Notes on Selma (the film)

  • Selma (movie poster, version 2)As you’ve likely heard already, Selma is a powerful film. See it.
  • I cried a fair bit.
  • The violence is palpable. Gunshots, people being gassed, the soggy crunch as truncheon strikes human beings, the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson. The visceral brutality of the whites in power.
  • Watching the film, I kept thinking Ferguson, FergusonFERGUSON! And all Ferguson has come to represent — not just Michael Brown, but Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford, John Crawford, and all the people who have been murdered before and since. Militarized police attacking peaceful protesters: Alabama 1965 or Missouri 2014? So, when Common (who portrays James Bevel in the film) raps on his collaboration with John Legend (“Glory,” which plays at film’s end), “That’s why Rosa sat on the bus / That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up,” I thought: yes. Exactly.
  • Glad that it got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but how the heck does the Motion Picture Academy manage to overlook Ava DuVernay’s direction and David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr. King?
  • Everyone ahead of me in line was buying tickets to American Sniper. Indeed, when the previews prior to Selma started, I was the only one in the Selma theatre. During those previews, however, five other people came. One of those five kept looking at his cell phone, so I think we can count four other attentive viewers.
  • I don’t understand the controversy over the portrayal of LBJ. Of necessity, films will simplify. So, you’re not going to get a deeply nuanced, multi-volume Robert Caro biography here. What you get is a politician who, by the film’s conclusion, has decided to do the right thing — advocate for the Voting Rights Act, and side with Dr. King instead of Gov. Wallace. President Johnson was human; so was Dr. King. That humanity is part of what the film seeks to convey.
  • It’s very moving. I left the theatre shaken.

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The Archive of Childhood, Part 2: The Golliwog

The second in my “Archive of Childhood” series. Trigger warning: images of a racist doll appear below. I’ve included it because this post is about racism, and I didn’t feel I could talk about the racism without displaying the doll in question.


I did not call them “stuffed animals.” I called them “fellows,” allegedly because, seeing my stuffed animals lined up along the foot of my bed, my mother remarked, “That’s a funny-looking bunch of fellows you have there.” So, stuffed animals became fellows.

The author, Teddy, and Panda, c. 1972It’s a curiously appropriate term. I was a shy child, and these fellows were my confederates. They were my friends, each with a unique personality. Except for Golly. Nutty Squirrel (who, oddly, was bright red) was bouncy, friendly, slightly unhinged. Gary (a dog whose name was an anagram of his gray color) was friendly, and a little boisterous in a dog-like way. Teddy and Panda were my close friends and confidants. In contrast, Golly was none of the above. To me, Golly’s face was a blank mask, its gender indeterminate, and its humanity doubtful.

That I saw this racist doll as unconnected to race or even human beings specifically is telling. It’s a great example of how racial ideologies can hide in plain sight, but it also offers some insight into what children see or don’t see. As an adult, I look at Golly, and the racial caricature makes me feel queasy; I feel ashamed at having grown up with a racist doll. As a child, I looked at Golly and saw only Golly — a claim that illustrates the efficient invisibility of ideology. The idea that I “saw only Golly” neatly conceals the fact that I was, unawares, absorbing messages about race and power, and, that in its otherness, this doll was affirming my own whiteness as normal. Then, I had no sense that this doll was derived from minstrelsy, or something that I should not be harboring. Golly was just Golly. When I got a second Golly, which (like the first) was a handmade gift from a South African relative, I remember thinking: Oh. Now I have two of my least favorite fellows.

The author and Golly, c. 1972

As these photographs suggest, I had a warmer, more emotionally intimate relationship with Teddy and Panda, but a cooler, distant relationship with Golly. Aged 3, I hold Teddy and Panda close, shyly peering out over their heads. Contrast that full and loving embrace with my casual, almost careless hold on Golly. One hand cannot bring itself to close around his bow-tie; two fingers from the other hand consent to touch his hair. I regularly hugged and cuddled Panda and Teddy. They slept by my side each night. I tolerated the Gollies. If all the fellows were invited to a party, then the Gollies would of course be included. It would have been rude to omit them. But that’s it. They were invited out of obligation, not affection. With their black faces, bright red lips and manic grins, the Gollies lived in internal exile among the better-loved fellows. They were more things than friends.

Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011)Their thingness, however, may explain why I responded as I did. Distinguishing between objects and things, Robin Bernstein writes in Racial Innocence, “An object becomes a thing when it invites people to dance” (73). If, as Bernstein suggests, a doll is a “scriptive thing,” then my Golly prompted certain “meaningful bodily behaviors” (71), revealing a “a script for a performance” (72). This does not mean that all who played with a Golly would interact in precisely the same way, but rather that the doll invites certain kinds of play, and that children can accept, reject, or revise those invitations. For me, my Gollies largely elicited polite indifference. I didn’t play with either Golly much. I never even gave the second Golly a name of its own. Though soft, my Gollies didn’t inspire me to cuddle them. However, my mother (who grew up in 1940s South Africa) remembered that she did cuddle her childhood Golly. As a soft doll, the Golly does script cuddling.

Growing up in Massachusetts in the 1970s, I resisted that script because I found the dolls a bit creepy, even grotesque. On one level, I may have been — unconsciously — responding to the ugliness of the racial caricature. Golly is short for “Golliwog,” whose history dates to Florence Kate Upton’s children’s book The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg (1895). Upton was born in Flushing, New York, but at age 14 — after her father’s death — moved with her mother and sisters back to England. Her parents were English. The character was based on a “blackface minstrel doll” she had played with as a child in the U.S. (Bernstein 159). As Upton would later recall, “Seated upon a flowerpot in the garden, his kindly face was a target for rubber balls… the game being to knock him over backwards. It pains me now to think of those little rag legs flying ignominiously over his head, yet that was a long time ago, and before he had become a personality…. We knew he was ugly!” (Pilgrim).

Florence Kate Upton, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg (1895)

The book and the dolls were very popular in the U.K., which (I suspect) is how they got to South Africa. In the U.S., the Golliwog is not as widely recognized. As the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia tells us, it’s “the least known of the major anti-black caricatures in the United States” (Pilgrim).

Golliwog (from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia)Given the doll’s relative obscurity in the U.S., blaming my cool response to the Gollies entirely on some unconscious awareness of their racist content is far too neat an answer. The Gollies were not only other because they were grotesque; they were also other because they were Black. Growing up in an all-white Massachusetts town, I had no friends or even acquaintances of color. Though there were then public policies promoting desegregation, America in the 1970s was — as it is now — a highly segregated place. I lacked friends of color until high school, a Connecticut prep school that made some effort to attract non-white students. My experience was and is not unusual. The Public Research Institute recently reported that a full 75% of whites have “entirely white social networks without any minority presence” (Ingram).

The Golly is not an anomalous artifact of the South African influence on my childhood. (My parents grew up in South Africa.) It’s not an isolated example of how racist culture crosses borders. It embodies the cultural pervasiveness of racism. A book from my childhood library, Walt Disney’s Story Land (Golden Press, 1974) includes Joel Chandler Harris’s “De Tar Baby,” “Adapted from the Motion Picture ‘Song of the South’” (172), featuring characters talking in “black” dialect. Of books that remain in print today, the Asterix comics, by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (1959-1979) and Uderzo solo (1980-2009), feature racial caricatures of most non-white characters: Native Americans in Asterix and the Great Crossing (1975), and Africans in Asterix and Cleopatra (1965). Random House’s Yearling imprint not only keeps Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard series (1980-1998) in print, but in 2010 relaunched them with new cover designs. More subtly, the influence of blackface minstrelsy lingers on in Raggedy Ann, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and the Cat in the Hat. Racism’s legacy is everywhere, and it’s particularly tenacious in children’s literature and culture.

Walt Disney's Story Land: 55 favorite stories adapted from Walt Disney films (Golden Press, 1974)

When I’ve brought my Gollies into class for discussions of racist children’s culture, I’ve half-jokingly described the experience as “a visit to the island of racist toys.” But they’re not an island. They’re the ocean. PLAYMOBIL SuperSet Native American CampThough now called “Native Americans” instead of “Indians” (as they were in my youth), Playmobil’s depiction of non-white peoples traffics in stereotypes: in its toys, Native Americans all live in tepees and wear headdresses, and the sole “African / African American” family comes with a basketball. Or came with one. Playmobil recently discontinued this family. Very often, even imperfect representations of non-white people can be scarce. The “Black” version of the toy is either hard to find or simply doesn’t exist.

Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014)None of this is to deny the significant progress in the past 40 years. From Diana Ross and Michael Jackson in The Wiz (1978) to Quvenzhané Wallis in Annie (2014), from Virginia Hamilton’s M.C. Higgins, the Great (1975) to Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), children’s culture has developed more and better representations people of color. But improvement is not parity. Progress is not the same as equality.

And that’s what whites who deny — or, to put it more kindly, fail to see — the persistence of structural racism need to learn. The petulant New York cops who turn their backs on Mayor de Blasio fail to understand that, just because they may not intend to be racist, the NYPD’s history of murdering unarmed people of color can not be dismissed as a statistical anomaly.

For those who find it far-fetched to fault racism in children’s culture (and popular culture more broadly) for the persistence of racist attitudes, I would argue that these images — especially those we encounter as children — have staying power. As Christopher Myers wrote, such images “linger in our hearts, vast ‘image libraries’ that color our actions and ideas, even if we don’t recognize them on a conscious level. The plethora of threatening images of young black people has real-life effects.”

Keats, The Snowy Day (1962): coverWriting those words just after Trayvon Martin’s murderer was found not guilty, Myers added, “I wondered: if the man who killed Trayvon Martin had read The Snowy Day as a kid, would it have been as easy for him to see a seventeen-year-old in a hoodie, pockets full of rainbow candies and sweet tea, as a threat? What might have been different if images of round-headed Peter and his red hood and his snow angels were already dancing in his head?”

That is precisely why #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and why we need a wider range of toys, movies, and video games featuring protagonists of color. We need to counter the Gollies, the Uncle Remuses, and all the rest. What we learn as children shapes our world view more profoundly because, when we are small, we are still in the process of figuring out who we are and what we believe. For this reason, children’s toys, books, and culture are some of the most important influences on who we become — and on what biases we harbor.

Confronting those biases is hard and necessary work, but it’s nowhere near as hard as the psychic toll paid by those who endure the daily experience of racism. Indeed, it’s much easier for those of us not on the receiving end of racism to fail to see it, and to minimize its presence in our own lives. But exercising the privilege of choosing not to see leads to irresponsibility, to micro-aggressions, to unwittingly becoming part of a racist system.

The casual ignorance of well-intentioned people does more to sustain structural inequality than, say, those expressions of racism that get more media coverage — former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling telling his mistress not to bring Black people to the games, or media mogul Rupert Murdoch alleging that all Muslims bear responsibility for the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo.

As Catherine R. Squires writes, “We pretend to our peril that racism is safely in our past” (16). Golly is an atypical feature of Caucasian-American childhoods, but racism is not. It’s in films, playground taunts, dolls, books, relatives’ remarks. It’s everywhere.


Works Cited

Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Ingram, Christopher. “Three quarters of whites don’t have any non-white friends.” Washington Post 25 Aug. 2014: <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/08/25/three-quarters-of-whites-dont-have-any-non-white-friends/>.

Keats, Ezra Jack. The Snowy Day. 1962. New York: Puffin Books, 1976.

Myers, Christopher. “Young Dreamers.” Horn Book 6 Aug. 2013: <http://www.hbook.com/2013/08/opinion/young-dreamers/>

Pilgrim, David. “The Golliwog Caricature.” 2000, rev. 2012. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. <http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/golliwog/>. Date of access: 4 Jan. 2014.

Squires, Catherine R. The Post-Racial Mystique: Media and Race in the Twenty-First Century. New York University Press, 2014.

Walt Disney’s Story Land: 55 favorite stories adapted from Walt Disney films. Racine, WI: Golden Press, 1974.


Related links on this site:


I plan to include a much shorter excerpt of this piece in the introduction to my book, currently titled Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Structures of Racism in Children’s Literature. Indeed, I wrote this personal essay to help me write the introduction. Criticisms, comments, suggestions for improvement and for further reading are all welcome. For that matter, if you’ve any suggestions on how much (if any) of this should be included, I’d welcome opinions there, too.


Image sources: two photos of author and dolls (Philip Nel), Racial Innocence (NYU Press), The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg (Lusenberg.com), Golliwog doll (Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia), Walt Disney’s Story Land (Philip Nel), Playmobile (Amazon.com).

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The Archive of Childhood, Part 1: Crayons

John Tenniel, illus. of Mock Turtle, Alice, & Gryphon from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)We tend to imagine the self as an unbroken whole, but it might better be described as plural, a series of selves that, though temporally contiguous (and often overlapping) are not always the “same” self.  That’s one of the conclusions suggested by Robert Krulwich in “Who Am I?,” a Radiolab podcast from 2007.  It is also a central theme of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), whose protagonist answers the Caterpillar’s question, “Who are you?” like this: “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then” (35). Later, she offers to tell the Gryphon “my adventures—beginning from this morning,” adding, “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” (81).

The ever-changing self is one reason that encounters with the past can be surprising.  They remind us of earlier versions of ourselves — discarded, forgotten selves. They remind us of parts of our current selves that we no longer recall. They tell us who we were, who we are, and — perhaps — who we have yet to become.

"Madeleines with tea" by Lulu Durand PhotographyThis blog post launches an occasional series of excursions into my past, each one motivated by a particular thing. This first one is Proustian. As he had a cup of tea and a madeleine, Marcel Proust experienced a “shudder,” as his senses transported him to his childhood, when he would wish his aunt Léonie a good morning, and she would give him a madeleine, “dipping it first in her own cup of tea.”

For Proust, it was the taste of madeleines and tea.  For me, it was the smell of crayons.

In the process, this past September, of helping my mother move, I had to face the vast archive of my childhood — well over a dozen boxes, some containing items I’d not seen in 30 years. I needed months to sort through it all, but I had only days. She was moving at month’s end, and I couldn’t ship everything from her house to mine. I made snap decisions, some of which I regret. The saddest item to throw out was a cigar box full of crayons, most of them well-worn, some of them broken.

My cigar box of crayons (photo taken Sept. 2014)

The smell of those crayons transported me to my many childhood hours spent drawing. Then, the boundary between the real world and imagined ones was literally paper-thin. The crayon was the key that opened the door.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverAs a child, I knew that my art was only lines on paper (to paraphrase R. Crumb), but it did not feel that way. Drawing was an emotionally immersive experience. While I was moving those crayons across the paper, I was in the drawing, part of it. I realize that this is one reason that Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon resonates on such a deep level. Harold enters his drawing because that’s what childhood art-making feels like.

Before I threw out the box of crayons, I first photographed it, then dumped the crayons out onto the floor, and ran my fingers through them. So I could retain just a little, I decided to save the purple ones. As Crockett Johnson’s biographer, that choice seemed a reasonable compromise.

my purple crayons

But it’s hard to make reasoned compromises about irreplaceable things. My mother had saved my childhood drawings, in recycled manila envelopes, each labeled by year. I thought: well, I can’t save all of this — so, I’ll save representative samples. I put out most for recycling, but saved a few pieces of art created by me at 5 and 6 years old. Later, I thought: why not save more of these? I even went out to retrieve one drawing I’d thrown into the recycling bin. Now, I think: why not save them all?  Had I kept them, these drawings would have taken up the space of a large art book. Maybe two.

In that moment, having no idea what I’d uncover, I was conscious mostly of limited time at mom’s house and limited space at home. So, I thought: better to be ruthless about this.

So many lost things. So few saved. But I’m grateful for these glimpses into the past, traces of that crayon line that extends from my childhood bedroom floor to my adult career. I’m also surprised by how much of what interested me then still interests me now. I’m four decades removed from that small boy who made those drawings. Yet I am also still that boy, dreaming that art can transform the world.

Image sources: Tenniel from “Literary Snapshot: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Madeleines with Tea” from Fine Art America, photos of crayons and scan of Johnson’s book from yours truly.

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French Lyrics Reveal Shocking Truth of Rudolph’s Red Nose

Le petit renne au nez rouge

“Le p’tit renne au nez rouge” — Jacques Larue’s translation of Johnny Marks’ “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — reveals the real reason Rudolph’s nose was so red. Contrary to the 1964 Rankin-Bass TV special, its glow was not caused by an incandescent bulb. The last four lines (above) tell us:

His little nose made everybody laugh.
Everyone mocked him.
Some went as far as to say
That he liked to have a little drink.

Yes, that’s right. Rudolph was out tippling. So. Now you know.

Joyeux Noel.

Translation courtesy of Linda Nel. Commentary and BuzzFeed-esque title provided by yours truly.

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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.)

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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).
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* 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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