Archive for April, 2011

They Might Be Geniuses

They Might Be Giants

They might indeed be geniuses.  What other band has, in the last quarter century, produced such consistently great music?  Music for films, TV, adults, children, and mammals of any description?  I ask you: Who? Commemorating new music by They Might Be Giants (who, dear reader, are this blogger’s favorite band), here are nine TMBG songs everyone should know — complete with videos.  Happy They Might Be Giants Awareness Day, everyone!

“Don’t Let’s Start,” from They Might Be Giants (1986)

From the band’s debut album, we learn that “No one in the world ever gets what they want, and that is beautiful. / Everybody dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful.”

“Ana Ng,” from Lincoln (1988)

On TMBG’s second album — with cover art by Brian Dewan — John Linnell sings about a beloved whose “voice is a backwards record,” and who lives on the other side of the world.

“Birdhouse in Your Soul,” from Flood (1990)

The band’s breakthrough (and major label debut) Flood brought two hits (yes, hits!), a cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” and the above song.  “Everyone must listen to me. / Filibuster vigilantly.”

My favorite song from their next album, Apollo 18 (1992), is “Mammal.”  However, I can locate only a few performance videos on YouTube  — and the audio is of middling quality.  So, we’ll move on to…

“Meet James Ensor,” originally on John Henry (1994)

This is a live recording from 2009.  John Flansburgh sings a song about “Belgium’s famous painter. / Dig him up and shake his hand. / Understand the man.”  Yeah.

“Doctor Worm” from Severe Tire Damage (1998)

One of three studio tracks from a live album, this was a pop hit in Australia.  In my private universe of interesting music, it was also a pop hit.  It is a song about a character who, as he says, is “not a real doctor, but I am a real worm.  I am an actual worm.”  And a worm who plays the drums, too.

Speaking of doctors, TMBG would go on to write and record — with Robin “Goldie” Goldwasser on vocals — “Dr. Evil” (1999) for Austin Powers.  Next up, more soundtrack music:

“Boss of Me,” the theme song to Malcolm in the Middle (2001)

Above, TMBG perform the song on Mr. Jay Leno’s late-night television program.

Oh, and we must not forget the tune I think of as the “They Might Be Giants Happy Birthday Song”:

“Older,” from Long Tall Weekend (1999)

Above, TMBG perform the song on Robert Krulwich’s excellent (but short-lived) television program, Brave New World.

There are many excellent songs on Mink Car (2001), among them “Another First Kiss,” “Working Undercover for the Man,” and a cover of Georgie Fame’s “Yeh Yeh.”  But I’m not finding suitable videos on YouTube.  Likewise, No (2002) is a great record, and the band’s first children’s record.  In addition to the title track, there’s “John Lee Supertaster,” “Violin,” and “Where Do They Make Balloons?”… but the YouTube videos aren’t helping us here.

“Bastard Wants to Hit Me” from The Spine (2004)

Above, Laika Studio (creators of Coraline) offer a light-hearted animation for a song exploring one of TMBG’s recurring themes (paranoia).  TMBG wrote songs for Coraline, but only the “Other Father Song” made it into the film.  “Be Careful What You Pack” (originally intended for Coraline) can be found on The Else.

“The Mesopotamians,” from The Else (2007)

I love the idea of Mesopotamians on tour, squabbling in the back of their Econoline van.

“Nine Bowls of Soup” from Here Come the 123s! (2008)

The deadpan absurdity of this makes me smile every time I hear it. Why an ichthyosaur?  Why the airplane?   The song moves calmly forward through all of its silliness.  “Whoa!  Whoa!  Whoa!  Whoa!  / Whew, I really thought that that was it.”

And, yes, the above song is why I’ve chosen only nine TMBG videos.  Enjoy!

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Cushlamochree! Barnaby on stage!

Mr. O'Malley69 years ago today, the first daily strip of Crockett Johnson‘s Barnaby ran in the newspaper PM.  One year from today, Fantagraphics will begin reprinting Barnaby in full (co-edited by me and Eric Reynolds) — and the University Press of Mississippi will publish my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  In anticipation of both events, I bring you … Barnaby on stage!

Charles Friedman and Tommy Hamilton, 1946.  Friedman was the director. Hamilton portrayed Barnaby.

In September 1946, Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley made their stage debut. Adapted by Jereome Chodorov, the play initially seemed like it would be a great success.  After reading Chodorov’s script, Elia Kazan thought the play would be a hit.  Before its debut, Columbia Pictures bought film rights.  But, as was the case with the previous year’s radio adaptation, Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley did not live up to initial expectations.  It had but four performances — two in Wilmington, Delaware, and two in Baltimore, Maryland.  Before ever making it to New York, it closed for repairs… and that turned out to be the last of it.

With thanks to Thomas Hamilton (who played Barnaby), above is a photo of himself and director Charles Friedman.  Also thanks to him, here are a few pages from early the script, leading up to Mr. O’Malley’s entrance.  (Sally is Mrs. Baxter, Barnaby’s mother; John is Mr. Baxter, Barnaby’s father.)

Jerome Chodorov, Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley, Act I, page 6

Jerome Chodorov, Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley, Act I, page 7

Jerome Chodorov, Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley, Act I, page 8

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What time is it?

Biegert & Funk’s QlockTwo is a beautifully designed clock.  I’ve an image below, but before reading further you might experience it for yourself (on B&F’s webpage).

QlockTwoThe clock contains the right number of letters to announce the time in a complete sentence.  Its sans serif typeface is easily legible, telling us that “IT IS TWENTY TO TWO,” and then “IT IS A QUARTER TO TWO” in crisp, white letters (it measures in five-minute increments). But what I especially like is the way it slows down the experience of time, converting something precise into something precise enough.  I also enjoy the gentle irony of having an iPhone app that translates the digital precision of 2:16 p.m. into the comfortable analog, “IT IS A QUARTER PAST TWO.”

As the iTunes reviews indicate, it would be great if one could make this app the phone’s background.  As reviewer JLSchend notes, “I see the time on the wallpaper long before I open the app.”  However, the point of the QlockTwo app is not instant access to the time.  The point is to provide an aesthetically and emotionally different experience of time.

Digitally rendered time, with numbers and colons, is exact, keeping track of each second as it slips away.  The second hand on a clock face also tracks time’s relentless dissipation, but, without numbers marking each second’s passing, clock time seems to move with less insistence than digital time.  The Qlock’s rendering of time as text, however, abstracts the temporal from both the spatial (clock face) and digital (numbers and colons).  Time’s past and future are not mapped as they are on a clock face.  And the absence of a digital timepiece’s swiftly accruing seconds gives a feeling of slowness, of being in the present.

Unlike other timepieces, the Qlock does not emphasize time passing.  Instead, it narrates the gradually changing present.

» Continue reading “What time is it?”

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How to Find Good Children’s Books

Children's Book Week Poster, 2009.  By Ian Falconer.I’m thinking, in particular, about how to find the good new ones, from among the many thousands of children’s books that appear each year.  This is a question I’m often asked, but it’s a question of particular interest to my Literature for Children classes right now, since their third paper requires them to find a “new” book (published in the last ten years) that’s different than the childhood favorite they’ve already written about.  So, here are some tips for them — and for all of you.

Awards.  Some good books win awards.

But plenty of good books do not win awards.  So, you need to look elsewhere, too — and not only at the runners-up for these awards.

Mock Caldecott.  All around the U.S. each fall, local libraries hold Mock Caldecott Awards, in which they bring in that year’s crop of U.S. picture books, invite anyone who’s interested to peruse them and vote on their favorites.  Here are the results for the one we did at the Manhattan (Kansas) public library this past fall (2010).

Your local public library.  See what’s new in the Children’s Section, Young Adult section, Graphic Novels section.  Often, the new works are on display.  If you have more specific questions, you might consult the children’s librarian or librarians.  Children’s librarians keep abreast of what’s new and nifty.

Children’s Literature blogs.  It will not surprise you to learn that many of these are run by librarians.

And, yes, there are many other excellent blogs.  Do feel free to recommend your favorites below.

Bookstores.  Preferably, independent children’s bookstores.  But, really, any bookstore.  Just go to the children’s section and look at the books.  You don’t have to buy anything.  Make notes on the books you like, and seek them at your local library, or perhaps return and buy them at a later date.

CHILD_LIT listserv, maintained by Michael Joseph (Rare Books Librarian, Rutgers).  Members of the listserv include librarians, teachers (from grade school to university), graduate students (and a few undergraduates), authors, illustrators, and anyone with an interest in children’s literature.

Stay curious.  Wherever you go, keep your eyes and ears open for good books.  Read publications devoted to children’s literature, like The Horn Book, and Kirkus Reviews of children’s books.  Talk with children’s book fans of all ages.

If you have other tips to add, please post in the comments below.  Thank you!

Image credit: poster for Children’s Book Week 2009 created by Ian Falconer.
For helping me expand this resource, my thanks to: Julie Walker DanielsonMaria Nikolajeva, Monica EdingerJudith RidgeDebbie Reese, and Ali B.

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Vandalizing James Marshall

The only edition of James Marshall’s The Three Little Pigs (1989) currently in print has been vandalized by its publisher, Grosset & Dunlap.  In reprinting the book at 8” x 8” instead of its original 8.5” x 10.5”, the publisher has truncated images, altered the layout, changed the typeface, and removed the final illustration.

Here’s the original:

James Marshall, The Three Little Pigs (1989): second pig builds his house (original version)

Here’s the new version, which crowds the layout, cramping Marshall’s watercolors:

James Marshall, The Three Little Pigs (2000): second pig builds his house (new version, as mangled by Grosset & Dunlap))

Making the text difficult to read, Grosset & Dunlap also changed the elegant Berkeley serif font to what appears to be the title typeface from Sid and Marty Krofft’s Lidsville (1971-1973).

James Marshall, The Three Little Pigs (1989): front cover (as mangled by Grosset & Dunlap, 2000)

And the final image, in which the three pigs take their bow (on the back cover), has been removed entirely.  This is a shame because the front and back cover frame the tale as a theatrical performance.  It reminds us that no pigs were harmed in the making of this story; they were performing a production of The Three Little Pigs.

James Marshall, The Three Little Pigs (1989): back cover (paperback edition, 1996) James Marshall, The Three Little Pigs (1989): back cover (as mangled by Grosset & Dunlap, 2000)

In one sense, what Grosset & Dunlap has done is not unique. Publishers do alter children’s books to make them fit a different format.  When they retain the original design sense, as in HarperCollins’ board-book version of The Carrot Seed, they minimize any sense of loss: the board-book Carrot Seed is still recognizably a work by Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  However, when they remove text, change layout and design — as in Random House’s board book of Dr. Seuss’s ABC — we end up with a work based on the original, but a demonstrably different book.  (For “L,” the original has “Little Lola Lopp. / Left leg. / Lazy lion / licks a lollipop.”  The board book has only “Lion with a lollipop.”)

What’s baffling in the case of Marshall’s The Three Pigs is the impetus for the publisher’s mangling of his original.  This is not a board book.  It’s a “Reading Railroad” book, and I have no sense what mandates these books being sold in a tinier size.

The practice is of course also offensive.  No one would suggest a slicing up a Rembrandt so that it would better fit in a particular gallery space.  Presumably, the fact that the art is intended for children makes a publisher feel justified in mangling its aesthetics.  Is the font intended to “kiddie-up” the text?  What possible rationale can there be for letting some alleged “designer” (who appears to have no training in design) damage the work of an artist who is no longer alive to protest?  No idea.

I wonder: Do Marshall’s heirs know that Grosset & Dunlap is defacing his artwork?  If they don’t, could someone please notify them?  And ask that they bring back the original work in its original format, please.


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Happy April Fools’ Day from Crockett Johnson

As a follow-up to Saturday’s post (featuring Crockett Johnson’s Little Man with the Eyes strip), here are a few more of Johnson‘s Little Man comics, starting with one for April Fools Day, 1941.

Crockett Johnson, "The Little Man with the Eyes," 5 April 1941

I was pleased to see Mark Newgarden share the original post on Facebook because — as I was writing the original post — I was thinking of contemporary cartoonists who would like this strip. At the top of my list were (and are) Mark, Chris Ware, and Andy Runton.

Crockett Johnson, "The Little Man with the Eyes," 13 Jan. 1942
In the above strip, I love how the Little Man’s enjoyment slowly recedes, so that, by the final panel, his face registers concern.  Careful readers will also note an error in the fourth panel: one of the Little Man’s eyes is grey when it should be white.  I expect that Collier’s introduced the error in the printing process — Johnson was a perfectionist, and would certainly have noticed such a mistake (had it existed at an earlier stage).

Crockett Johnson, "The Little Man with the Eyes," 20 Sept. 1941

An inkblot in the fourth panel slightly mars it. (No, his mouth hasn’t suddenly run to the side of his face — that’s just a blot.  Look closely, and you’ll see the Little Man’s mouth intersect with the tip of the spoon).  Despite that printing flaw, the strip demonstrates Johnson’s understanding of how faces tell a story.

Crockett Johnson, "The Little Man with the Eyes," 13 July 1940

Other examples of Crockett Johnson’s work (from this blog):

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