Jun 24, 2012

The Power of a Penny (and of Women)

Last week my post focused on the wisdom and grace of The Boys, a nearly wordless masterpiece by Jeff Newman.

Wisdom and grace are not gender specific, though.

I'll be traveling when this post appears, returning home from what I'm sure will be a joyful family wedding. Within the span of two months I'll witness the weddings of two of my nieces, both gorgeous, loving, accomplished, and wise in ways that matter most. That called to mind the perfect book to spotlight this week, MARY'S PENNY, by Tanya Landman, illustrated by Richard Holland.

To deal with my time constraints for the week I'll share a review I first wrote for the Center for Children's Literature at Carthage College. That allows me to prepare this in advance,  travel, celebrate with family, yet post on time.

Tanya Landman’s Mary’s Penny demonstrates the power of well-paired text and illustration. Her straightforward but rhythmic language develops a sense of timeless wisdom, utilizing traditional elements including repetition and patterns of three (three word phrases, three siblings, three attempts to meet the challenge). When a farmer tests his two grown sons to determine which will eventually control the farm, the possibility of daughter Mary taking over doesn’t even occur to him. “Everyone thought that girls couldn’t run farms” in those “olden golden days”.

Mary bides her time, and holds her tongue. When brothers Hans and Franz attempt (and fail) a challenge to “fill the house” using a single penny, Mary quietly but firmly demands her opportunity to try. Though her arms and legs “were as slender as sticks” she insists “it takes brains, not brawn to run a farm.” With a lateral rather than literal approach, she uses her allotted penny to fill the house with light, knowledge, music, joy, and wisdom, winning her father’s approval to run the farm even before he is “dead and gone”.

Richard Holland’s use of detail, photographic images, and exaggerated proportions in mixed media/collage illustrations challenges readers to open their minds to possibilities. Minimal but intentional fine black lines and intricate elements allow the characters to focus attention, express emotion, and generate humor with the sparest of energy. Use of subtle color tones and ample open space on oversized double page spreads throughout create a sense of a simple place and a time long ago, yet offer a wealth of information and insight in background images. Each reading will reveal surprises and previously unnoticed repetitions, including the ubiquitous cat. As in Mary’s case, its internal musings are left to the reader to surmise.

This entertaining presentation of a lesser-known tale transcends its obvious feminist message to remind us all of the value of thinking deeply about our lives and filling them with things of real and lasting value.

An interview with Richard Holland can be read at the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Blog archive.

Note to self: I was clever enough to prepare this in advance, use previous material, and join my family in celebration while still posting on time. So why would I tell readers about that?

As much as I believe that age increases opportunities for wisdom, it doesn't always work that way for me. I'm not "native" to this digital world, not able to figure out things like this pre-posted posting automatically, instinctively, as it would have to my two young nieces.  I debated several options for dealing with conflicts of travel and time, always thinking in a linear, old school approach. When this option occurred it reminded me of Mary's lateral logic. And I was pleased enough with myself to want to share it.

I worry that the wisdom of the young, particularly of talented young women such as Mary and my nieces, is too often overlooked or undervalued. Any fears and anxiety I may have about the future of society (environment, education, economics) is diminished when I look at their potential. I remember that all things are possible, that a little can go a long way, and that we can fill our lives with things of real and lasting value.

Like family.

And picture books.

And I remind myself once again that not everything about the "olden golden" days should be preserved.

Jun 16, 2012

Here's to THE BOYS, Young and Old

Last week's post celebrated the magic of my dad's voice bringing the Sunday "funnies" to life.

Now let's take a look at how those magical inner voices serve us in wordless books. I can think of no better title to consider for this than THE BOYS, by Jeff Newman.

The only way to do this book justice is to read it, and read it again and again. On one hand that's pretty easy to do- if you can read the days of the week. The only words are the "day" labels spanning a full week.
It begins on Tuesday when the new boy in the neighborhood unpacks his baseball gear and heads to the park. Overcome by shyness when he sees a game in progress, he opts to perch on a park bench with a foursome of "mature gents". Those are my words- choose your own: geezers, senior dudes, old fogeys, grandpa types. They are both stereotypical and utterly unique.

The next day the boy packs his gear away, grabs a loaf of bread for the pigeons, and returns to the bench with his new demographic. Thursday he begins to dress the part- You know what they say about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. When he returns Friday, having added hat, cane, and glasses, the gents are not there. Eventually they attract his attention where they are "playing" on the equipment. On Saturday the boy arrives at the bench to find a bike, but no buds. As they scoot past on  wagons, and scooters and bikes he rants at them like the old coot-persona he has adopted.

On Sunday he stews on the bench while the gents gear up and head out for a baseball game, leaving equipment for the boy. Eventually, reluctantly, he joins them, scowl intact.
He then proceeds to blast the ball out of the park on his first swing.

Monday it rains, but we see his own baseball gear again unpacked and waiting with him for the weather to improve.

Tuesday- one week since his original baseball venture. He arrives at the bench with his gear to see kids  choosing sides for a game. This time he follows, calls out, and joins them. Then he whacks the ball out of the park while his foursome of fogey friends cheer on the sidelines.

The satisfying conclusion made me cheer. Both "the boy" and "the boys" had made it off the bench and back into the game. I especially enjoy the pun in that- in a wordless book, no less.

(Another synopsis and reviews can be found at Kirkus and Story Time Standouts.)
If you don't know the book, page through the first half at the Simon & Schuster site.

So where are the voices in all this? How do you "read" wordless books (or comics, for that matter) when the words are minimal or non-existent?

In the power of the pictures, of course. The Boys is similar to  comics illustration in that there is much white space, lines are minimal, colorful, and bold, but each is essential.  Tiny lines, dots, squiggles create both facial and postural expressions that speak volumes.

In fact, using the minimal lines forming expressions and gestures, I read five plot lines in this supposedly simple book, with the child being the main character and the gents each having a story to tell. Try "reading" the book five times through, in each case assuming the role of one of the characters. Voice their inner thoughts. Have the inner conversation you can imagine each having, including their views of the others in the scene and the reactions to how this changes their own lives.

Suddenly, the stories in the art provide a depth and breadth far surpassing that of a shy boy who is finding his place in a new neighborhood. Where the boy had anticipated rejection from his peers he instead encountered it from some of the gents- just look at those faces! And they, in turn, read the boy's situation perfectly, intervening with humor and determination. Newman has also mastered the "invisible" language between the page turns (or panels, in comics). The reader must realize that these gents engaged in negotiations and planning to so fully coordinate their efforts and intent.

And even at a distance, who can doubt that the foursome are happy to be in on the action now.

I'm no fan of stereotypes, and my own family disproves any claim that males eschew talk. But this story  reminds me that all grandpas began as dads, and all had to find their own ways to communicate, support, and guide their charges. It also reminds me of the many kids I've known who found that support in surrogate parents and grandparents. Whether that support is spoken in words or actions, or both, it can be life-changing. On this Fathers Day let's tip our baseball caps to all the pseudo-dads and gramps,  too,  with thanks for all they do.

An "emotions" resource tab related to this post has been added. It describes an activity to support the process of "decoding" and labeling facial expressions and body postures to enhance comprehension and depth of questioning.

Jeff Newman had an interview at the time of this release (2010) over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Blog.

Jun 10, 2012

A Father's Day Salute to the Funnies

***blush*** I was so excited about celebrating Father's Day, comics, and the great graphic novels discussions that this popped out a week early. Dads deserve a full week of love, don't ya' think?***

The funnies, that's what we called the comics in the paper, especially the multi-paged full-
color ones on Sunday mornings.

When I was young, Sunday mornings followed a comfortable routine. Our whole family dressed up for church and walked down the block together. Afterwords, Dad gave Mom the morning off and made a big pancake breakfast. He even cleaned up after himself, until we were old enough to help. He was a pancake-making expert, but that’s a different story.

That's when it was time to relax in the living room. The big Sunday paper, the Columbus Dispatch, was loaded with sections for Mom and Dad to read, but we wouldn’t give Dad any peace until he read us the funnies.

His chair was the perfect size for all four of us. The prime spot on his knee was mine until little sis came along. Once she took over I perched on one wide arm of the chair, my sister sat on the other arm, and my brother hung over the back of the chair with his head next to Dad’s, reading over his shoulder. Settled in place with a clear view of the comics, we waited for the show to begin.

One by one, each comic strip came to life in Dad’s voice. Dick Tracy snarled his orders to his team of detectives. Prince Valiant bravely proclaimed his rights as he marched through his kingdom, sword at the ready. Dad would make Blondie and Dagwood sound just like they did in the movies, including Daisy’s occasional woofs.

Each full-color eight-panel strip was like a little movie at arm’s length.

The Katzenjammer Kids are unforgettable. Coming alive in Dad's second-generation quasi-German accent, the twins, Hans and Fritz, gave Mama, the Captain, and the Inspector plenty of grief. But even when their accents sounded confusing, the pictures and expression in their voices left no doubts about their shenanigans.

When the time came to fold up the funny papers and give Dad some peace, we clung to his neck and begged, “Read them again!”

“Which one?” he’d ask, only to hear four voices calling out four favorites.

“They’re not going anywhere, you can read them yourselves now,” he’d grin, turning to the rest of the newspaper to relax.
And one by one, oldest to youngest, we’d stretch out on the floor and go at them again. Even before I learned to read, the voices were already in my head, on the page, waiting for me to enjoy a second time when it was finally my turn.

Mom and Dad shared bedtime stories daily, and I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything. But reading the Sunday funnies, huddled on Dad’s chair, smelling his Old Spice aftershave and hugging his stiff, starched collar- that happened just once a week. Bedtime stories were well-worn favorites, but the funnies were colorful and new, every week.

And the voices. The voices were so alive! Bedtime storybooks in those days had only a few spot illustrations, and characters were gentler, more familiar. The Sunday Funnies’ voices were thrilling, dramatic, goofy, and bizarre. They made themselves at home in my head, and made me hungry to hear the voices in everything I read. Thanks for the voices, Dad. (Happy Father's Day!)

Those funnies and some occasional dime comic books were the closest we came to the energy and immediacy of today's picture books. It's no surprise that we savored them, revisited them, talked about them, imitated them.

Just as kids (of all ages) still do with quality picture books.

It's also no surprise that graphic novels, illustrated narratives, and emerging hybrid-visual-narratives are exploding in popularity at every age level.

A recent post on the Teach Mentor Text blog addresses the value and appeal of graphic novels and other illustrated narratives. For even more opinions check out the May #titletalk chat archive on Twitter for a discussion of the use, quality, and validity of these in the world of children's literature. If you have the slightest doubt that reading comics demands mindful and complex thinking, read Scott McCloud's iconic book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.

When you have the time, explore the page I've added about graphic novels, illustrated narratives, and hybrids. It features several outstanding titles and provides links to online resources.

Do you have memories of reading the "funny papers"? I'd love to hear about them.

Jun 3, 2012

What Makes A Book A Book?

A special March/April issue of The Horn Book is entitled hBook: Books Remixed in the Digital Age. Each article merits reading and lends clarity and insight to the ever-accelerating evolution of the publishing of books and related materials for young readers.

Katie Bircher manages The Horn Book's Out of the Box blog, where you can find reviews of apps and e-books. Her contribution to this issue is titled: What Makes a Good Picture Book App? Eight traits are identified, many of which aptly describe the best picture books in print form: easy to navigate, puts users in charge, withstands repeated use, and others. Of all eight criteria the one that strikes me as most essential to a powerful picture book is this: Provides a surprising and joyful experience.

In his 2004 Caldecott acceptance speech for THE MAN WHO WALKED BETWEEN THE TOWERS Mordicai Gerstein said,

"Books take us to places we will never go, and let us be people and creatures we can never be..."

Criteria for children's consumption, whether applied to books, Apps, or eBooks, should point their creators toward that level of excellence. Gerstein went on to say:

"My intention in all my books is to give children just what I want to give everyone: something beautiful, magical, funny, and soulful: something that provokes good questions: questions about what an incomprehensible, beautiful and seemingly impossible thing it is to be a human being in this incomprehensible, beautiful and seemingly impossible world. What could be more difficult and more wonderful?"

Gerstein consistently achieves that level of excellence, but particularly so in A BOOK. In it perspective shifts to "the fourth wall", with the reader's-eye-view fully conveyed through the angles and shadows of the illustrations. Every aspect of this unique investigation of what goes on in A Book challenges the reader to engage, reflect, and participate in the question- all the while entertaining the heck out of us! Perhaps our questions about the current emergence of formats, platforms, and delivery systems are framed most succinctly inside the front flap of A BOOK. Even before her journey begins the pigtailed character asks: What's My Story?

For an inside look, as well as raves and reviews, explore the Macmillan site. Better yet, read A BOOK.

The answer to this question seems clear to Rabbit, the hero/heroine of NOT A BOX, by Antoinette Portis. When is a box NOT A BOX? When the user has the engagement, creativity, curiosity, joy, and imagination to see other possibilities.

With all due respect to Mr. Shakespeare and his rose, a book is not an App is not an eBook. And yet, perhaps they are one and the same, in some essential way. When creators of any and all versions of these strive for excellence, when they provide surprising and joyful experiences, when they overcome the difficult to achieve the wonderful, surely they share a common value in the lives of young readers/users.

In case you are one of the few people who haven't yet read Lane Smith's picture book addressing this existential question, check out the trailer for IT'S A BOOK.

And please chime in with your thoughts and opinions about these emerging delivery systems for children's literature.
Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.