Archive for October, 2010

The Picture Book Is Dead; Long Live the Picture Book

The New York Times reports a rise in visual illiteracy among parents.  Only, that’s not quite the way the article puts it: instead, it notes that parents are pushing their children to read “big-kid” books earlier, steering them away from picture books, on the grounds that picture books are somehow lesser or easier.  As a result, Julie Bosman (the article’s author) notes, fewer picture books are selling, and publishers are cutting back.

None of this may be true, of course. Amanda Gignac, a source for the story, has blogged that her quotation was taken out of context.  And, as MotherReader blogs,

This is The New York Times. And in terms of children’s and young adult literature, this is what they do. Some writer comes up with a topic in this field in which they know very little. They “research” that topic with a few interviews, an observation or two, and a quote from man on the street.

She has a point.  I regularly read the Times’ reviews of children’s books, and they’re very hit-or-miss.  Sometimes, the reviewer will have considerable knowledge of the subject and do a great job; other times, the reviewer knows little or nothing about the field, and muddles through, often to the Times’ detriment.

Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, Goodnight MoonThough the real cause for declining picture book sales may be the economic downturn (a fact the Times piece mentions but downplays), the article does one thing very well: it accurately reflects the prejudice against children’s illustrators and illustration.  When we write about a picture book, we always put the author’s name first and the illustrator’s name second.  Sometimes, the illustrator’s name comes not after the author’s name but after the title.  And it’s not uncommon for people to forget the illustrator all together.  We refer to Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon instead of Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon or to Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, illustrated by Clement Hurd.  Tellingly, the Times’ reporter quotes one author of picture books (Jon Scieszka), but no illustrators of picture books.

The lack of attention paid to picture books’ artists is just a symptom of our culture’s tendency to dismiss illustration as less serious than writing.  Though Ms. Gignac’s words were decontextualized, the idea of denigrating picture books as lesser rang true to many of the article’s readers — myself included.  We could imagine a parent like Ms. Gignac expressing such a sentiment.  This is one reason why the article prompted so much discussion in the blogosphere and on Twitter.  Those of us who study, teach, or write picture books are used to hearing such ignorant remarks.  The thought that such misinformed people were harming something we love — the picture book — made us upset.

A picture book is a portable art gallery.  It’s also an intricate dance between pictures and words, in which — though neither leads, and neither follows — no step is out of place, no dancers trip.  A picture book can of course also be wordless, such as Istvan Banyai’s Zoom or Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse.  But for most picture books, pictures and words have an interdependent relationship.  The pictures do not simply “illustrate” the words, and nor do the words “name” the pictures.  They work together, often in a creative tension with one another, to make meaning.

Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow Bugs a BugI could be mistaken, but I’m skeptical of the claim that the picture book is in peril.  Indeed, I think we are living in a golden age of picture books.  Consider the astonishing work that has been published in just the last few years: Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship, Menena Cottin and Rosana Faria’s The Black Book of Colors, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Emily Gravett’s Wolves, and Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash’s Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug.  All of the books on that list — which is by no means a thorough or representative survey — were published in the last five years.

News of the picture book’s demise has been greatly exaggerated.

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Keywords for Children’s Literature

Lissa Paul talks about our new book, Keywords for Children’s Literature, forthcoming from NYU Press in the Spring of 2011.  I say “our” new book, but we are merely the editors.  We did each contribute an essay of our own (Lissa wrote on “Literacy,” I wrote on “Postmodernism”), but other experts wrote the other 47 essays: Philip Pullman on “Intention,” Peter Hunt on “Children’s Literature,” Marah Gubar on “Innocence,” Beverly Lyon Clark on “Audience,” David Booth on “Censorship,” Mavis Reimer on “Home,” and many others.   Lissa gave the talk last week, at the University of British Columbia.  The talk runs 35 minutes, and questions take up the remaining 25 minutes.

What is a keyword?  As Lissa notes in her talk and as we say in our introduction, a keyword is both crucial and contested.  These are important words that we use, but on whose meanings we do not agree.  So, Keywords for Children’s Literature follows in the spirit Raymond Williams, Keywordsof Raymond Williams’s influential Keywords (1976), in offering “an exploration of the vocabulary of a crucial area of social and cultural discussion.”  The main difference is, of course, that we’re focusing on words important to the study of children’s literature — and, in this sense (of tracking words within a particular field), Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler‘s Keywords for American Cultural Studies provided a model for us.  Williams wrote all of his own keywords, but we and they sought experts — one per word, or sometimes a pair collaborating on a word.

Mapping meanings of key terms, the book is not intended as the last word on the subject, but rather as an invitation to begin a conversation.  We hope that the essays inspire further discussion, debate, and suggestions.  Which words do readers find generative for their own scholarship?  Which words have we omitted?  In about six months, we’ll look forward to seeing where that conversation goes!  (And, yes, I’ll post again on the subject — including a complete list of keywords — closer to the pub date.)

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On Friendship

On FriendshipIf you enjoy maxims or reflecting on how to sustain healthy friendships, then Timothy Billings’ translation of Matteo Ricci’s On Friendship: One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince (Columbia UP, 2009) will appeal to you.  Written in 1595, the book helped Ricci — a native of Macerata, Italy — make friends and (as Billings says in his extensive and thorough introduction) “forge meaningful cultural connections between Europe and China.”  A Christian missionary living in China, Ricci composed the book in Chinese and, within a year of the book’s composition, friends and acquaintances began printing copies, quickly — as Billings writes — “turning it into the late Ming equivalent of a best seller.”

There are many quotable passages, but here are 10 of my favorites:

1. My friend is not an other, but half of myself, and thus a second me — I must therefore regard my friend as myself.

9. A friend who gives a gift to another friend and expects something in return has made no gift at all, but is no different from a trader in the marketplace.

17. Only the person to whom one can completely divulge and express one’s heart can become the truest of true friends.

19. Proper friends do not always agree with their friends, nor do they always disagree with their friends, but rather agree with them when they are reasonable and disagree with them when they are unreasonable. Direct speech is therefore the only responsibility of friendship.

26. The stability of a friendship is both tested and revealed by the instabilities of my life.

40. If one has many intimate friends, then one has no intimate friends.

50. Friends surpass family members in one point only: it is possible for family members not to love one another. But it is not so with friends. If one member of a family does not love another, the relation of kinship still remains. But unless there is love between friends, does the essential principle of friendship exist?

62. The honorable man makes friends with difficulty; the petty man makes friends with ease. What comes together with difficulty comes apart with difficulty; what comes together with ease comes apart with ease.

88. Trying to make friends with everyone is complicated. In the end, avoiding people’s hatred is enough.

95. In ancient times, there were two men walking together, one who was extremely rich, and one who was extremely poor.  Someone commented: “Those two have become very close friends.” Hearing this, Dou-fa-de (a famous sage of antiquity) retorted: “If that is indeed so, why is it that one of them is rich and the other poor?”

Lost and FoundSince children’s literature is a major theme of this blog, I’ll conclude by calling attention to some excellent children’s books about friendship.  You likely know Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series (1970-1979) and James Marshall’s George and Martha series (1972-1988), and (for that matter) friendship is a major theme of children’s literature more generally — Winnie-the-Pooh, Harry Potter, and so on.  So I’ll restrict myself to a few picture books that may be slightly less well-known.

  • Jon Agee, Dmitri the Astronaut (1996).  Dmitri returns from the moon, but will anyone remember him?
  • Jon Agee, Terrific (2005). Sarcastic people can make friends, too.
  • Tim Egan, Metropolitan Cow (1996).  An earlier blog post details the brilliance of Mr. Egan’s work; why not read it?
  • Tim Egan, Roasted Peanuts (2006).  Again, yeah, that older blog post.
  • Kevin Henkes, Chester’s Way (1988).  Introduces Henkes’ best-known character, Lily (later of Purple Plastic Purse fame).
  • Oliver Jeffers, Lost and Found (2005).  Boy helps penguin find his way home, but where is home?
  • RainstormBarbara Lehman, Rainstorm (2007).  Beautifully illustrated wordless tale of a boy in a big house who finds a key, goes exploring, and is lonely no more.
  • Leo Lionni, Little Blue and Little Yellow (1959).  Lionni’s debut, created to entertain his two grandchildren, shows that all you need for a great picture book are: torn circles of colored paper, a keen sense of design, and a story to tell.
  • Leo Lionni, A Busy Year (1992). Friendship between two mice and a tree.
  • Chris Raschka, Yo! Yes? (1993).  Brilliantly told with minimal words and emotionally expressive pictures, two boys become friends.
  • Natalie Russell, Moon Rabbit (2009). In which Little Rabbit meets Brown Rabbit.
  • William Steig, Amos & Boris (1971).  Amos helps Boris; Boris helps Amos.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of picture books about friendship.  But, to me, the books on this list are not only about friendship but have come to feel like friends themselves.

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Ruth Krauss: Art, Poetry, & Breasts?

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, here’s a Ruth Krauss book you might not know: This Breast Gothic, a poetry collection published by the Bookstore Press (Lenox, Mass.) in 1973.  And, yes, the illustration is by Krauss herself.

Ruth Krauss, This Breast Gothic (1973)

The author of The Carrot Seed (1945) and A Hole Is to Dig (1952) was also a poet and an artist.  Krauss began her poetry career in 1959, taking classes with Kenneth Koch at Columbia University.  Her formal training in art began much earlier.  In 1917, she left Baltimore’s Western High School to enroll in the new Costume Design program at the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts (today, the Maryland Institute College of Art).  She never completed that degree, but she did earn one from the Parsons School in 1929.  After two decades of writing children’s books (her first was A Good Man and His Good Wife in 1944), Ruth for the first time illustrated her own.  In 1964, she published The Little King, The Little Queen, The Little Monster and other stories you can make up yourself, featuring pictures she made up herself.

From then on, she would occasionally illustrate her own work.  This Thumbprint (1967) features her own thumbprints, and (as you can see) This Breast Gothic displays a portrait of a woman who is mostly breasts — 11 breasts in all.  Wild, explicit, and vibrant against its pink background, the image suggests new meanings for the title poem (“This Breast”), inviting a rereading of lines like “This breast boom-boom yippee slurp strawberries cabañas / This breast as we go whizzing along,” and “This breast we have a fine view of everything that happens.”  Suddenly, the poem seems an exuberant celebration of the female body, giver of life and of food.  With a whimsical touch, Ruth’s poem now points to a woman’s power: from her breast comes art, literature, cities, history, news, … everything.

And, yes, in addition to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this blog post is also promoting my book, The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi in 2012.

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Halloween Mix I: I Put a Spell on You

Halloween I: I Put a Spell on YouWelcome to the first of seven Halloween mixes.  Yes, you heard me correctly: seven.  I’ll be posting one per week until the week of October 25th, when three mixes will appear.  This first mix includes a lot of the songs you’d expect, with a few you might not.  Enjoy!

1.     Bach’s Toccata from Toccata & Fugue, BWV 565 (D minor) E. Power Biggs (1960)      2:29

From Bach: Great Organ Favorites, as recorded by E. Power Biggs (1906-1977).

2.     Monster Mash Bobby “Boris” Pickett & The Crypt-Kickers (1962)      3:14

This was the biggest hit for Bobby “Boris” Picket (1938-2007), featuring his vocal impersonations of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.  In addition to being a #1 hit single and selling millions of copies, it’s probably the pop song most associated with Halloween.  Below, a clip of Pickett lip-synching to his hit, sometime in the mid-1960s.

3.     The Time Warp Riff Raff, Columbia, Magenta, Narrator, & the Transylvanians (1975)      3:20

From the film of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, featuring the vocal talents of Richard O’Brien (Riff Raff), Nell Campbell (Columbia), Patricia Quinn (Magenta), Charles Gray (Narrator), and others. In the video below, you’ll also see Susan Sarandon (Janet) and Barry Bostwick (Brad).

4.     Thriller Michael Jackson (1982)      5:58

Accompanied by Vincent Price‘s monologue, the title track from one of the biggest-selling albums of all-time.  If you grew up in the 1980s, you’ll remember the videos.  Heck, even if you didn’t grow up then, you might know them: “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and of course… “Thriller.”

5.     Werewolves of London Warren Zevon (1978)      3:27

The late Mr. Zevon‘s biggest hit — actually, I think it was his only hit.  A great song, and a much better use of the music from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”  First appeared on the album Excitable Boy.

6.     I Put a Spell on You Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1956)      2:31

Here’s a clip of Hawkins hamming it up, dressed in a cape, carrying a skull in one hand, and with a… is that a bone or a bleached white mustache below his nose there?  No idea.

7.     Bad Moon Rising Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)      2:20

A #2 hit for CCR, “Bad Moon Rising” appeared first as a single, and then on the album Green River (as well as on several greatest hits collections).

8.     I Feel So Good (I Must Be Dead) Maurice King & His Wolverines with Ruby Jackson (vocals)            2:55

From 1949 or 1950, this track appears on The OKeh Rhythm and Blues Story 1949-1957.

9.     People Who Died Jim Carroll (1980)      4:59

From Catholic Boy, his first best-known record, comes the best-known single by the late punk poet Jim Carroll (1949-2009)

10.  Pretend We’re Dead L7  (1992)      3:55

“What’s up with what’s going down?”  Produced by Butch Vig (producer of Nirvana, & member of Garbage), L7‘s Bricks Are Heavy was also the band’s best-selling record, featuring L7’s best-known single — “Pretend We’re Dead.”

11.  Highway to Hell AC/DC (1979)      3:28

From the band’s final album featuring lead vocalist Bon Scott (1946-1980), this song has one of the catchiest guitar riffs in the AC/DC canon… or in any band’s canon, for that matter.

12.  Crazy Train Ozzy Osbourne (1980)      4:50

Featuring the late great Randy Rhoads (1956-1982) on lead guitar, Blizzard of Ozz launched Osbourne‘s solo career — thanks in no small part to this song, one of Ozzy’s biggest hits.  The recording you hear here is not quite the original version, but it’s as close as you can get these days.  When the bass player and drummer sued Ozzy for unpaid royalties on this song, he had others re-record their parts and all subsequent copies of the song feature the more recently recorded bass and drums.  The vocals and Rhoads’ guitar are, of course, the originals.

13.  Frankenstein Edgar Winter Group (1972)      4:47

A #1 hit in 1973 (and the group‘s biggest hit), “Frankenstein” appears on They Only Come Out at Night and on countless hit collections, soundtracks, etc.

14.  Pet Sematary (Single Version) Ramones (1989)      3:30

Yes, I know that the word “Cemetery” is misspelled, but that’s the way the Ramones spell it.  And they spell it that way because it’s the theme song to the film based on Stephen King’s novel Pet Semetary, a movie I recall seeing in a movie theatre in Rochester, New York, in 1989.  All I really remember about the movie is that Fred Gwynne is in it, living in a rural area on a road where eighteen-wheelers pass by at very high speeds, and that someone is struck by one of these eighteen-wheelers.  ‘Cause, see, there’s also this cemetery where you can bury the dead, and then they come back to life again… only not quite like they were before….

15.  The Devil Went Down to Scunthorpe Toy Dolls (1997)      3:28

Sure, you know the Charlie Daniels Band‘s hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”  But have you heard the Toy Dolls‘ version?  No?  Well,… enjoy!

16.  Sympathy for the Devil The Rolling Stones (1968)      6:19

… in which Mick Jagger sings from the point of view of the Devil.  The song opens side A of the Stones‘ record Beggars Banquet.

17.  Hayride to Hell Hoodoo Gurus (1985)      3:17

A great Australian band, the Hoodoo Gurus gained a following on U.S. college rock radio in the 1980s.  Mars Needs Guitars! (which includes this song) is a great rock-n-roll record — which, back in the day, I bought on cassette.  The album also includes the better-known songs “Bittersweet” and “Poison Pen.”

18.  The Monster Song Psapp (2008)      3:28

From Psapp‘s fourth full-length album, The Camel’s Back.

19.  Turn Around They Might Be Giants (1992)      2:53

If asked to name a favorite band, They Might Be Giants would be my answer.  This song comes from Apollo 18, the group’s fourth album — though, then, they were not so much a group as a duo.  On their next album, the pair that had (on its first record) mocked itself as a “Rhythm Section Want Ad” added a full backing band.

20.  Lullaby The Cure (1989)      4:10

From the band‘s pop-goth epic, Disintegration.  If I remember correctly, “Lullaby” was actually the first single off of the record.  Or perhaps it was “Fascination Street”?  Well, whichever it was, the album’s big hit was “Love Song.”  But this song’s a good one, too.

21.  If You Take Away the Make-Up (Then The Vampires They Will Die) Tullycraft (2007)      1:43

From Every Scene Needs a Center, the band‘s last and (as of this writing) latest album.

22.  Walking with a Ghost Tegan and Sara (2004)      2:30

From So Jealous, Tegan and Sara‘s fourth album.

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