Emily’s Library, Part 8: 25 Fine Books for Small People; or, Further Adventures in Building the Ideal Children’s Library

In this installment of my Emily’s Library series, I notice there are more contemporary books than usual. I didn’t plan it that way — there are certainly more classics I’d like her to have! But, as noted in earlier posts, my goal is to give my three-year-old niece a personal library of really good books, mixing classics and contemporary, well-known and more obscure. Growing up surrounded by beautiful books increases the likelihood that she’ll not only learn to read, but enjoy reading. And by “reading” I of course mean reading both words and pictures. Since (at this stage) nearly all of the books in Emily’s library are picture books or comics, she also has a small art museum right there in her bedroom. When I think of her shelves of literary-visual art, and choosing books for her parents to read (or perusing them herself), I am happy.

I share these titles in my Emily’s Library posts because (since I’m a scholar of children’s books) people often ask me to recommend books for children. Though the selection does of course reflect my own idiosyncrasies, I hope my brief synopses for each title help direct you to good books for the young people in your life.

Note to Emily’s parents: a bunch of these are Christmas gifts. So, you’ll see ’em soon! (Note to others: Emily does not yet read this blog & so I won’t be spoiling her surprise.)

Ronan Badel, The Lazy Friend (2014)

Ronan Badel, The Lazy Friend (2014)This wordless picture book shouldn’t work, but it does. For all but one page, the title character — a tree sloth — is sound asleep. Apart from clinging (to a tree branch or to his friend, the snake), he only sleeps. That’s it. As the back cover boasts, the book is a “wordless adventure story about a sloth who does absolutely nothing.” Badel sets up the sloth as the straight man (or straight sloth?): his friends’ responses make the book work. When the tree to which he clings gets cut down and loaded onto a logging truck, the snake sneaks on board, as toucan and tree frog (the other two friends) bid them both a sad farewell. The book then follows sloth and snake on an adventure — of which only the snake is aware. I don’t want to spoil the ending here, but suffice it to say that the book is a comedy.

Ramona Badescu and Benjamin Chaud, Pomelo et la grande aventure (2012) [Pomelo’s Big Adventure (2014) in its original French]

Ramona Badescu and Benjamin Chaud, Pomelo et la grande aventure (2012)Another adventure with our favorite little pink elephant. So far, Enchanted Lion Books has translated four of Pomelo’s adventures into English. Here’s hoping they keep on going — there are many more Pomelo books en français! In this installment, Pomelo discovers the pleasures and challenges of travel. A story that is by turns philosophical and whimsical, Pomelo et la grande aventure manages to capture a child’s sense of excitement and uncertainty in facing new things. Chaud’s artwork offers the eye much to explore: sometimes, tiny Pomelo is nearly hidden; always, he appears in a new location in each two-page spread. Pomelo drives a car, and sails a boat. He meets a rat who swindles him, and a large grey elephant who shares his food. He makes a new friend. It’s a tender and sometimes amusing tale of what we learn when we travel.

Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky, Z Is for Moose (2012)

Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinsky, Z Is for Moose (2012)If you ask Emily whether “Z” is for “Moose,” she will respond, “No! ‘Z’ is for ‘Zebra’!” Like Mike Lester’s A Is for Salad (2000), this book also creates a kind of absurdist pedagogy, as it presents false claims and readers respond with corrections. Its premise: referee/director Zebra is presenting a theatrical performance, in which each item or animal (one per letter) takes the stage in alphabetical order. Moose, however, finds it difficult to wait his turn, and keeps entering at the wrong moments, upstaging the others. When the performance reaches the middle of the alphabet, “M is for Mouse” and Moose is upset. From the narrative conflict between Moose and Zebra to the game of finding the actual thing named by the letter (behind or displaced by Moose), Bingham and Zelinsky‘s Z Is for Moose is a fun read-aloud.

Cécile Boyer, Rebonds (2013) [Run, Dog! (2014) in its original French]

Cécile Boyer, Rebonds (2013)A book of few words, Rebonds follows a friendly dog’s adventures, as he pursues a ball in a park. He chases it onto a trampoline, through a picnic, interrupts young lovers on a park bench, and generally creates a little (or adds to the) chaos wherever he goes. The dog is in one color palette, and the rest of the book uses a different one. The vibrant yellow dog’s body, his dark blue collar, and red tongue contrast nicely with the mostly mono-chromatic other creatures: humans (all in dark blue silhouettes), birds (pink, light blue, dark blue, grey), park bench (pink), trees (light blue), and cars (grey). On the right side of every other two-page spread, Boyer has two small pages — one, a third of a page, and the other, two thirds of a page. Echoing a slowly paced flip-book, turning these pages-within-pages creates movement, as ball and dog disrupt each scene. Like her earlier Ouaf Miaou Cui Cui (2009) (Woof Meow Tweet Tweet [2011], featured in an earlier Emily’s Library post), Rebonds is a beautifully designed book.

from Cécile Boyer's Rebonds (2013)

Virginia Lee Burton, The Little House (1942)

Virgina Lee Burton, The Little House (1942)A classic story about time and change, Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House places its title character at the center (well, bottom center) of nearly every right-hand page, while the expanding metropolis gradually transforms the pastoral landscape into a bustling, noisy cityscape. Burton identifies the house as “she,” but — apart from her pink color — does not gender the house, visually. The two windows on either side of the front door serve as eyes, with the gaps at the bottom of the pair of closed curtains acting as pupils. The curved front doorstep smiles, or does not smile, when Burton flattens its curves. But the book’s genius is in its design: Burton manages to tell a dynamic, engaging story about a house that (except near the end) does not move. Tracking the many changes in the house’s environment is as compelling as the narrative itself. Required reading for all students of the picture book, and highly enjoyable reading for the graphically inclined of any age.

Benjamin Chaud, Coquillages et petit ours (2012) [The Bear’s Sea Escape (2014) in its original French]

Benjamin Chaud, Coquillages et petit ours (2012)If you enjoyed Une chanson d’ours [The Bear’s Song] (included in the last Emily’s Library post), then you’ll certainly want to check out Coquillages et petit ours [The Bear’s Sea Escape]. Picking up the narrative where the last book left off, Papa Bear and Little Bear are in the city but need a place to hibernate. Papa Bear chooses the toy section of a department store. As he starts to sleep, a little boy adopts Little Bear and heads out of the store. Papa Bear awakens and begins his pursuit. As in Une chanson d’ours, each two-page spread has a degree of detail reminiscent of Richard Scarry or even Martin Hanford (Where’s Waldo?). As Papa Bear looks for Little Bear, readers, too, can scan the pages until they find him as well.

Benjamin Chaud, from Coquillages et petit ours (2012)

Mike Curato, Little Elliot, Big City (2014)

Mike Curato, Little Elliot, Big CityIn vivid illustrations whose use of space and perspective really draw you in, Curato’s tale of a small cupcake-loving polka-dotted elephant (Elliot) has heart. As he walks through a 1940s New York City, Elliot is dwarfed by the others in the subway, and can’t be seen over the countertop in the bakery, but enjoys “the little things” (a flower growing between cracks in the sidewalk) and “small treasures” (a top, jacks, roller-skate key, playing card).  I think that the book’s treatment of the central character’s height will resonate with younger readers: to be a child is to exist in a world designed for giants, where everything is too large, too wide, or out of reach. Curato captures that experience well. It’s sweet without being pat — and that’s a delicate balance to achieve.

To learn more about this book and Mike Curato’s creative process, see Jules Danielson’s post over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Tomie de Paola, Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs (1973)

Tomie de Paola, Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs (1973)Emily is 3 years old. But she has relatives in their 90s — including one relative she’s quite close to. For that reason, I’ve given her parents both this book and Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death, and the Tulip (see below). When the time comes or when Emily starts asking questions, I want them to have stories to help her understand. Stories help families talk about difficult issues — like the fact that we are all mortal. One day, people she loves will die.

In Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs, Tommy has “a grandmother and a great-grandmother,” both of whom he loves “very much.” Since grandmother “always seemed to be standing by the big black stove in the kitchen” and great-grandmother “was always in bed upstairs” (because she was 94), he called them “Nana Downstairs and Nana Upstairs.” The book talks about the time they spend together — talking, eating candy, telling stories. Then, Nana Upstairs dies. Tommy asks what the word means. His mother says, “Died means that Nana Upstairs won’t be here anymore.” Tommy confronts her empty bed, begins to cry, and asks, “Won’t she ever come back?” His mother tells him, “No,… Except in your memory. She will come back in your memory whenever you think about her.”

Wolf Erlbruch, Duck, Death, and the Tulip (2008) [Ente, Tod und Tulpe (2007) in English]

Wolf Erlbruch, Duck, Death and the Tulip (2008)This is the second book about death I’ve given to Emily — the first is Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs (see above). Where de Paola offers realism, Erlbruch provides allegory. Duck meets Death — represented here as a person in a housecoat with an oversized skull for a head. When Duck stands upright (as she does when they meet), the two are the same height. Visually, Erlbruch has set them up as equals. Understandably, Duck is nonetheless at first unnerved, asking “You’ve come to fetch me?” Death responds, “Oh, I’ve been close by all your life — just in case.” But, as the two get to know each other, they become friends. They talk about life and what (if anything) may come after. When Death is damp after being in the pond, Duck offers to warm him, spreading her feathered body over his housecoat-clad one. Near book’s end, she also feels cold, and dies. Death carries her to the river, and, placing a tulip on her chest, “laid her gently on the water and nudged her on her way.”

penultimate 2-page spread from Wolf Erlbruch's Duck, Death and the Tulip

The book concludes:

For a long time he watched her.

When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved.

“But that’s life,” thought Death.

It’s a gentle, profound book that asks the right questions, and helps us think about the answers.

Elise Hurst, Imagine a City (2014)

Hurst‘s Imagine a City invites readers to a “world without edges,” where anthropomorphic animals and people coexist, the subjects of paintings reach beyond their frames, buses are giant flying fish, and bears ride bicycles. The art makes the book feel both very contemporary and classic. Her pen-and-ink drawings seem to have time-traveled from another era — that of Edward Ardizzone, E. H. Shepard, or maybe Winsor McCay. The visual motifs (especially the flying fish) recall Shaun Tan and David Wiesner. It’s as if she’s brought her sketchbook into a parallel, surreal world, and — in this book — collected sketches of what she saw during her travels. To the best of my knowledge, this book has been published only in Australia. So, attention publishers of North America and Europe (and other locations): publish this book in your countries!

Elise Hurst, Imagine a City (2014)

Elise Hurst, Imagine a City (2014)

Oliver Jeffers, Lost and Found (2005)

Oliver Jeffers, Lost and Found (2005)In the decade since this book’s appearance, it’s sold very well and even become an animated film. So, there’s s a good chance that you already know Lost and Found. Actually, I’m hoping you do because I’m finding it hard to talk about it without giving away the ending. It begins like this: One day, a boy finds a penguin at his door. He decides the penguin “must be lost,” and so “will help the penguin find its way home.” Since the penguin does not speak, we’re invited to assume that the boy’s intentions match the penguin’s wishes. But what does the penguin really want? And what does the boy want? Who is lost? Who is found? (There — I’ve avoided the conclusion!) Jeffers’ watercolors give the story warmth, and his pages range from spare (boy and penguin in the center of a white page) to detailed (boy and penguin at sea, a gigantic wave threatening to crash over them). His representational style has a comparable range — often on the same page, or even in the same character. The boy’s legs are one-dimensional (a pair of straight lines), his torso two-dimensional (a rectangle in a red-and-white-striped rugby shirt), and his head three-dimensional (a pink sphere wearing a hat). Oscillations between realism and abstraction suggest the happy accidents of an untrained artist, and, in this sense, align the art with the young boy protagonist. But, of course, Jeffers knows what he’s doing here — his sense of composition, of when to oscillate, reveals an artist sufficiently in command of his craft to make you forget his skill.

Crockett Johnson, Harold et le Crayon Violet (2013) [latest French translation of Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)]

Harold and the Purple Crayon (French edition, 2013)Unlike the last French translation of Harold, the crayon is purple (well, violet) in this one. In the translation prior to this one, the crayon was rose (pink). Crockett Johnson‘s Harold and the Purple Crayon is available in at least 14 different languages: both the crayon’s color and the protagonist’s name varies, depending on the translation.  (I’ve already given Emily all seven Harold books in English.)

Laurie Keller, Arnie the Doughnut (2003)

With her typically loopy sense of humor, Keller’s Arnie the Doughnut plays with children’s culture’s love of personification. Margaret Wise Brown populated her books with cute little furry animals, but evidently saw no contradiction with her hobby of hunting cute little furry animals, presumably because the animals in her books were people, and the animals she shot were game. In giving us a protagonist whose destiny is to be eaten, Keller ups the ante a bit. As Arnie observes in a moment near the end of the book, “I guess doughnuts really are only good for eating, aren’t they?” I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I do want to call attention to Keller’s jokes and commentary, usually from unnamed characters on the periphery of the scene — she offers a parallel show running concurrently with the main narrative. When we meet the jelly-filled doughnut, another doughnut exclaims, “Eeeooo! His brains are oozing out!” Jelly-filled replies, “It’s not brains, silly — it’s jelly!” But she doesn’t end there, adding a bonus two-panel “double-checking,” in which jelly-filled puts a finger in his jelly to confirm what he’s just said.

Laurie Keller, from Arnie the Doughnut (2003)

There are several Laurie Keller posts over at Jules Danielson’s Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, but why not start with “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Laurie Keller”?

Ole Könnecke, The Big Book of Words and Pictures (2012)

Emily has already recieved this book in French (Le grand imagier des petits) and in German (Das große Buch der Bilder und Wörter) — see Emily’s Library, Part 6. I thought she should have it in English. Rather like Richard Scarry’s books, it features scenes in which all the main items have a label, thus helping to children learn the names of objects. I imagine Emily and her parents placing the books side by side, to compare them. (Emily speaks English, French, and Swiss German.)

Ole Könnecke, The Big Book of Words and Pictues (2012)

Lena and Olof Landström, Boo and Baa Have Company (1996) [English translation of Bu och Bä får besök]

Lena and Olof Landström, Boo and Baa Have Company (1996)Another gently humorous entry in the LandströmsBoo and Baa series of picturebooks about a brother and sister sheep — well, anthropomorphic sheep (they’re children represented as sheep). I particularly enjoy the Landströms’ trust in their readers. On the first page of the book, the text reports that it’s “autumn. The tree has dropped its leaves.” In the art, Boo and Ba are raking beneath a nearly bare tree, and the Landströms introduce the beginning of another narrative strain: a cat, strolling by the yard, looks up at the bird in the tree above the children’s head. The children won’t see the cat for several pages yet, but the cat-vs-bird story continues on the fringes of the book for a few pages. After Baa gets the oilcan to grease the wheelbarrow’s squeaky axle, Boo notices that “Now it meows when I push it.” Baa replies, “It meows when you’re standing still, too.” As the cat looks down from above, Boo and Baa inspect the axle, and the Landströms’ narrator reports, “Boo and Baa think this is weird.” When read alongside the art, that line’s deadpan silliness makes me chuckle. As they attempt to coax the cat down, the children’s problem-solving skills provide more humor — but the book doesn’t make fun of them. Their ideas are good, even if they don’t always work out quite as planned. Also, though Baa wears pink and Boo wears blue, each child is equally capable of doing whatever needs to be done: Baa greases the axle; Boo opens the sardine tin to coax the cat down. A funny book that avoids gender stereotypes = win!

Lena and Olof Landström, Pom and Pim (2014) [English translation of Pom och Pim (2012)]

Lena and Olof Landström, Pom and Pim (2014)A gently humorous story of the ups and downs in the life of young Pom and Pim — a child and a much-loved pink blob of a stuffed animal. Cleverly, Pom’s gender is never identified — so she can be he, or vice versa, or none of the above. That said, I only noticed the character’s gender neutrality as I was trying to use a pronoun in writing the first sentence of this description. Reading the book, I was more taken by the Landstroms’ keen and sympathetic observation of a young child’s emotional experience. Via color, body movement, Pom’s facial expressions, and very few words, the Landstroms evoke the moment-to-moment changes in moods that small children face. Lacking the experience to place things in perspective, they feel each joy and each catastrophe with greater intensity than we adults do. Pom trips over a rock (“Ouch! Bad luck.”), but finds money (“What luck!”), buys an ice cream, gives Pim a taste, eats the ice cream quickly, “gets a tummy ache” (“That’s bad luck”), lies down, but sees his balloon hovering over his bed (“What luck!”). Summarizing twelve of the book’s pages in prose, my previous sentence doesn’t do justice to the Landstroms’ artistry, but I hope it conveys at least a glimpse of the book’s considerable charm and insight.

Lena and Olof Landström, from Pom and Pim (2014)

Lena and Olof Landström, from Pom and Pim (2014)

For more art and for thoughtful commentary, see Jules Danielson’s post at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Jöns Mellgren, Elsa and the Night (2014) [English translation of Sigrid och Natten (2013)]

Jöns Mellgren, Elsa and the Night (2014)Elsa can’t sleep. The Night — a tiny, purplish blob — is shivering under her sofa. Outside, endless daylight makes people sleepless and quarrelsome. As she tells the Night her story and nurses it back to health, it grows in size. Since Mellgren’s Night character is translucent, the city scenes viewed through its body show the dark blue night sky, the white stars, and yellow lights through the buildings’ windows. Beyond the boundaries of its body, Mellgren shows a white sky, no stars, and no lit windows. It’s a striking visualization of the sharp contrast between night and day. The book’s art drew me to it immediately, but its story is strong, too. Elsa’s insomnia — spoiler alert! — comes from a need to mourn her elephant friend, who has died. I expect that adult readers will feel the melancholic undercurrent of these pages, but those for whom death is an abstraction (many, but not all young readers) will understand why she is sad without feeling it quite so acutely. Fortunately, the expanding Night provides comfort, and sleep returns — to Ella, and to everyone.

Kadir Nelson, Baby Bear (2014)

Kadir Nelson, Baby Bear (2014)How do you find your way home? This question is both practical and philosophical. For Baby Bear, it is practical. As he says on the narrative’s first page, upon encountering Mountain Lion, “Excuse me dear Mountain Lion. I’m lost. Can you help me find my way home?” The answers provided by Mountain Lion and all the other animals underscore the philosophical ideas at play. Mountain Lion says, “when I am lost I try to retrace my steps.” Frog says, “Do not be afraid…. Trust yourself.” Moose says, “When I am lost, I sit very still and try to listen to my heart.” However, one need not ponder the meaning of life in order to enjoy the book. Nelson’s vivid paintings, shifting visual perspective, and striking use of light — for example, unusually bright green grass contrasted with the green-tinged black night sky, when Baby Bear consults Owl — draw us into the story. And whatever larger implications Baby Bear’s questions might have, our title character speaks in the voice of a child. When he follows the Squirrels’ advice to “hug a tree and think of home,” Moose asks, “What are you doing?” Baby Bear answers, “Uh, nothing.” Moose asks, “Are you lost?” Baby Bear replies, “Yes, I think so.” Baby Bear’s tentativeness in that exchange is evocative of a young person, feeling a bit unsure of his way. Nelson’s Baby Bear can help people of all sizes find their way, literally and figuratively.

Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash, Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors (2014)

Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash, Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors (2014)At long last, the second Bow-Wow picture book! The first, Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug (2007), and the six concept books that followed it (Bow-Wow Attracts Opposites, Bow-Wow Orders Lunch, etc.) are all favorites of Emily’s. Indeed, they may be the first books she read herself. At age one-and-a-half, she would sit there, book in her lap, turn the pages and chuckle. And she’s not the only small person I’ve met who has been transfixed by Bow-Wow. The picture books are wordless, their narratives rendered legible via the pictorial language of the comic strip. You don’t need to be able to read text to read these books. With a sense of humor that is both daffy and deadpan, the Bow-Wow books have much to entertain readers of all ages. In the latest adventure, Bow-Wow faces off against ghost cats in a haunted house, but — I hasten to add — the book is funny, not scary.

Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash, from Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors (2014)

For a glimpse behind the scenes of Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors, check out my Comics Journal interview with Newgarden and Cash.

Clotilde Perrin, Au méme instant, sur la Terre . . . (2011) [At the Same Moment, All Around the World (2014) in its original French]

Clotilde Perrin, Au méme instant, sur la Terre . . . (2011)Perrin‘s beautiful book takes us to all 24 time zones, one after the other. We begin at 6 am in Dakar, Senegal, where “Keita wakes up early to help his father count the fish caught during the night.” Turn the page and it’s 7 am in Paris, where “Benedict drinks hot chocolate before school.” On the right-hand page of this two-page spread, it’s 8 am in Sofia, Bulgaria, when “Mitko chases after the school bus.” And on we go, to Yasmine in Baghdad, Nadia in Dubai, and so on. At the back, the book includes information on time zones, and a fold-out world map, where you can see where all the children live. In its original French edition, the entire book unfolds like an accordion. Since Emily is a world traveler, I thought she should have a book that better acquaints her with the world.

Clotilde Perrin, Au méme instant, sur la Terre . . . (2011)

Andrew Prahin, Brimsby’s Hats (2014)

Andrew Prahin, Brimsby’s Hats (2014)Brimsby makes hats, his best friend makes tea, and they have “the most wonderful conversations.” When friend decides to pursue “his dream to become a sea captain,” the hatmaker gives him a captain’s hat, wishes him good luck, and waves goodbye. In a two-page spread of a dozen illustrations each showing Brimsby making hats by the window, Prahin shows the passage of time — the seasons changing beyond the window pane, likely one pane for each month of the year. At the end of this sequence, Brimsby realizes he’s “become awfully lonely.” So, he puts on “his favorite hat,” and sets out “to make new friends.” I won’t reveal the rest of the plot, but suffice it to say that it’s an eloquent tale of making new friends, missing old ones, and the worthwhile effort required by both endeavors. It’s Prahin’s debut picture book. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many.

Jules Danielson has a great post on this book at her Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Head over there to see Prahin’s original art for Brimsby’s Hats.

Dan Santat, The Adventures of Beekle, The Unimaginary Friend (2014)

Dan Santat, The Adventures of Beekle, The Unimaginary Friend (2014)Where do imaginary friends come from? Dan Santat, who understands that what children imagine can be as real as the so-called “real world,” answers this question from the perspective of the (un)imaginary friend. Beekle tires of waiting for his friend to choose him, and so ventures off to the real world on his own. There, he discovers adults, who — like those busy citizens of Reality in Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth or the grown-ups in Shuan Tan’s The Lost Thing — have stopped paying attention to their surroundings. So, he sets off for the playground…. Santat offers a vividly imagined story of the challenges and rewards of making a new friend.

Also, I presume you like to laugh? You do? Good. Then, you might also take a gander at Jules Danielson’s hilarious interview (with lots of art) over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  (The interview is with Dan Santat.  Obviously.)

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

Sendak’s classic tale of unruly emotions, tamed via fantasy, and expressed without punishment. (Mother may send Max to bed without supper, but he returns to find dinner waiting and “still hot”: evidently she changed her mind.) The book is famous for many reasons, including the “wild rumpus,” when Sendak abandons words for three consecutive two-page spreads, rendering the story solely through his art. It may also be the best example of the Caldecott Committee getting it right, giving the award to the most distinguished book of the year — and in this case, one of the most distinguished books of the twentieth-century.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

Not that awards should persuade you to give any book to a child. Sendak loved to tell the story of the mother who told him, “I’ve read Where the Wild Things Are ten times to my little girl, and she screams every time.”

He asks, “Don’t you like your child?”

She says, “Well, yes!”

He says, “Then, why do you continue reading it to the child?”

She responds, “But, Mr. Sendak, it’s a Caldecott book, she ought to like it.”

Sendak thought this was ridiculous: “If a kid doesn’t like a book, throw it away. Children don’t give a damn about awards. Why should they? We should let children choose their own books. What they don’t like the will toss aside. What disturbs them too much they will not look at. And if they look at the wrong book, it isn’t going to do them that much damage. We treat children in a peculiar way, I think. We don’t treat them like the strong creatures they really are” (Lanes, The Art of Maurice Sendak 106-107 & in conversation with me, 2001).

Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957)

Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957)A rainy day, mother away, and two bored children wish they “had something to do.” Then, Seuss’s insouciant cat and his two Things introduce some anarchic “fun” to the household. The cat juggles, the Things fly kites, and chaos reigns. The fish — the children’s caretaker, while mother is out — protests, but the Cat persists. Meanwhile, tension mounts: if mother comes home to find the house in a shambles, the children (and, presumably, the fish) will be in trouble. In 236 different words, Dr. Seuss turned the world of reading primers on its head. Goodbye, Dick and Jane. Welcome, Cat in the Hat.

Bob Shea, Dinosaur vs. Bedtime (2008)Bob Shea, Dinosaur vs. Bedtime (2008)

Shea’s dinosaur — who, in stature and attitude, resembles a young child — is invincible! Or is he? A pile of leaves? Dinosaur wins! A big slide? Dinosaur wins! A bowl of spaghetti? Dinosaur wins again! But what about … bedtime? Drawn with Shea’s expressive, sketchy minimalism, this small red dinosaur is determined. But he may have met his match. Fans of Mo Willems (and Bob Shea) will enjoy this.

Mo Willems, Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct (2006)

Mo Willems, Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct (2006)She plays with the neighborhood kids, helps old ladies across the street, and bakes chocolate chip cookies for everyone. So, of course, everyone loves Edwina. Everyone except for Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie. He spends most of the book trying to prove that dinosaurs are extinct. But no one will listen to him. Well, almost no one. In a slightly Syd Hoff-ian style (or is that just my imagination?), Willems offers another great battle of wills. (See also: Willems’ pigeon books.)

Willems’ books are so beloved by Emily that, as she began a recent trip to the U.S., she began “reading” her passport to her mother, noting that it was “signed by the author, Mo Willems.” (Thanks to my friends who write children’s books, I have given Emily a few signed books — though not one with Mr. Willems’s signature.)

When possible, I’ve bought each of these books locally, ordering via Claflin Books & Copies.


Amazon.com is a sweatshop, and (when I can) I prefer to buy from places that are not.

Looking for other great children’s books?  Try these blogs and other websites:

Related posts on Nine Kinds of Pie:

That’s the end of this installment, but there will be more “Emily’s Library” features in the future.

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Children’s Literature and Comics/Graphic Novels at MLA 2015

MLA 2015: Vancouver, BCHeading to the MLA in Vancouver next month? Well, thanks to Lee Talley (for the children’s lit panels), here’s a list of all the children’s literature and comics/graphic novels panels. If we’ve missed any, then please let me know and I’ll add them!


35. The Graphic South

Thursday, 8 January12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 114, VCC West

Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Southern Literature

Presiding: Katherine Renee Henninger, Louisiana State Univ., Baton Rouge

  1. “The Contested Topography of the Reconstructed South: Visual Poetics in the Works of Jedediah Hotchkiss and Nathaniel Southgate Shaler,” Robert Arbour, Indiana Univ., Bloomington
  2. Stuck Rubber Baby and the Intersections of Civil Rights Historical Memory,” Julie Buckner Armstrong, Univ. of South Florida
  3. “How to Draw an Animal in the Sensible South: William Bartram’s Natural History of Compassion,” Thomas Doran, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara
  4. “Graphic (Un)Being: Swamping the Deleuzian Body without Organs in Contemporary Comics (Swamp ThingSwamp Preacher, and Bayou),” Taylor Hagood, Florida Atlantic Univ.; Daniel Cross Turner, Coastal Carolina Univ.

41. The Comics of Joe Sacco: Journalism in a Visual World

Thursday, 8 January1:45–3:00 p.m., 202, VCC West

A special session

Presiding: Daniel W. Worden, Univ. of New Mexico, Albuquerque

Speakers: Lan Dong, Univ. of Illinois, Springfield; Ann D’Orazio, Univ. of New Mexico, Albuquerque; Jared Gardner, Ohio State Univ., Columbus; Maureen Shay, Univ. of California, Los Angeles

Responding: David M. Ball, Princeton Univ.

Session Description:

The roundtable brings together established and emerging scholars in comics studies to discuss an acclaimed contemporary comics artist, Joe Sacco. The discussion focuses on Sacco’s significance to both literary and comics studies, as well as the challenges that his “comics journalism” poses to the categories and methods of analysis in comics studies.


76. The Endurance of Alice: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at 150

Thursday, 8 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m., 120, VCC West

A special session

Presiding: Jan Christopher Susina, Illinois State Univ.

  1. “‘Off with Their Heads!’: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Antigallows Movement,” Michelle Ann Abate, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
  2. “The Education of Alice,” Kelly Hager, Simmons Coll.
  3. “‘You’ve Brought Us the Wrong Alice’: Tim Burton’s Dystopic Alice in Wonderland,” Jan Christopher Susina

139. Sites of Memory in Children’s Literature

Thursday, 8 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., 8, VCC East

Program arranged by the Division on Children’s Literature

Presiding: Karin E. Westman, Kansas State Univ.

  1. “‘I Forgot You Were Away’: The Importance of Children’s Voices and Memories in World War II Evacuation Literature,” Lee A. Talley, Rowan Univ.
  2. “The Kozak as a Site of Memory in Postindependence-Era Ukrainian Children’s Literature,” Anastasia Ulanowicz, Univ. of Florida
  3. “Participating in Future Histories: Young-Adult Dystopian Fiction, Agency, and Temporality,” Jasmine Lee, Univ. of California, Irvine
  4. “Why Does Lia Hate History? Laurie Halse Anderson’s Construction of Trauma,” Adrienne E. Kertzer, Univ. of Calgary

178. Writing the Future: Children’s Literature in East Asia

Thursday, 8 January, 7:00–8:15 p.m., 9, VCC East

Program arranged by the Division on East Asian Languages and Literatures to 1900 and the Division on East Asian Languages and Literatures after 1900

Presiding: Charlotte Eubanks, Penn State Univ., University Park

  1. “Angelic Rebels of Colonial Korea: The Proletarian Child Fights Back,” Dafna Zur, Stanford Univ.
  2. “Satirizing Colonialism and Diaspora in Singapore: Lao She’s Children’s Novella Little Po’s Birthday,” Brian Bernards, Univ. of Southern California
  3. “Beyond Realism: The Social Significance of Children’s Literature in Republican China,” Christopher Tong, Washington Univ. in St. Louis
  4. “Futurism and the Machine Age: Miyazawa Kenji’s Electric Poles in the Moonlit Night,” Maria Elena Tisi, Università di Bologna

For abstracts, write to cde13@psu.edu.


212. Geography, Memory, and Childhood

Friday, 9 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., 1, VCC East

Program arranged by the Division on Children’s Literature

Presiding: Katharine Slater, Rowan Univ.; Gwen Tarbox, Western Michigan Univ.

  1. “Arresting Images: Childhood, Apocalypse, Miyazaki,” John Grayson Nichols, Christopher Newport Univ.
  2. “Fording the Platte, Shooting a Buffalo, Dying of Cholera: Negotiating Sites of Imagination and Sites of History in The Oregon Trail Video Game,” Jennifer Kraemer, Univ. of Texas, Dallas
  3. “Children’s Mapping as Projective Place,” Laura D’Aveta, Penn State Univ., University Park
  4. “Book, Screen, and Space in the Spaces of the Sylvie Cycle,” Keith Dorwick, Univ. of Louisiana, Lafayette

348. Not an Exit but a Shift: Changing Children’s Literature

Friday, 9 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m., 114, VCC West

Program arranged by the Children’s Literature Association

Presiding: Ramona Anne Caponegro, Eastern Michigan Univ.; Abbie Ventura, Univ. of Tennessee, Chattanooga

  1. “Changing Childhood, Changing Children’s Literature,” Ramona Anne Caponegro; Abbie Ventura
  2. “Not an Exit but a Bang: Posthumanism and Polyphony in the Young-Adult Novel,” Amanda Hollander, Univ. of California, Los Angeles
  3. “Both an Overhaul and an Augmentation: Toward a ‘Child-Centered’ Critical Metaframe for Children’s Literature,” Michelle Superle, Univ. of the Fraser Valley
  4. “Literature for Beginners,” Kenneth Byron Kidd, Univ. of Florida

459. Visual Cultures and Young People’s Texts in Canada

Saturday, 10 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., 113, VCC West

Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Canadian Literature in English and the Division on Children’s Literature

Presiding: Jennifer Blair, Univ. of Ottawa; Catherine Tosenberger, Univ. of Winnipeg

  1. “Everybody Calls Me Roch: Harvey, The Hockey Sweater, and the Invisible Québécois Child,” Cheryl Cowdy, York Univ., Keele
  2. “Daughters of a Single Parent: ‘Lives of Girls and Women’ in Quebec Cinema Today,” Miléna Santoro, Georgetown Univ.
  3. “Marie-Louise Gay’s Stella and Sam: A Canadian Case Study of Transmedia Storytelling with Picture Book Narratives,” Naomi Hamer, Univ. of Winnipeg

For abstracts, visit commons.mla.org/groups/canadian-literature-in-english/.


565. Writing Home: Memories of Battlefront and Home Front in Children’s Literature of the First World War

Saturday, 10 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m., 224, VCC West

Program arranged by the Division on Children’s Literature

Presiding: Lissa Paul, Brock Univ.

  1. “‘Stop Talking and Go Home’: Endless War in Kate Seredy’s The Singing Tree,” A. Robin Hoffman, Yale Univ.
  2. “Here and Over There: L. M. Montgomery’s War Geographies,” Katharine Slater, Rowan Univ.
  3. “The Orphans of Poetry: War and Childhood in the Poetry of Robert Graves,” Michael Joseph, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick
  4. “‘I’m Goin’ ‘Ome’: The Linguistics of Loyalty in Robert W. Service’s Rhymes of a Red Cross Man,” Jacquilyn Weeks, Indiana Univ.–Purdue Univ., Indianapolis

For abstracts, visit http://research.ncl.ac.uk/fww-child/.


624. Immigration and Comics

Saturday, 10 January5:15–6:30 p.m., 16, VCC East

Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives and the Division on European Literary Relations

Presiding: Sandra L. Bermann, Princeton Univ.; Nhora Lucia Serrano, Harvard Univ.

  1. “‘Home of the Cannibals’: Interracial Contact and Immigration in Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth,” Timothy Paul Caron, California State Univ., Long Beach
  2. “Aya in the Ivory Coast and Abouet in France: Immigration in Aya de Yopougon,” Michelle Bumatay, Willamette Univ.
  3. “From Immigrants to Privateers: The Curious Case of Hogan’s Alley and the Yellow Kid,” David M. Ball, Princeton Univ.
  4. “Comedy of Errors: Lessons of Identity and Agency in American Born Chinese,” Judy Schaaf, Univ. of Massachusetts, Dartmouth

For abstracts, visit graphicnarratives.org/ after 1 Dec.


643. A Creative Conversation with the Canadian Poet JonArno Lawson

Saturday, 10 January, 7:00–8:15 p.m., 118, VCC West

Presiding: Craig Svonkin, Metropolitan State Univ.; Joseph Terry Thomas, San Diego State Univ.

Speaker:JonArno Lawson, Toronto, ON

Session Description:

A creative conversation about avant-garde children’s poetry, Canadian poetry, and Canadian children’s poetry with the award-winning poet JonArno Lawson. Lawson is a three-time winner of the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry.


644. Cash Bar Arranged by the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives


654. Virtual Women: Webcomics

Sunday, 11 January8:30–9:45 a.m., 3, VCC East

A special session

Presiding: Leah Misemer, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison

  1. “‘Straw Feminists’: Webcomics, Parody, and Intertextuality,” Sarah Sillin, Univ. of Maryland, College Park
  2. Ménage à 3: Gender and Sexual Diversity through Women’s Perspectives,” Nicole Slipp, Queen’s Univ.
  3. “One Click Wonder: How Female Comics Creators Leapt from Private to Public in a Single Bound,” Aimee Valentine, Western Michigan Univ.

Responding: Hillary L. Chute, Univ. of Chicago


712. Why Dystopian Young-Adult Literature? Why Now?

Sunday, 11 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., 114, VCC West

Program arranged by the Children’s Literature Association

Presiding: June S. Cummins, San Diego State Univ.

  1. “Reclaiming Adolescent Power in Young-Adult Dystopia,” Jessica Seymour, Southern Cross Univ.
  2. “The Dystopian Present: Recolonizing America in Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker and The Drowned Cities,” John David Schwetman, Univ. of Minnesota, Duluth
  3. “Power Play: The Seduction of Games in Young-Adult Dystopian Fiction,” Jonathan Hollister, Florida State Univ.; Don Latham, Florida State Univ.
  4. “The Emancipatory Power of Hopelessness: Discourses of Political Failure in Recent Young-Adult Literature,” Oona Eisenstadt, Pomona Coll.

720. Comics Theory Roundtable

Sunday, 11 January12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 214, VCC West

Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives

Presiding: Martha B. Kuhlman, Bryant Univ.

Speakers: Michael A. Chaney, Dartmouth Coll.; Hugo Frey, Univ. of Chichester; Jared Gardner, Ohio State Univ., Columbus; Fabrice Leroy, Univ. of Louisiana, Lafayette; Barbara Postema, Ryerson Univ.

Session Description:

This roundtable analyzes interdisciplinary approaches to studying comics. Comics theory includes semiotics, film theory, linguistics, visual studies, and narrative theory, among other disciplines. The scholars examine to what extent these discourses are in conversation with one another and seek connections among them.

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Mock Caldecott, 2014: Manhattan, Kansas edition

Just back from our Mock Caldecott, held today at the Manhattan [Kansas] Public Library, and again organized by KSU’s Children’s and Adolescent Literature Community (special thanks to Allison Kuehne and Becca Rowe!). In anticipation of the Caldecott Awards (held in January), we spent a few hours looking at and discussing what may or may not be the best American picture books of year.  That is, we try to look at the best, but we can’t always get everything we need in time.  (For example, omitted this year were Sergio Ruzzier’s A Letter for Leo and Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash’s Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors — both books that I expect other Mock Caldecott groups, and the Caldecott Committee itself, are looking at.)  The process is imperfect, but it’s still fun to spend the afternoon looking at picture books, and debating their merits!

The Winner:

Marla Frazee, The Farmer and the Clown 

Marla Frazee, The Farmer and the Clown (2014)

Wordless tale of an unlikely friendship. In well-designed, dynamic layouts, Frazee‘s book tells the story of a young clown who falls off the train of a traveling circus, and gets adopted by a farmer.  The friendship that develops between the unlikely pair touched our group this afternoon, as did the unexpected resolution of the tale.  (I don’t want to give anything away here….)

The Honor Books:

We had quite a few honor books.  Here they are, in the order of how many votes they received.

Dan Santat, The Adventures of Beekle, The Unimaginary Friend (2014)Dan Santat, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend

Where do imaginary friends come from? And what if some imaginary friends fail to get imagined by children? In answer to both questions, Dan Santat has Beekle — an imaginary friend — set off in search of a young human who will befriend him. A book that bears a bit of influence from Shaun Tan (especially The Lost Thing), The Adventures of Beekle is already in Emily’s Library.  (Coming later this week: a new installment in my attempt to build for my niece the “ideal” children’s library.)

The next two books were tied with the same number of votes each.

Kadir Nelson, Baby Bear (2014)Kadir Nelson, Baby Bear

In his hyperreal artistic style, Nelson paints an animal story that is at once an adventure of a lost bear trying to get home, and a philosophical meditation on how we find our place in the world. It’s a different kind of book for Nelson (I don’t think he’s done other animal books), and he does it very well.  Sustained by its striking artwork and compelling child surrogate (baby bear, of course!), this beautiful book is also already in Emily’s Library.

Mike Curato, Little Elliot, Big CityMike Curato, Little Elliot, Big City

With illustrations that really draw you in, Curato‘s tale of a small cupcake-loving polka-dotted elephant (Elliot) has heart. I think, too, that its treatment of the central character’s height will resonate with younger readers: to be a child is to exist in a world designed for giants, where everything is too large, too long, or out of reach. Curato captures that experience well. It’s sweet without being pat — and that’s a delicate balance to achieve.  It’s a future addition to Emily’s Library.  (I hadn’t seen it until today.)

J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley, Harlem Hellfighters (2014)J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley, Harlem Hellfighters

Also a book I encountered for the first time this afternoon, Harlem Hellfighters was my top pick of the 25 we looked at today. In spare, poetic text, and striking images, the book tells the story of the most decorated African American combat unit to serve in the First World War.  With a great use of comics layout, and words both suggestive and specific, it does the impossible job of conveying historical detail and nuance all within the confines of a picture book.  It shows how the same group of people who were being lynched here in the U.S. were serving abroad with valor and distinction — juxtaposing their European heroism with American lynchings. And, though it has a strong moral message, Lewis and Kelley convey that without moralizing. Probably not a book for the youngest readers, Harlem Hellfighters should be required reading for American children of 7 and up in the Ferguson Era. (I don’t know if we have a term for the legal murder of people of color, as practiced in contemporary America — so, I’m using “Ferguson Era” as shorthand.)

Kate Samworth, Aviary Wonders, Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual (2014)Kate Samworth, Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual

This one — the last of our Honor Books — blew me away, and was also on my short list. I’d read about it before today, but had never actually seen it.  In the guise of a catalogue for the (fictional) Aviary Wonders Inc., Samworth teaches us about anatomy, flight, and extinction. With a dark sense of humor and design evocative of both contemporary catalogues and nineteenth-century science, Aviary Wonders Inc. tells the sad story of our loss of biodiversity. In offering instructions for how to make birds, Samworth commemorates those species that humans have destroyed. If this sounds impossible to you, then all I can say is check it out. It sounds impossible to me, too — only because I’ve read Samworth’s book can I report that it’s not only possible but a remarkable achievement.  One of the year’s best picture books.

What are your favorite picture books from 2014?  (Though the Caldecott recognizes excellence in American picture books, there’s no need to restrict yourself to ones from the U.S.)

Related links:

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Play It Again, Jon: Songs vs. Performance Pieces

Jon Brion at the piano

Composer/producer/musician Jon Brion distinguishes between songs and performance pieces. What’s the difference? In a 2006 episode of Sound Opinions (rebroadcast in a 2012 episode of 99% Invisible), he cites Led Zeppelin as an example of the latter. Though he’s “a big fan” of Zeppelin, their songs “are the ultimate performance pieces.” He explains,

And the way I can sort of prove my point is: have you ever listened to anybody else play a Led Zeppelin song and gone “Oh, that was a great satisfying experience”? Except for Dread Zeppelin, who I loved. What people like is that specific guitar sound, that specific performance, in concert with that specific drum sound, with that specific drummer playing that specific part.

Another example of the performance piece, Brion says, is most punk rock.

In contrast, a song stands on its own, separate from any individual performance. As examples of that, he cites George Gershwin, Kurt Cobain, Thom Yorke, and Thelonious Monk.  In the interview, which I’ve excerpted below (and to which you should listen), he demonstrates his point by playing songs on the piano — including a lovely arrangement of a few bars from Nirvana’s “Lithium.”

His distinction between songs and performance pieces is a really useful way of thinking about different types of music.  However, like all such paradigms, the more you look at it, the more the boundaries between songs and performance pieces start to blur.  For example, a key marker for Brion is the cover version.  As he says, you could play a Gershwin song “in the style of Led Zeppelin, and have a completely satisfying experience,” but “when you start playing Zeppelin songs, say, in the style of, like, 1920s music, suddenly it’s laid bare that, oh no, it was about those people, and those people were in a room, and it was great.”

Led Zeppelin in 1970, performing at the KB Hallen in Copenhagen, Denmark

There are two flaws in that otherwise compelling argument.  First, there are great covers of Zeppelin, and of punk. Bonerama does a fantastic version of “The Ocean” (2007). You listen to it and think: why didn’t Zeppelin ever tour with a trombone section? (Or, at least, this is what I think when I listen to it.) Dolly Parton does a lovely bluegrass cover of “Stairway to Heaven” (2002). And then there’s Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra’s swing version of “Black Dog” (1999)

Bonerama’s “The Ocean” (2007)

Dolly Parton’s “Stairway to Heaven” (2002)

Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra’s “Black Dog” (1999)

For punk rock, I could point you to Yo La Tengo’s surf-rock-lite cover of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1976) or the Indigo Girls’ acoustic version of the Clash’s “Clampdown” (1979)

Yo La Tengo’s “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1996)

Indigo Girls’ “Clampdown” (1993)

So, if (according to Brion’s rubric) punk or Zeppelin resists the cover version, well, there seem ample examples to contradict that claim.

The second problem is that a lot of Zeppelin and a lot of punk are already cover versions. In the case of Zeppelin, they tended to take from African American artists without attribution. “Moby Dick” (1969) borrows liberally from Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step” (1961), “Whole Lotta Love” (1969) lifts a fair bit from Muddy Waters’ version of “You Need Love” (1963, a cover of Willie Dixon).  And those are just a few examples.

Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step” (1961)

Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” (1969)

Muddy Waters’ “You Need Love” (1962)

Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” (1969)

Some of the most famous punk songs are covers — the Clash’s “I Fought the Law” (1979) and Patti Smith’s “My Generation” (1976). The latter is a cover of the Who, and the former a cover of the Bobby Fuller Four (who were covering Sonny Curtis & the Crickets).


The Clash, performing in London, 1979

Patti Smith Group, performing in Germany, 1979

In sum, the line between song (which can be covered) and performance (which cannot) seems blurrier than Brion’s distinction admits.

Patti Smith, New York City, 1976I don’t think his distinction lacks utility, though. As a connoisseur of covers, I would add — in defense of his argument — that there are far fewer good covers of Zeppelin than there are of Nirvana or Radiohead. In this sense, we might see my examples above as exceptions to the rule. Similarly, what’s punk about Patti Smith’s cover of the Who is her performance. You can do a good cover of the Who’s version, but you can’t do a good cover of Patti Smith’s version. The only way to cover of Patti Smith’s version would be as a Patti Smith tribute band, a mere imitation of the original. (In my view, by definition, a good cover brings forth a facet of the song that the original version does not. In their attempts to be faithful, tribute bands don’t meet this standard.)

Brion’s song-vs.-performance-piece distinction is handy, even if it’s not quite the paradigm that it at first seems. That is, his idea is useful less for distinguishing songs from performances and more for giving us a way of thinking about musical taste.

George GershwinUltimately, that’s what his distinction highlights: Jon Brion prefers Gershwin and Cobain to, say, Page, Plant, and Ramone. His too-frequent mentions of his alleged “love” for Led Zeppelin are him protesting too much, giving him rhetorical cover for saying that Led Zeppelin didn’t write songs. And yet, even while his rubric is just disguising personal preference in the language of objectivity, this is one key function of criticism. We find formal terms to talk about what moves us, or fails to move us. Or, to put this another way, we need to find these terms in order to have a conversation with people whose likes and dislikes differ from our own.

Terms like Brion’s help us talk about taste. They don’t need to be perfectly theorized to be useful.

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Photo credits: Jon Brion from MTV, Led Zeppelin from Performing Musician, Patti Smith from Morrison Hotel Gallery, George Gershwin from Music Times.

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#BlackLivesMatter — A Twitter Essay

#BlackLivesMatter

I’ve also posted this over on Storify, for those who prefer that.

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A Thanksgiving Fable You Shouldn’t Pay Any Attention To

Florence Parry Heide and Sylvia Worth Van Clief, Fables You Shouldn't Pay Any Attention To (1978, illus. by Victoria Chess): coverBefore Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith‘s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992), there was Tomi Ungerer‘s  I Am Papa Snap and These Are My Favorite No Such Stories (1971) and Florence Parry Heide and Sylvia Worth Van Clief’s Fables You Shouldn’t Pay Any Attention To (1978). They’re stories with unexpected morals, or (in the case of Ungerer) that sometimes just end absurdly. Since Heide and Van Clief have a Thanksgiving-themed tale and since we live in bleak times,* I thought I would share with you something amusing. So, here is “Chester,” illustrated (as are all the tales in this book) by Victoria Chess in ink with wash. The book is out of print, but perhaps someone at the New York Review of Books’ Children’s Collection (or another imprint) will see this tale, and then reprint all of Fables You Shouldn’t Pay Any Attention To? Let us hope so….

Florence Parry Heide and Sylvia Worth Van Clief, Fables You Shouldn't Pay Any Attention To (1978, illus. by Victoria Chess): "Chester," p. 36

Florence Parry Heide and Sylvia Worth Van Clief, Fables You Shouldn't Pay Any Attention To (1978, illus. by Victoria Chess): "Chester," p. 37

Florence Parry Heide and Sylvia Worth Van Clief, Fables You Shouldn't Pay Any Attention To (1978, illus. by Victoria Chess): "Chester," p. 38

Florence Parry Heide and Sylvia Worth Van Clief, Fables You Shouldn't Pay Any Attention To (1978, illus. by Victoria Chess): "Chester," p. 39

Florence Parry Heide and Sylvia Worth Van Clief, Fables You Shouldn't Pay Any Attention To (1978, illus. by Victoria Chess): "Chester," p. 40

Florence Parry Heide and Sylvia Worth Van Clief, Fables You Shouldn't Pay Any Attention To (1978, illus. by Victoria Chess): "Chester," p. 41

Florence Parry Heide and Sylvia Worth Van Clief, Fables You Shouldn't Pay Any Attention To (1978, illus. by Victoria Chess): "Chester," p. 42

Florence Parry Heide and Sylvia Worth Van Clief, Fables You Shouldn't Pay Any Attention To (1978, illus. by Victoria Chess): "Chester," p. 43

Text copyright © 1978 Florence Parry Heide and William C. Van Clief III. Illustrations copyright © 1978 by Victoria Chess.

If you enjoyed this, then definitely check out other books by Florence Parry Heide (1919-2011), such as The Shrinking of Treehorn (1971) and its two sequels (all illustrated by Edward Gorey), Alphabet Zoop (1970, illus. by Sally Matthews), and her final book, Princess Hyacinth (The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated) (2011, illus. by Lane Smith).
_______

* I’m thinking, at the moment, the structural, lethal racism embodied by Ferguson (but present around the world) and of the rampant rape culture embodied by the University of Virginia (but present around the world). And, yes, of course, this list could be much longer, depending where on our warming planet you turn your attention. Sigh.

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The Meaning of Life; or, How to Avoid the Midlife Crisis

Kieran Setiya, "The Midlife Crisis" (2014)Why do successes sometimes feel like failures? As philosopher Kieran Setiya points out in a wise new essay, “Our achievements, whatever they are worth, are always numbered” (10). Each time we accomplish something, it’s done, finished, and we must move on to the next thing: “the completion of your project may constitute something of value, but it means that the project can no longer give purpose to your life” (12). And so, in “pursuing a goal, you are trying to exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were trying to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye” (12).

What’s the solution? Key, Setiya argues, is to distinguish between telic and atelic activities:

  • Telic: “Almost anything we call a ‘project’ will be telic: buying a house, starting a family, earning a promotion, getting a job. These are all things one can finish or complete” (12).
  • Atelic: “not all activities are like this. Some do not aim at a point of termination or exhaustion: a final state in which they have been achieved and there is nothing more to do. For instance,… you can go for a walk with no particular destination. Going for a walk is an ‘atelic’ activity. The same is true of hanging out with friends or family, of studying philosophy, of living a decent life. You can stop doing these things and you eventually will, but you cannot complete them in the relevant sense…. they do not have a telic character” (12-13). So, “If you are going for a walk, hanging out with friends, studying philosophy, or living a decent life, you are not on the way to achieving your end. You are already there” (13).

This, however, does not mean that one should only invest in the atelic. The issue is where you derive value: locating the majority of life’s meaning in the telic will leave you unfulfilled, and often precipitates a midlife crisis. As Setiya writes, “it is at midlife that the telic character of one’s most cherished ends are liable to appear, as they are completed or prove impossible. One has the job one has worked for many years to get, the partner one hoped to meet, the family one meant to start — or one does not. Until this point, one may have had no reason to dwell on the exhaustion of one’s ambitions” (14).

To avoid or resolve the midlife crisis, yes, you can (as Setiya puts it), “invest… more deeply in atelic ends. Among the activities that matter most to you, the ones that give meaning to your life, must be activities that have no terminal point. Since they cannot be completed, your engagement with atelic ends will not exhaust or destroy them” (15).

But you can — and should — also continue pursuing telic activities. Just pursue them for their own sake instead of for the end product: “Instead of spending time with friends in order to complete a shared project […,] one pursues a common project in order to spend time with friends” (15). As Setiya advises, “Do not work only to solve this problem or discover that truth, as if the tasks you complete are all that matter; solve the problem or seek the truth in order to be at work” (15).

Setiya’s “The Midlife Crisis” appears in Philosophers’ Imprint 14.31 (Nov. 2014), pp. 1-18. Just follow the link. As you may have guessed from my summary, I highly recommend it.

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Commonplace Book, Too

Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)From time to time, I post quotations that strike me as interesting — my blog version of the Commonplace Book, a tradition dating to the sixteenth century, in which (if I may quote the OED) “one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement.”  I’ve done three exclusively devoted to children’s literature (1, 2, 3), and one earlier one not. Here’s the second one of general quotations, featuring the wisdom of Don DeLillo, Laurie Anderson, Ogden Nash, George Herriman, Vic Chesnutt, & five others!

I am the false character that follows the name around.

— Jack Gladney, in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985)

But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight.

Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight

— Bruce Cockburn, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” Stealing Fire (1984)

The world has gone insane

and you don’t know what is right.

You got to keep on keepin’ on:

get on that pig, and hold on tight.

— Parry Gripp, “Baby Monkey (Going Backwards on a Pig)” (2010)

I’ve always had a feeling that life is a series of non-sequiturs, and that we’re all untrustworthy narrators.

— Richard Thompson, creator of Cul de Sac, in article by RC Harvey (June 2011)

I don’t care how unkind the things people say about me so long as they don’t say them to my face.

— Ogden Nash, “Hush, Here They Come,” The Face Is Familiar (1941), p. 36

George Herriman, Krazy Kat, 6 Jan. 1918

lenguage is that that we may mis-unda-stend each udda.

— Krazy Kat, in George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, 6 Jan. 1918

Max Brod, Franz Kafka: A Biography (1937/1947)Plenty of hope, … — no end of hope — only not for us.

— Franz Kafka, quoted in Max Brod, Franz Kafka: A Biography (1937), translated by G. Humphreys Roberts and Richard Winston (1947), p. 75

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

— Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (1983)

I’m not an optimist. I’m not a realist.

I might be a sub-realist.

— Vic Chesnutt, “Myrtle,” About to Choke (1996)

What Fassbinder film is it? The one-armed man walks into a flower shop and says:

“What flower expresses ‘Days go by, and they just keep going by, endlessly pulling you into the future. Days go by endlessly, endlessly pulling you into the future?’” And the florist says: “White lily.”

— Laurie Anderson, “White Lily,” Home of the Brave (1986)

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Freedom of Speech Returns to Kansas Universities?

Good news for employees of Kansas universities. Freedom of speech appears to have been restored!

Kansas Board of RegentsYou see, the Kansas Board of Regents’ recently passed social media policy says employees of Regents-governed Kansas universities do not have the right to freedom of speech. To be specific, employees can be fired for speech that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers,” “has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty” is necessary, or is “contrary to the best interests of the employer.” According to a separate policy on political activity, “personnel are free to express opinions speaking or writing as an individual in their personal capacity and not as a representative of the institution in signed advertisements, pamphlets and related material in support of or opposition to parties and causes.”

So, then, what of Coach Bill Snyder’s public endorsement of Senator Pat Roberts?  Does it violate either policy?  If not, then what precedent does it set?  Given the lack of public criticism from either the Regents or Kansas State University, it seems to suggest that outspokenness is welcome.

Snyder endorses Roberts (Facebook ad)

Note that, in the ad above (from the Pat Roberts for Senate 2014 Facebook page), it’s Coach Bill Snyder. The Roberts campaign has carefully Photoshopped the K-State logo from Snyder’s jacket and cap. But the title “Coach” only has meaning in the context of “Kansas State University.”

1. Political Activity.

But does this violate the “political activity” policy? I asked the Kansas Board of Regents yesterday.

Here’s the Regents’ response.

To clarify, I followed up with this question.

The Regents did not answer that one.

This morning, however, President Kirk Schulz issued a “reminder about university policy,” which does offer an answer: “Kansas State University does not endorse political candidates, and employees do not speak for the university when they endorse candidates. Employees should also avoid using their university-affiliation in any endorsements or statements.” On the one hand, since Snyder’s university affiliation is not specifically named in the advertisements, his endorsement is within the letter of the law. On the other hand, this statement distances the university from Snyder’s endorsement and reminds university employees that they should “avoid using their affiliation” in public statements on political candidates. In the video below, some of the photos indicate that Snyder and Roberts were taken at K-State. And, of course, that word Coach can only be meaningful in the context of “Kansas State University” — even if you omit those three words, they’re there by implication.       

Facebook: Coach Snyder & Pat Roberts (1)What I take away from this is that, though President Schulz isn’t crazy about the idea, faculty can endorse any political candidate they like and can use their title in doing so.  So, for instance, a sentence like “University Distinguished Professor Philip Nel endorses Paul Davis for Governor of Kansas” is acceptable speech — even if President Schulz would prefer that such statements were not made. As evidence, I would point to the Coach-Snyder-for-Pat-Roberts advertisements appearing on Facebook today.

2. Social Media Policy.

Facebook: Coach Snyder & Pat Roberts (2)That this passes muster with the architects of the social media policy is also welcome news. For example, in the ad, Coach Snyder says that Senator Roberts is “as good as it gets for the state of Kansas,” is “a great friend of the state of Kansas,” and “he genuinely cares about the people of the state of Kansas.”  As anyone who has followed the Senator’s career in government knows, he’s an advocate of torture, in favor of workplace discrimination, against student loan affordability, and believes that guns are more important than human lives (or, at least, that massacres like Sandy Hook are acceptable collateral damage).  Now, it strikes me as at least possible that some people might look at Roberts’ record and say that the university’s most famous employee’s endorsement of such record is “contrary to the best interests of the employer.”  I mean, one presumes that Kansas State University might want to stand against workplace discrimination, for student loan affordability, and might even want to prevent a Virginia-Tech-style massacre on its campus. Evidently, though, Coach Snyder’s employer would prefer that he not make such statements, but is unwilling to take any public action against him.

The most intriguing line of Coach Snyder’s endorsement is his claim that Senator Roberts is “an honest individual.” His campaign advertisements against Greg Orman and statements in debates all provide ample evidence to the contrary. His ads allege that a vote for Orman would be a vote for President Obama, but in fact Orman (running as an independent) has said he will caucus with whichever party wins the Senate.  Roberts said he missed a Senate committee hearing on Sept. 16 about on threat of the Ebola outbreak because “The hearing was held out of session, during September.” However, as The Kansas City Star points out, “The Senate was in session that day.”  Roberts misses quite a few votes, actually — and most of those he attends are simply to vote “no” (on immigration reform, on Steven Burns as a new member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, etc.).

Yes, a cynic might argue that Coach Snyder’s speech is not facing censure from the Regents because their leaders also support Roberts, but — either way — this political advertisement sets a precedent. Employees can publicly say whatever they like, regardless of whether it’s true, false, or good for the university. While Coach Snyder’s standards for political office are remarkably low, I support his right to speak in favor of the candidate of his choice.  And I’m glad that, in doing so, he’s set a precedent for the rest of us to support the candidates we favor.  As Ms. Rosenberg (on Twitter) says,…

UPDATE, 31 Oct. 2014, 10:20 pm:

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Art for Art’s Sake; or, OK Go Videos Make Me Happy

OK GoOK Go videos: They’re surprising, clever, and eminently re-watchable. They also have an appealingly handmade feel to them, harkening back to a time when digitally manipulating images was too expensive for a music video. For the stop-motion classic “Sledgehammer” (1986), Peter Gabriel had to lie still for hours, beneath a plate of glass, while people from Aardman Animations manipulated fruit above him.  And they’re unapologetically Art with a capital “A.” Yes, OK Go hopes you’ll buy the band’s music, but the videos don’t feel like they’re trying to sell you anything beyond the sheer enjoyment of watching creative minds trying to create something beautiful. If this were the 1980s, I would be waiting by the TV, ready to hit “Record” on the VCR when the next OK Go video came on. Fortunately, today, I can simply collect eighteen of them right here, on this webpage.

I Won’t Let You Down (2014)

You see, there’s a new OK video out today: “I Won’t Let You Down,” directed by Kazuaki Seki and Damian Kulash, Jr., with choreography by Furitsukekagyou Airman, art direction by Jun Nishida, and creative direction by Morihiro Harano.  The whole thing is done in one take, shot with a drone (!) — one reason, I gather, that it had to be filmed in Japan. In Billboard article about the creation of the video, OK Go bassist Tim Norwind described the experience as “the best hour of my life.”


Unless I’ve miscounted (always a possibility), this is the eighteenth video from the band’s art-for-art’s-sake era, the latest in a nine-year period of video innovations that began with “A Million Ways.”

A Million Ways (2005)

The first OK Go video choreographed by Trish Sie (sister of lead singer Damien Kulash), “A Million Ways” is also OK Go’s first viral video.  Co-directed by Sie and OK Go, it establishes a key piece of the band’s video aesthetic: performed live, all in one take. It also introduces dance as a recurring motif.

It’s not that their pre-”Million Ways” videos are bad. “Get Over It” (2002), “Don’t Ask Me” (2003), “Don’t Ask Me (Dance Booth version)” (2003), and “You’re So Damn Hot” (2003) are all visually compelling, and some even buck convention — the ping-pong pause in the middle of “Get Over It,” for example. But “A Million Ways” starts their period of video innovation.

Here It Goes Again (2006)

Also choreographed by Trish Sie and co-directed by her and the band, “Here It Goes Again” is in many ways synonymous with the term “viral video.” If you’ve been on-line in the past eight years, you’ve almost certainly seen this one.

It ups the ante on “A Million Ways”: not only are they performing choreographed dance moves, but they’re doing it all on treadmills (all of which, incidentally, were set up in Sie’s basement).  It inspired many fan videos, a Simpsons tribute, and the band even performed the dance live (on treadmills!) at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Invincible (2006)

Directed by Tim Nackashi and OK Go, “Invincible” is… well, actually, less of an eye-opener than the previous two. Using multiple takes, it juxtaposes shots of the band performing (on one side of the screen) with stuff getting blown up (on the other side of the screen). It harkens back to the pre-”A Million Ways” period. But you can’t expect genius every time. And, anyway, it still has sharp visuals, and is fun to watch.

Do What You Want (2007)

There’s actually an earlier video for this song, directed by Olivier Gondry, but I can’t find it on-line.  This video, directed by Damian Kulash, finds the group back in risk-taking mode. Wearing outfits that match the wallpaper behind them, the band and other performers rock out. But because the costumes prevent us from seeing their faces, even the rock stars become oddly anonymous, phantoms launched from the wallpaper.

I think also of the masked couple in Magritte’s The Lovers (1928) — intimacy obstructed by cloth. Here, we have improbably energetic performers, encased in wallpaper suits. But there’s still a tension between what you expect (stasis) and what you get (activity).

WTF? (2009)

With “WTF?”, the first video from Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, OK Go is fully back in innovation mode. Directed by Tim Nackashi and OK Go, the band creates another video which prompts you to wonder OK,… so, how did they do that?

Knowing that we’d wonder how they did it, the band also created what I think is their first making-of video, something that would become a regular feature.

This Too Shall Pass (Marching Band) (2010)

The first, and less famous, of the two “This Too Shall Pass” videos features the University of Notre Dame’s Band of the Fighting Irish and took 20 takes to get right. Brian K. Perkins and OK Go directed the piece, shot in a single take.

I love that they recorded a whole new arrangement of the song for the video, too.

This Too Shall Pass (Rube Goldberg Machine) (2010)

Directed by James Frost, OK Go and Syyn Labs, this is the better-known version of “This Too Shall Pass.” In some ways, it inaugurates an even more ambitious period of video-making for the band — and establishes the Rube Goldberg Machine as a key part of the OK Go aesthetic.

There’s a series of behind-the scenes videos, of course!

End Love (2010)

Filmed over the course of 18 hours (including a period when the band sleeps!), and then sped up (at different speeds), “End Love” also features… a goose! They shot the video in a park, and the goose, evidently, wanted to be a part of it. Hey, can you blame her?  Directed by OK Go, Eric Gunther, and Jeff Lieberman.

White Knuckles (2010)

Bringing back choreographer Trish Sie, “White Knuckles” shows the band mastering the art of… stacking!  Yes, stacking. And working with dogs. Again, shot in one take!

And, yes, there’s a series of behind-the-scenes videos for this one!

Last Leaf (2010)

A stop-motion video using over 2000 pieces of toast, each laser-cut with art by the band and Geoff Mcfetridge. The notion of telling a story via animation on toast compliments this quiet song’s themes of longing and impermanence. Sure, it’s an unusual way to express these ideas, but that sense of novelty is what makes it an OK Go video. 

Back from Kathmandu (2010)

In this video, OK Go takes its fans on a GPS-led parade through L.A. Their goal? To use a GPS app to spell out “OK Go.”  The New Orleans vibe of the parade has its pleasures, but the concept is more fun than actually watching the video documenting the concept. Still, though, I give them credit for trying something different.

All Is Not Lost (2011)

Fearturing the dance troupe Pilobolus, and directed by OK Go, Pilobolus, and Trish Sie, “All Is Not Lost” brings us back to the Wow! How did they do that? for which OK Go has rightly become famous.  There is also an interactive version of this one, which is well worth checking out.  Really.  It is “way cooler,” just as the video (below) tells you.

Also, for those who want to know how it was made, there’s a series of behind-the-scenes videos.

Needing/Getting (2011)

Directed by Brian L. Perkins and Damian Kulash, the band drives a Rube-Goldberg’d car through a Rube Goldberg’d landscape. Instead of making a Rube Goldberg machine that choreographs movement and image to the song (as in “This Too Shall Pass”), this machine actually performs the song it accompanies. According to the YouTube page, “The video took 4 months of preparation and 4 days of shooting and recording. There are no ringers or stand-ins; Damian took stunt driving lessons.”

And you bet there’s a behind-the-scenes video series for this one!

Skyscrapers (2011)

The final video from Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, “Skyscrapers” features choreographer Trish Sie dancing the tango with Moti Buchboot.  Sie also directed it.  Brightly colored, elegant, and absorbing, the video is a reminder of the band’s understanding that we (its audience) don’t require Rube Goldberg machines to hold our attention. It’s also nice to see Sie — who launched the band’s career as video auteurs — move to a starring role.

Muppet Show Theme Song (2011)

If you’ve watched the preceding videos, now… watch the meta-video!  OK Go and the Muppets pay homage to the OK Go oeuvre and, of course, to the Muppets!

Primary Colors (2012)

For Sesame Street, OK Go did a stop-motion video explaining the primary colors. Watching it again reminds me, too, that their post-”A Million Ways” videos all have an almost childlike playfulness to them.  There’s a sense of hey, what if we tried this?  The end result requires careful planning, of course. But the band and their collaborators seem animated by a spirit of adventure and experimentation.

The Writing’s on the Wall (2014)

And that brings us full circle, back to the first video from their latest record (Hungry Ghosts, which I strongly recommend).  It’s another single-shot video, but this time the emphasis is on optical illusions.  It reminds me a bit of the optical-illusion street art where, from the correct angle, the street has suddenly become (for example) a cliff. Directed by Aaron Duffy, Damian Kulash, Jr. and Bob Partington, “The Writing’s on the Wall” is great fun to watch. And that, friends, is the theme of the OK Go videos. They are fun. The band is making art because it is fun to make art.  They’re art for art’s sake in the very best sense of that term.

On this one, they’ve gone one better on their making-of videos, creating an interactive making-of video. It’s as fun as the video itself.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of OK Go’s music-video oeuvre. I wonder what they are planning now…?

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