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Showing posts with label William Morrow and Company. Show all posts
Showing posts with label William Morrow and Company. Show all posts

9.06.2015

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains (2014)

Written by Neil Gaiman

Illustrated by Eddie Campbell

William Morrow and Company

Hard to believe I've gone this long without reviewing a picture book by Neil Gaiman.

I remember way back when The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish was first published, it was a huge deal. Neil Gaiman wrote a children's picture book! And it's illustrated by Dave McKean! I remember not finding the story to be especially compelling, but the artwork more than made up for it. It was beautiful, so artfully assembled. And it was Neil Gaiman!

Unfortunately, I do remember noticing that I could never find it in the actual children's picture book section of any bookstore. Not initially. It was always in with the general Science Fiction and Fantasy section, which I found annoying. Kind of in the same way that Harlan Ellison's collection Troublemakers - which was ostensibly for young adults - never graced the young adult section of any bookstore or library that I ever happened upon. Science Fiction and Fantasy. Kind of a catch-all, I suppose. Strange how it's a genre which collects a wide spectrum, yet for some reason Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut and the macabre supernatural works of Joyce Carol Oates among many others were always firmly planted in the Fiction/Literature section. So it goes.

I can see now why it made sense. The demographic who would be most interested in buying a Neil Gaiman book would not necessarily be the same one that would be browsing through the picture book section. Put it where it will sell! And sell it did.

Now I am happy to see that The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish does appear in with the children's picture book department of the bookstores I peruse. And Neil has got quite a few picture books under his belt and even won the Newbery award. Doesn't get much more respectable than that. For me, though, he'll always be the writer of the "Cereal Killers" issue of The Sandman (Sandman #14) and of the most horrific 24 hours you would ever want to spend locked in a diner with a group of strangers (Sandman #6). I loved The Sandman, read it as it was still being initially serialized, and it was one of the seminal works which really opened me up - way up - to the possibilities of making sense of the world from a non-Judeo-Christian mythological worldview.

For me, Neil Gaiman is the kind of author who needs to be illustrated. I don't exactly mean that as a compliment.

I was generally non-plussed by his novels American Gods and Neverwhere, didn't really care for The Graveyard Book. I'm sorry to say it. I think it's great that they're all so widely well-received and have turned on so many to him and his writing. For me, his strengths lie in his stories, his characters, and his dialogue. So I find him perfectly suited to comic book and picture book writing. His weaknesses - as I see it - is his prose. I never got any real atmosphere out of The Graveyard Book. I didn't feel like I was in a graveyard, cavorting with ghosts and gravestones. Same with American Gods. There were pacing issues which I felt threw the story off, and I never really got the sense of two people - gods or otherwise - traveling across the highways of America. It was a lot of wonderful dialogue and colorful characters, but little atmosphere.

I love atmosphere. It's one of my favorite aspects of any story. And when a writer is able to perfectly convey an atmosphere and a tone using nothing expects words on a page, it's a magical thing.

All that is to say, I miss Neil Gaiman the comic book writer. (If anyone is wondering, Sandman Overture has been wonderful, but it's being released at a glacial pace.)

I think it's the artists who are able to convey the atmosphere. It's the artists who are able to find the proper pacing. A good artist can take Neil's stories and characters and dialogue and take them to the next level. They can make them something horrific, something fantastical, something filled with terror and beauty and absurdity. I think mostly of Michael Zulli's pencils in The Wake which just elevated that final storyline into something of profound and intense emotion and beauty and P. Craig Russel's evocation of Baghdad in the Ramadan issue. When you take away their images, you're not just removing the pictures, you're taking away the pace and the atmosphere.


When I found The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, I was excited. "A Tale of Travel and Darkness with Pictures of All Kinds," reads the subtitle. It is a beautiful volume, with a painted cover by Eddie Campbell who I know best as the illustrator of Alan Moore's magnum opus From Hell. I couldn't wait to read it.

It was initially published as a prose piece in an anthology called Stories. I wonder what I would have made of it if I had read it there, if that had been my first encounter with it. It's hard to imagine the story now, without Eddie Campbell's illustrations. They seem like such an integral part of it.


It delivered on all counts. I felt like I was finding Neil Gaiman again for the first time. I hate to even talk about the story at all, as reading through it and watching it unfold was just so pleasurable. It's wonderful. And it's not a children's book. It is one of a growing number of picture books for adults, full of murder and madness and other lovely sundries. I hope there are more books like this to come. I pray to the gods.

12.22.2010

Amahl and the Night Visitors (1986)

Written by Gian Carlo Menotti

Illustrated by Michele Lemieux

William Morrow and Company

This book has great resonance. I was only somewhat familiar with the story when I began reading, and knew that it was based on the opera of the same name, from 1951.

This is the story of the Nativity, but one in which the baby Jesus and his parents do not make an appearance. The central character is Amahl, a young boy who lives with his mother. We first see him playing his pipe as the stars begin to appear in the night sky. He is clearly a dreamer.

There is one star in particular which captures young Amahl's attention. It burns more brightly than the others, and he cannot take his eyes off of it. Even when his mother scolds him, he cannot tear himself away.

"Oh Mother, you should go out and see! There's never been such a sky! Hanging over our roof there is a star as large as a window. The star has a tail, and it moves across the sky like a chariot on fire!"

Amahl's mother sighed. "Oh, Amahl," she said wearily, "When will you stop telling lies? All day long you wander about in a dream. Here we are with nothing to eat, not a stick of wood on the fire, not a drop of oil in the jug, and all you do is worry your mother with fairy tales..."

Yes, indeed. At that moment, Amahl is one with Jack the Giant Killer. He is one with Dorothy and with Alice and with every dreamer of any fairy tale ever told or written. The Star of Bethlehem is not merely a Sign from God, it is an icon of other adventures and romance.

That night, as Amahl lays sleeping, the adventure comes to his front door.

First, there is only singing:

From far away we come and farther we must go.
How far, how far, my crystal star?
Cold as the sands by the silent sea.
Frozen the incense in our frozen hands.
Heavy the gold.

When his mother opens the door, still disbelieving her son and his wild stories, she gasps in shock and amazement. There stand the three kings, dressed as aliens from a faraway land. They've come following the Star, and wish to spend the night with Amahl and his dumbfounded mother.

And when they eventually leave, it is with Amahl - who leaves his home for the first time. "...as he piped, the caravan moved onward."

This review was linked from Tales and Their Tellers 7: "The Prayer of Saint Nicholas."

Spirit Child, A Story of the Nativity (1984)

Retold by Bernardino de Sahagun

Translated by John Bierhorst

Illustrated by Barbara Cooney



Finding books like this make doing this index well worth it. I had been going through my library's Christmas section, thumbing through various Santa Claus phantasmagoria and sacrosanct religious tales. The words, "Spirit Child," along the spine caught my eye. With the words, "translated from the Aztec" on the front cover, along with the dark-skinned angels and dormant volcanoes, my interest was more than piqued.

"The text is preserved in Sahagun's Psalmodia Christiana (Mexico, 1583)," reads the tiny print on the copyright page. This was a book written entirely in the Aztec language and one of the first books to be published in the so-called New World.

It was actually translated into English specifically for this picture book. Bierhorst, the translator, happened across the tale while writing an Aztec-English dictionary based on sources from the 1500s. The artist, Cooney, traveled to Mexico City and the surroundings in order to properly illustrate it. Needless to say, this is not the same old Nativity story you've heard before.

We begin in the shadow of a smoking volcano. Families appear to be running for their lives. "For 5000 years after the world began, the devil was king," we read.

The devil looks like he is culled from a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. There he sits, in the bowl of the volcano, a grinning, eye-less skeleton dressed in bird feathers and smoking a pipe. Skeleton girls fan him and dance for his pleasure while naked children suffer in the flames before him.

"But the name Jesus already existed before the world began. This was always his name, even before he was born," we read. "O spirit, I child, you are the flame, you are the light of the almighty father. O child, remember how you were born long ago."

Gabriel comes to visit Mary, wearing a loin cloth with green wings, bearing flowers and a fan, proclaiming, "Hail Mary, full of grace! Listen, I will tell you a great mystery."

I love that. "I will tell you a great mystery."

O spirit child! All the people of the world are waiting for you. We are prisoners tied in chains, and you can save us. You are the light and we are in darkness.

This review is linked from Tales and Their Tellers 7: "The Prayer of Saint Nicholas."
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