutton enjoys showing how small humans are in comparison to larger forces. This book is no different.
|Hint: Go for the eye.|
Illustrated by James Stimson
Maynard Moose again, telling his Mother Moose tales about the campfire, surrounded by all of his wildlife buddies, leaning in close for another good story. In Rapunzel and the Seven Dwarfs, I noted one of the big jokes at the end was that Maynard was not certain what the moral of the story was. In this one, not only does he know the moral, but he even leads off with it:
Do you ever feel like maybe you have been borned into the wrong fambly? Like maybe you feel like you are a little porcupine being raised by a fambly of kangaroos... Or maybe you feel like you are a little bunny rabbit being raised by a fambly of rhinoceroses... Well, this is the story of a poor moose who was raised by duckies.
The uglified duckling is not a duckling at all, but a young moose who inadvertently wanders into a nest of duck eggs just as they are about to hatch, to the incredulity of the returning mother. "Boy, that's the most uglified ducky I never see!" she exclaims.
|The uglified duckling attempts to quack.|
Most of the story is comprised of these lessons, and the moose's inability to keep up. He can't waddle, he can't quack, he can't swim, and - most depressingly of all - he can't fly. He can only stare all forlorn as his adopted brothers and sisters fly off, leaving him "all d'abandoned and left alone."
It is only at the end, after he has wandered alone through the wilderness, that he comes upon a family of actual moose, and realizes his true nature. "And he is bounding joyfully through the forest ever still, happy to be the moose that he would be!"
The book is beautifully illustrated by James Stimson, and includes a glossary of "Moose words and their English equivalents." My favorite is "Quadrapedagogy: the state or condition of having four feet."
Illustrated by James Stimson
Not just a fairy-tale mashup, but also a story-within-a-story. We begin in the Northern Piney Woods, and are told that every full moon, all of the animals come out to hear the 'old Mother Moose Tales,' as related by Maynard Moose. James Stimson depicts the scene with much lushness, the flames of the small campfire glowing against Maynard's antlers, the full moon shining down from above, I could have spent the whole story out in these environs. Yet soon enough, we venture into the world of the tale.
Her hair was so long that it drag out from behind of her along the ground. It get dragged through mud puddles, and kids run over it on their bicycles, and it becomes distremely filthified - all full of sticks and twigs and little nastified wudgies of glop.
|Clumsy, Snoozy, Cheerful, Fearful, Hyper, Hungry, Grizelda, Ambidextrous and sometimes Bewildered.|
Illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges
Cinco Puntos Press
There is a river called Bok Chitto that cuts through Mississippi. In the days before the War Between the States, in the days before the Trail of Tears, Bok Chitto was a boundary. On one side of the river lived the Choctaws, a nation of Indian people. On the other side lived the plantation owners and their slaves. If a slave escaped and made his way across Bok Chitto, the slave was free. The slave owner could not follow. That was the law.
This opening paragraph sets up the time period, the environment and the tone of this tale. This is a downbeat, yet elegant story and quite a contrast to Tingle's previous book which I had just discussed, When Turtle Grew Feathers. There's no jaunty talking animals this time, though there is a fantasy-device running through the narrative, the ability for African Americans to render themselves invisible.
That's the father of Little Mo, giving his son advice on sneaking past the white plantation owners in order to help a young Choctaw girl named Martha Tom back across the river. This is a story about their friendship, and takes place over several years, as the two grow and age within their respective cultures, separated by the Bok Chitto.
|Maybe the white people tell it best. They talk about the night their|
forefathers witnessed seven black spirits, walking on the water
- to their freedom!
Jeanne Bridges' art is wonderful. We begin very naturally, very downbeat, figures cast very plainly, but with just a subtle variation in tone, and the artwork takes on mystical tones. The Choctaw women, dressed in long white robes, holding candles out before them under the full moon, seemingly gliding across the surface of the river. "When they reached the Choctaw side of the river, they blew the candles out and disappeared into the fog, never to be seen on the slave side again." I felt it, I felt all the mystery and the beauty and the elegant mysticism of it.