Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Brookeshelf Has MOVED!

Fed up with the capricious nature of the Blogger template, the Brookeshelf can now be found at:

Greener pastures, my friends. Greener pastures.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Forgotten Bookshelf: The Fairy Tales

illustrated by Jan Pieńkowski
translated from Grimm and Perrault by David Walser
William Heinemann Ltd. and Gallery Five Ltd., 1977
Reissued in the U.S. 2006 by Viking

Here are my requirements for a good anthology of traditional folklore: the translations have got to be good, but most importantly, the illustrations have to be GORGEOUS. And there must be lots of them. On every page. In all of these aspects, Pieńkowski's treasure of a book fits the bill. This is the kind of book that seems to radiate magic.

Pieńkowski is known for a wide variety of illustration, including pop-up books, but I think he is most celebrated for his evocative use of sihouettes. In addition to fairy tales, Pieńkowski has illustrated books about Easter and the Nativity using silhouettes. In the religious works, the lack of direct facial details gives a sense of pagentry and grandeur. In these fairy tales -- "Sleeping Beauty," "Snow White," "Hansel and Gretel" and "Cinderella" -- the same form casts a spell of mystery and strangeness that is truly befitting of these stories. Exquisite scenes, either black-and-white or appearing on swirls of marbled color, present the stories in an extraordinarily unique way.

In order to add dramatic power to the scenes, Pieńkowski places the human figures in extravagantly emotional poses -- drooping to the ground to weep, flinging their arms into the air in joy -- characters are frequently given reams of twisty, flyaway hair or delicately lacy clothes to add layers of texture and interest. (Likewise, comic characters are amply supplied with knobby elbows and big teeth.) Frequently Pieńkowski sends spirals of vines, thorns, or flowers cascading across a page spread, on which the characters from the tales delicately act out their scenes.

Pieńkowski also makes no bones about some of the gruesome aspects of these stories -- the thorns surrounding Sleeping Beauty's castle are littered with skeletons, and hostile animals peer down at Hansel and Gretel as they wander through the forest. However, the effect is more spellbinding and old-fashioned than repulsive. Large illuminated capitals and a typeface reminiscent of Wanda Gág's completes the look of a book that seems ages-old and yet ageless.

A bit of biographical information about the Grimms, Charles Perrault, and both Pieńkowski and Walser are given at the front of the book, but I do admit that it would have been nice to have a bit more information about the textual sources of the translations. But that seems a minor quibble -- this is a book designed for pure reading enjoyment, not academic folklorists.

May I also say a few words about the lavish construction of the book? The pages here are thick and lie marvellously flat, begging to be thumbed and stroked by fingers over and over again. The printwork is sharp and clear, allowing the tiniest holes in Snow White's basket, the lace on Sleeping Beauty's dress, or the curled tail of the tiniest of Cinderella's mice to appear. And while the book is satisfyingly heavy, it isn't unwieldy -- at 9.7 x 8 inches, it is just the right side for propping up on your chest while reading in bed.

And yes, you certainly must read it in bed. Books like this are bound to inspire some lovely, big dreams.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

New Book Micro-Reviews

The Baptism by Shelia P. Moses

Many weeks ago, Fuse#8 created a list of books that she think might be Newbery contenders for this year (and, alas, I cannot find the original post). This book was on the list, citing the excellence of The Baptism's prequels: The Legend of Buddy Bush and The Return of Buddy Bush. The main question was if a reader unfamiliar with the prequels would be able to read The Baptism as a stand-alone. Where oh where could such a reader be found?

Twa-ta-ta-taaaaa! Brooke to the rescue!

And here's the bad news: The Baptism does not work as a stand-alone. It could have -- ohhh, it could have, if Moses had not been so intent on connecting this book to its two predecessors.

Here's the premise: twelve-year-old Luke lives in North Carolina, circa the 1940s. His mother wants him to get baptized at the local church in one week. The book chronicles Luke's musings and misdeeds during that week, including scrapes with the local landowner's son, feelings of enmity against his stepfather, and the guilt over pulling his twin, Leon, into constant "sinnin."

The story is almost a play-by-play of Luke's thoughts, so the narrative tends to ramble and go off on tangents. I was fine with that -- Moses' grasp of the Southern vernacular is masterful -- although some young readers might find it frustrating. The thing I found strange was the long passages Moses devotes to having Luke recap the events of the first two books in the trilogy. It seemed tacked on, and had no apparent relation to what was presently going on in Luke's life. Luke's summary of Buddy Bush's adventures don't have much dramatic power in truncated form; it's obvious that Luke thinks they were important, but it's unclear to readers why. Then you get to the end, where there is a bit of a surprise twist, and I wonder if the whole reason for the back story was to lead up to it. Because I didn't have any particular feeling for the stories in the first two books, the ending came off as more random than surprising.

Personally, I think the book would have been better if it had stuck to Luke's story and left Buddy Bush out of it. Luke is a funny, picaresque character, and his ruminations on life, race, and spirituality could easily have stood on their own.

Okay . . . that review was not a micro-review. Time to change gears . . .

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis

One of my Rules of Thumb for rating the merits of a book for young readers is if it describes child experiences in such an authentic way that it immediately brings to mind memories from my own childhood. Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Tarshis has done the job right in this regard. This story presents the perspectives (in alternating chapters) of two very different girls: Emma-Jean, who is analytical to the point of being completely detatched from her classmates, and Colleen, who is sweet, kind, and cares more about her relationships with others than anything else. What happens when Emma-Jean decides to start connecting with Colleen and other fellow seventh-graders (using a letter-writing scheme worthy of Anastasia Krupnik) is both funny and heartbreaking; both girls are incredibly, believably innocent in their own ways. Part of the journey to friendship for these girls -- to seeing and accepting yourself and others for what they are -- involves falling a bit, and being better off because of it. Tarshis gives us an excellent portrait of life on both sides of the popularity fence, and I think girls everywhere would benefit from giving it a good read.

Dimity Dumpty by Bob Graham

Okay, here are the reasons why you need to read this book:

1. It's about Humpty's little sister, who exhibits some serious quick thinking and you-go-girl-ness when it comes to rescuing her brother from his famous fall-off-the-wall.

2. The writing is concise and gorgeous, just like in Graham's other books.

3. The illustrations are to-die-for cute (the Dumpty family travels in a wagon made out of an egg carton! Which is pulled by a chicken! SWEET!).

4. The name "Dimity" is cool. Just admit it, people.

Rainstorm by Barbara Lehman

A boy is stuck indoors on a rainy day, when he finds a key under an old chair. After a bit of hunting, he finds that the key unlocks a chest that leads him to a sunny, idyllic world, with a bunch of kids to play with.

Over at the excelsior file, Elzey wonders if this book might be exhibiting a little bit of classism -- the protagonist (a white boy) seems trapped in a mansion, complete with servants and teacups, while the kids in the trunk are multicultural and barefoot. Eh, I don't quite agree. I think that Lehman simply wanted to portray the environment least appealing to a kid (gloomy, stuffy mansion) and the escape to a kid's idea of the ultimate fun place (barefoot on the beach!). What I found disappointing is the lack of brilliant originality that we've seen in Lehman's other picture books (Museum Trip and The Red Book). The whole bored-kid-finds-escape-into-magical-world trope has been around forever. There was none of the mystery and excitement, the sense that some strange Other Powers might be at work, that were in her other books. But hey, you can't win 'em all.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Piper at the Gates of the 21st Century

So, last week Monica Edinger, who writes the most excellent blog, Educating Alice, gave her opinions on the new BBC production of The Wind in the Willows, but moved on to broader questions as to the relevancy of the book in today's kidlit world:

The story has such a dated feel; it is very much about a bunch of old boys (in the British public school tradition) and no girls “messing about,” there is some ugly class commentary (when you get to those inhabitants of the Wild Wood), one of the oddest odes to paganism or something ever, and there is hardly a female to be seen (not surprising since it sort of replicates a boys’ school).
I don't quite get the connection between Grahame's characters and British public schools -- unless Edinger meant to point out that the four main animal characters come off as wealthy upper-crust Brits. But to answer the question: how relevant are the adventures of Mole, Badger, Ratty, and Toad today?

First, I'll be the first to admit that Grahame's novel is not for every kid. There's some pretty fancy prose on display in this book, and the fact that we are given two completely different storylines -- the lyrical forest adventures of Mole and Rat, and the comic adventures of Mr. Toad -- with different moods and pacing. There are action-packed chapters followed by sequences in which almost nothing happens. The effect can be jarring, especially for kids listening to the story aloud.

And yeah, it's a shame that there aren't any assertive female characters, but to tell the truth, when I read this as a kid, I didn't see the characters as being particularly male or female, but as animals. Androgynous animals, whose gender didn't seem to apply to them as it does to humans.

I don't quite get Edinger's connection between Grahame's characters and British public schools -- unless Edinger meant to point out that the four main animal characters come off as wealthy, clubby upper-crust Brits. I don't know if Grahame intended for the four animal characters to come off as quite so snobbish as they might to some readers. Keep in mind that there is more economic diversity between them than you might think -- Mole, with his almost-abandoned burrow, seems solidly middle-class, while Mr. Toad is the quintissential foppish aristocrat. As for me, I never got the impression that the animals were anything but old-fashioned, close friends.

I am fortunate to have a own copy of First Whisper of The Wind in the Willows, edited by Grahame's wife Elspeth, which contains all of the letters that Grahame wrote to his son, Alistair, in which the book's stories were first created. Naturally, there aren't nearly as many descriptive passages in the letters as in the book, and in the beginning there are far more animal characters, including a sty of silly pigs.

Rereading these letters, I personally get the impression that Grahame was more interested in creating a fantasic world of talking animals for his son than he was in replicating upper class Edwardian life. The notion that there may be a hidden world of genteel forest creatures is part of what still makes this book appealing. It's the same feeling that I think is still echoed in a lot of today's animal fantasies, such as Russel Erickson's A Toad for Tuesday, Cynthia Rylant's Thimbleberry Stories and perhaps even Kate DiCamillo's Tale of Despereaux. Likewise, I think the lyrical sequences of the book have a direct descendant in Randall Jarrell's The Animal Family.

However, the crux of the matter over the book's relevancy seems to lie in this: Grahame's skill at evoking the beauties of nature, the comforts and connections to one's own home, and the a fascination with forest animals, is still as evocative now as it was in 1908. In an increasingly nature-deprived world, I think there's nothing better for kids than to revel in a description of woods, rivers, and the luxury of getting absorbed in the outdoors.

Likewise, whenever I find a child -- or myself -- coveting the latest technological gadget, I'm always of a mind to sit us down for a ride on Mr. Toad's motorcar. In an era in which we are increasingly encouraged to upgrade our material lives, the misadventures of Mr. Toad seems more necessary than ever. The next time you experience a power failure, and find yourself tearing out your hair from e-mail deprivation, get out the candles and spend some time "messing about in boats." It'll do you good.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Ten Things About Brian Selznick

First of all, my apologies for not writing more posts this week. I had family visiting from out of town, and blogging somehow didn't get on the agenda. But I'm back, and with a special treat: Hot Man of Children's Literature #8, Brian Selznick, came to my library today to give a lecture, and I was able to slip in for it. The talk was given in conjunction with Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' fabulous kidlit series, Black, White, and Read All Over. If any of you reading this are in the area for these great lil' features, I highly recommend coming on down for them. These lectures are always rather fabulous -- and we usually have punch and cookies in the children's non-fiction room afterwards. But let's get to the good stuff -- here are the best tidbits from the Selznick lecture, and I'm givin' 'em to you factoid style:

Pifft! Stop thinking about drinking punch and cookies in the non-fiction room! Focus! Focus!

1. Selznick began the lecture with a "reading" from The Invention of Hugo Cabret -- that is, he had the images from the opening sequence of the book projected on the lecture hall's big screen, then asked for the lights to be dimmed. While the black-and-white pictures of 1930s Paris flickered on the screen, Selznick played old-fashioned movie music on the lecture hall's sound system. It was absolutely thrilling, and I don't know if I've ever said that about a Power Point presentation. If anything, Selznick definitely has a flair for the theatrical -- something that I think has been reflected in many of his books.

2. Due to his love of drawing monsters and dinosaurs as a kid, Selznick was often told that he should illustrate children's books when he grew up. This, of course, lead to an intense dislike of the idea on his part. So, when he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, he refused to take courses on children's illustration -- even though those classes were taught by the likes of David Macaulay and Chris Van Allsburgh.

Oooh, doesn't it make you wince? Just wince?

3. When Selznick did decide he wanted to illustrate for kids, he got a job at Eyeore's, a children's bookshop in NYC. While there, he re-discovered a book he had loved as a child:

In Fortunately, Selznick loved the way that the action of the story was directly controlled by page turns -- how that made the reader an active participant in the storytelling. This, of course, fed into the development of the style of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, one of the first illustrated novels ever created for kids -- where turning the pages creates an interactive-yet-cinematic experience. (Selznick now counts the creator of Fortunately, Remy Charlip, as his mentor.)

Now, I'm going to insert a disclaimer here. I'm not going to bother describing The Invention of Hugo Cabret, or synopsize the plot, or talk about why this book is so innovative. If you want that, read the Fuse#8 review. Because I think there's enough redundancy in the world. Enough.

4. The chief inspiration for the book was the work of Georges Méliès, the Victorian French filmmaker -- who also appears in Hugo Cabret. But Selznick also spent a lot of time looking at other French filmmakers from the 1930s -- especially the film Under the Roofs of Paris by René Clair. Clair wasn't that fond of the (then-new) addition of sound to films -- like books and paintings, Clair thought that film was best appreciated as a solely visual medium. So he would use sound, but in unconventional ways -- usually bursts of sound after long silences. Selznick took this idea to shape the format for Hugo Cabret -- in which there are bursts of text after many pages of illustration.

5. Oh -- Selznick liked the look of Clair's films so much, that he lifted several scenes from Under the Roofs of Paris for the illustrations in Hugo Cabret. Also, Selznick said that when he created the pictures for Hugo Cabret, he made them at 1/4 scale, and then had them enlarged for the book. He said that he liked the way the enlargement made the pictures "airier," and that it helped him work faster, even though he had to do most of the work under a magnifying glass.

Hey, all you illustrators out there: how common is this? Usually, I hear complaints from illustrators about how they dislike having their work shrunk or blown up, because it distorts the vision they had for the book. What gives?

6. Automation is also a big part of Hugo Cabret. Selznick spent a lot of time studying the automata at the Franklin Institute in Philedelphia:

When Selznick arrived at the Institute, he found that the automata was broken (and had been for some time). Selznick had an engineering friend, Andy Barron, who he was also consulting for Hugo Cabret. When told about the broken machine, Barron offered to fix it for the Institute. The automata will be the centerpiece of an exhibit on machines produced by the FI in 2008, and Selznick has been invited to do a presentation on Hugo Cabret as part of the festivities. Oh, and be sure to read more about this very cool machine right here.

7. When drawing human characters for his books, Selznick says that he gets an idea of what the character looks like in his head, and then keeps an eye out for real people who match that image, and then asks them to model for his book. So, for Hugo Cabret, he met a kid named Garret at the National History Museum in NYC who looked just like his idea of Hugo. Fortunately, said Selznick, his mom was keen on the idea of going over to Selznick's apartment for a photo shoot. The girl who modeled for Etienne was found in a pizza parlor.

Kind of amazing -- when I was a kid, I would have loved for that to have happened to me! It's like those Hollywood stories of starlets being "discovered" in Woolworth's, or whatever. Only, for me, being captured in a book seems so much cooler. Kind of an anonymous celebrity.

8. As a sidenote to this, Selznick asked Remy Charlip to do the modeling for the illustrations of Georges Méliès. You gotta admit, the two of them look very similar. Here's Charlip:

And here's Méliès:

Just . . . a little . . . eerie, no? You may also note that the book is co-dedicated to Charlip. (Awwww.)

9. Hugo wasn't originally intended to be an orphan when Selznick began writing Hugo Cabret; it wasn't until the passing of Selznick's own father that he realized that it would be a necessary part of the book.

10. OH -- and as if creating beautiful books weren't enough, Selznick also does toy-theatre-style puppet shows in his spare time. He created one about The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins a few years ago, which featured tiny antique cabinets containing scenes from Hawkins' life:

So, here's my request for Mr. Selznick: Is there any way, any way you could get footage of these puppet shows up online to be enjoyed by One and All? There's a load of fresh cupcakes in it for you . . .

Monday, April 09, 2007

New Book Micro-Reviews

Time for some finger-lickin' fiction!

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson
This is the book I've been recommending the most lately; it's as sprightly and fresh as a springtime breeze. J.J. Liddy is the 15-year-old member of an Irish family with a long heritage of music. When his harried mother requests "more time" as a birthday present, he finds himself journeying to Tír na n'Óg, a.k.a. fairyland, a.k.a. The Land of Eternal Youth (rendered by Thompson in a subtly original way). In between meetings with figures from Irish folklore, J.J. discovers that time is leaking from our world into theirs, and also uncovers the answers to many Liddy family mysteries. This book is so winningly Irish, it makes me want to take a shower and start cutting up my soap with a pocketknife. I love the dialect, the intriguing characters, and the fact that Thompson gives us the sheet music for a different Irish melody at the end of each chapter. Plus, for bonus points, you can sing the title to the melody of Beck's "The New Pollution." Go ahead, sing it: "Sheeee's a-looone in the / Neeew Po-liiiiceman." Pretty apt description of my time spent absorbed in this book.

By the way, I don't know why this novel is being described as for "ages 11-15." There's nothing in here that would be inappropriate for younger kids -- J.J. could easily have been written as a ten-year-old, a la Susan Cooper. Perhaps it's the length that's kicking it up to YA? Eh, I have no idea.

Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins
Yes! A solid middle-grade novel set in Bangladesh! With a strong female protagonist! And information about microcredit programs in the back! It's short and easy to read! It makes for a good classroom read-aloud! Ms. Perkins, this book could be the answer to about a jillion questions on the reference desk. THANK YOU SO MUCH. And for all of you non-library types reading this: Perkins' tale of spunky Naima and her quest to earn money for her family is fun, colorful, and full of heart. And you gotta have heart.

Flora Segunda by Ysabeau S. Wilce
Oo-er. This is the kind of fantasy novel with so many creative sparkles that it makes me feel as if my imagination were broken in comparison. Flora, the youngest member of a declining family with a rich military heritage, lives in a crumbling mansion with 11,000 rooms. And then . . . geez, I'm not going to bother explaining it. Just click on the link and read the synopsis there. The lowdown from my perspective? 1. The plot is interesting but a little convoluted, yet fun to read anyway. 2. This is the first fantasy novel I've seen in a while that takes inspiration from Latin American culture. The characters eat tamales, have a coming of age ceremony called a "Catorcena" (like a quinceañera), and the enemy empire to the south sounds a lot like the Aztecs, complete with chile-spiced cocoa, jaguar-skin bandoliers, and bloody sacrifice rituals. Oh, and there's a tiny floating matador merman that chatters in Spanish at our heroine. Cool. 3. Okay, okay, I like this novel -- quite a bit -- but it uses the word "magick." Eeeerg, that gets on my nerves, along with "faeries" and "dragyns" instead of "fairies" and "dragons." It's like parents who name their son "Myechkell." It's still "Michael," like it's still just "magic." So, I was kind of wincing on every other page of this book. But still. I'm a twit that way. Pretty good reading.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Off Topic Celebration

So, you may have noticed that I've failed to create a new Forgotten Book review as well as a Online Exhibit tour.

Do you know why?

It's because I finished the first draft of my novel this week! Hurrah! 340 pages of turgent, craptastic prose! But still. All done.

To celebrate, I'm going to indulge in a little nepotism. The above clip is from a Jonathan Coulton concert at The Cutting Room in NYC. You may or may not be familiar with Coulton's goofy-yet-awesome music, but the important thing to see here is the presence of my sister-in-law, Kristen, playing the ukulele. Ain't she awesome?

Enjoy "Creepy Doll" and take it easy.