But first! the ballots have just been announced for the 2017 Newbery and Caldecott award committees. I am so proud and overjoyed to see the names of talented friends on there - Betsy Fraser! Jamie Watson! and Lovely Laura Lutz! are nominated for the Newbery Committee! Stacy Dillon (mytweendom) is on the Caldecott ballot and Laura Given (liblaura5) is on the 2016 Caldecott Committee!!
If you are a member, vote for these fabulously smart and well-read women! That is all.
SO! I came in to work this morning after a long weekend immersed - IMMERSED - in violence and depravity (and that was just the soccer game!) (no, kidding - I worked on our new Tumblr Something Wicked Comes of Age, developed as an on-the-go Reader Advisory tool to go along with the "Something Wicked This Way Comes of Age" presentation Paula G. and I are giving at the 2014 YA Lit Symposium and could I pimp that event any harder?? I could? Ok well then we are giving away candy and books to people who attend, how's that for pimpin'?! Still time to register!).
Yep, all weekend I read and wrote annotations for novels about plague, murder, hauntings, a genetically engineered tapeworm (actually, two genetically engineered tapeworms), and assorted things with BIG TEETH.
Look at this Emily Carroll illustration, from her Grimmlike graphic novel Through the Woods. Those are some BIG DAMN TEETH. (But aren't you just tickled to DEATH that the little girl is sleeping in the Goodnight, Moon bedroom? I always thought that joint was creepy. Who says goodnight to the air? to noises everywhere? THE DEAD DO. DON'T LEAVE ME IN THE BIG GREEN ROOM MOMMY I DON'T WANT TO DIE)
ANYWAY, I came in to work and four of the MOST lovely picture books were on our New Picture Books shelf.
Balm. Balm for the eyeballs, I say. I'm going to take a nice leisurely stroll through each one of these lovingly crafted marvels.
I started with Tumbleweed Baby, written by Anna Myers and illustrated by Charles Vess. I have been in love with Charles Vess's work since Sandman #19, a cozy little one-off Sandman story published in 1990 called "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
That might look like Prince Valiant to you, but let me point out that immense blue space in the first panel. Subtly cavernous, it puts the players in their place - what fools these mortals be, indeed. And don't overlook the figures in the third panel just because they're pretty. Charles Vess does pretty better than anyone, but his faces always have enough personality and expression that the character comes through despite all the ruffs and bustles.
The freewheeling movement and graceful, curling vines and hair in Blueberry Girl are what I think of when I think of Charles Vess nowadays. His characters take giant steps, as if they are wearing seven-league boots, and gallop through landscapes that would bring the rest of us to our knees. Someday someone is going to buy me Drawing Down the Moon: The Art of Charles Vess - my birthday's coming up - and I'll just drink in the pretty all day long.
Tumbleweed Baby is set in a different landscape. Instead of sunlight-dappled enchanted European forest, we have a "falling-apart house" surrounded by "sand and - oh yes - tumbleweeds." It is really neat to see this master of greens and blues take on a world of dun and ochre. But this a the U.S. version of a fairy tale, which is to say a tall tale, and tall tales demand a big landscape.
Don't you love a tall tale? That mixture of everyday detail and mythic feats, the home-grown feeling of it. Most tall tales sound suspiciously like stories of unusually large or strong or talented real men or women gradually exaggerated with each retelling - out of boredom or oneupmanship or sheer love of linguistic hyperbole - until Pecos Bill is wrestling a 50-foot rattlesnake.
Tumbleweed baby is a wild child found in a tumbleweed and brought home by the children of the Upagainstit family. Once inside, she splashed the bathwater and splooshed the dinner, and stayed up all night jumping on the couch. Oh, the Upagainstits decided she couldn't stay, she was just too wild.
They change their mind of course. She is sweet as wild honey on a biscuit, and they decide that her disruptive, challenging nature will make them all strive a little harder to be better at what they each want to do, and let me tell you boys and girls, for the Upagainstit family, there is nowhere to go but up.
Sticklers for veracity will note: the littlest girl in the family advises putting her back in the tumbleweed from the very start. I approve of this little girl.
You'll note a sepia tone to this art. It works - every word and line of this story is informed by a sort of noble nostalgia - except, ugh, that sounds awful. Let's say rather that the language of Tumbleweed Baby has the untutored twang of a Woody Guthrie song, the soft but scratchy burlap texture of a story told by Johnny Cash. It's a simple but outlandish story, told in a cadenced, conversational style.
And it's got lots of energy to it. Look at those children - Vess has them spilling pell-mell off the porch. Where are they going? Nowhere, literally Nowhere, Texas, full of sand and tumbleweeds, remember? They are off to make their own fun, in a "our only toy is our imagination and maybe also this stick" kind of way that strikes a chord with a lot of people (perhaps especially people who think about childhood to the extent that they collaborate with Neil Gaiman a lot).
Even sitting still, everything in this picture implies motion. The littlest girl leans forward, the medium boy twists his body to see. Check out the cuffs on their jeans, and oh, go back to the previous picture and look at Ma's plain dress. Everybody's shoes are the same. These guys could be straight out of a WPA photograph.
I'm rambling, caught up in these illustrations. I just love the assertive power behind each stroke of colored pencil. I love the combination of watercolor and pencil shading to create texture or shadow. I love the Maxfield Parrish-y backlit skies, so spectacular behind the drab, sandy foreground.
Those clouds and sunsets call to mind another specific brand of American heroic story - the story about people who worked very hard in our very empty places and were rewarded in the least tangible way possible, with the sight of magnificent plays of light and vapor that cared nothing for them. Under skies like that, you better love up your babies, no matter where they came from.
Next let's look at this wonderful version of My Grandfather's Coat, told this time by Jim Aylesworth and illustrated by Barbara McClintock.
You may know this story from the Simms Taback version, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. My, my, it is to love the Simms Taback version. Brightly graphic, with clever die-cuts. But trust me - you can have two treatments of this smart and accessible folk tale. Three, if you count the terrific Julia Denos-illustrated I Had a Favorite Dress by Boni Ashburn.
In fact, the book I thought of first when I saw the cover of My Grandfather's Coat was Grandfather's Journey, by Allen Say. Oh my word you can't get a young kid to open that book. Why on earth does a talented, thoughtful artist like Allen Say always ALWAYS have such blah covers? that looks like a Magritte, for Pete's sake. Magritte is middle school, at best.
And then I thought of The Memory Coat. That one's a little tense for the younger kids.
But I could tell right away that My Grandfather's Coat was going to be FUN. Yes, sure, that's Ellis Island in the background, but the kid in the cap is smiling, and the border is scrolls of colorful buttons and thread and needles.
PLUS BARBARA MCCLINTOCK! and I have been VERY restrained, going six whole paragraphs before shrieking Barbara McClintock's name. No matter what Barbara McClintock is obsessively inking - and oh ho there are a lot of tiny lines in Barbara McClintock's work, try Adèle & Simon on for size some time - there is always a little joy or even a little joke if you look hard enough.
Even in Twelve Kinds of Ice, which is mostly landscape and atmosphere, a swell little sliver of rural memoir, there is a lightheartedness:
In My Grandfather's Coat, the perspectives are more intimate, resembling snapshots, either posed or candid, of Grandfather from the time of his arrival in America wearing baggy short pants, through the generations until we see him carrying his sacked-out great-grandbaby up to bed.
...and you know, god damn it, Scholastic, if you don't want people to review your books, I suppose we'll all be happy to oblige. This nonsense of putting up page images in some format that can't be copied - you are not actually protecting copyright there, you are just pissing people off.
So fine, you want to take a look at this book, you'll have to click here to go to Scholastic's site, they have a whole sort of merry-go-round of the pages. Or don't. Just get it next time you go to the library. Sheesh.
Too bad, because I really wanted to talk about all of the subtle ways McClintock marks the passage of time. Falling leaves and snow come and go, of course, but also, hemlines change and babies grow. Grandfather finally gets a new sewing machine. The house gets new curtains - sheers, then barkcloth, then marvelously mod Marimekko drapes in the same poppy print that's on my bed right now.
Scratch, scratch goes Barbara McClintock's pen on her thick watercolor paper. Dab, dab goes her brush in smooth swathes of transparent color.
The last thing I remember Mal Peet and his wife Elspeth Graham collaborating on was the very beautiful and slightly hard to relate to Cloud Tea Monkeys. What do you know, I reviewed it! Like Cloud Tea Monkeys, Night Sky Dragons is a story set in a far-off region, and, also like Cloud Tea Monkeys, it is an original story that could easily be mistaken for a tale handed down from long ago. This time, we're in a han - kind of like an Old West fort, but privately run - along the Silk Road in looks like western China. Desert terrain. Cold. Mongolia-like.
Young Yazul makes silk kites with his grandfather, playing in his workshop while his stern widowed father runs the fort. Yazul is just a little guy, looks like he's maybe five or six, but he puts on a brave face even when subjected to his father's disdain for his activities.
This story goes the way stories like this do - Yazul incurs his father's displeasure and is put to work in the kitchens, but then when the han is under attack, it is Yazul's ingenuity and his aged grandfather's skill that save the day.
The unhurried (but also unboring) pace of this book is matched by a clean page design, with a large type size and only a few paragraphs per page. There's a lot of air to this book, a lot of dry, high sky and whistling wind. Page backgrounds are a sandy kraft-paper brown, with a geometric bottom border pattern.
Except on the pages depicting the dramatic conclusion, which are inky blue! With highlights of stark white! And all the more dramatic because the rest of the book is so visually calm.
You may remember illustrator Patrick Benson from the book North: The Amazing Story of Arctic Migration, itself a book with a lot of air and sky in it. He has also done an edition of The Wind in the Willows that I think I'd like to get a look at, and an illustrated Moby-Dick. Now, I have a big soft spot for Moby-Dick (it would have to be big) (oh! slap me for that one!) - first of all, it's funnier than you think - so I know I'd like to get my hands on that. Birthday coming, remember?
He does so much with a limited palette. Isn't that great? And I like his mountains. The mountains in Night Sky Dragons are amazing. They are far off under a pale blue sky, feathered with snow between the ridges, and they're just the backdrop for the arrival of a galloping caravan, camels and riders made indistinct by their own clouds of dust. I could look at that painting for a while.
I get the feeling that Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham travel a lot. One thing I observed about Cloud Tea Monkeys, set on an Indian tea plantation, was that they got the atmosphere just right. I've been to tea country in India, and the chilly mornings, mountain mists, and blazing midday sun are just as they describe. I have not been to Western China, but based on my trust in these two storytellers, I believe that the cold morning air makes your nose turn white and that camels groan when they're hungry.
Ooh, Kirkus gave it a star! Good for you, Kirkus!
Lastly, here's Ben Hatke's book, Julia's House for Lost Creatures. We were early adopters of Zita the Spacegirl, and we love it SO MUCH. Just tonight Milo went looking for our copy, and he's a 13-year-old boy. We love little girls dressing up like Zita. We love Paula G.'s adventurous cat named Zita. We love handing smallish people a graphic novel in which a girl is the hero.
So that's Julia on the cover of the book. And Julia's house. They're new in town, arriving via turtle to a picturesque bluff by the sea. We first meet Julia hurtling out of the house and down the steps to plant the mailbox out front. "CHOK!"
Let's pause to talk about the hurtling. Julia is a winsome sprite of a girl. Long red wavy hair, green kerchief and apron, high-tops. But her movements are pure Don Martin. Exaggerated, but so grounded in the way real kids move that they make you laugh with delight.
Once she's settled in, Julia lights a fire, brews some tea, and cozies up with a book. And now, we'll pause to talk about the interiors. Mmmm, Julia's house! It is neatly chock-full off treasures and cubbyholes and enormous plants and a bonsai tree with a teeny tiny tire swing. And I spy a Zita doll!
I want to go to there.
But now Julia's lonely, and so she opens her house to others - marvelous others, full of surprises and creativity and joy. But then her house gets messy, and some of these others are not terribly considerate. HMM. Does Ben Hatke have kids, ya think? He does.
More than a couple kids, in fact. And do you think he and his wife have figured out a way to manage the chaos as adroitly as Julia does? I don't know. It's possible - Ben's pretty together, and his wife seems like a goddess. I talked to a couple of the Hatke kids in the Dave Roman signing line at the Gaithersburg Book Festival while Anna chased after the littlest one, and everyone was just as cool as clutch of cucumbers.
So anyway, the mermaid's washing dishes, the ghost dusts, and the troll is the house DJ. All is right with the world, especially now that Julia has recruited a handyman.
Who comes with his own minions (including one Minion - see him there? So cute!).
Julia's House for Lost Creatures is a new folk tale. If you think kids aren't going to concoct their own dream houses in which brownies, talking ferrets, LEGO minifigs, and whatever other creatures they like best can find refuge, you don't know kids.
Wow, I feel so good right now! Diving into pretty colors, sinking into detail and lingering over line is really good for you. In fact, I'm going to go over Julia's House one more time and find all of Ben's jokes.