Archive for Children’s Literature

Children’s Literature and Comics/Graphic Novels at MLA 2016

MLA Convention: Austin, Texas, Jan. 2016

Attending MLA in Austin, Texas this January? These are all MLA sessions devoted* to children’s literature, children’s culture, or comics/graphic novels. There are other panels with individual papers on these subjects, but (to the best of my knowledge) these are the sole panels with a central focus on these areas of inquiry. If I’ve missed any panels, let me know!


* N.B.: For the purposes of this document, “devoted” means that 50% or more of the panel addresses the subject matter. I assembled this via keyword searches of the conference program.

39. The Anxious Publics of Literature for Young People

Thursday, 7 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 406, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the forum GS Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Presiding: Derritt Mason, Univ. of Alberta

  1. “Against the Assumption of Guilty Pleasure: Excavating Adult Readers’ Ethically Engaged Encounters with YA Fiction,” Ashley Pérez, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
  2. “Growth, Freedom, and Anxiety: The Displacement of Education in Contemporary School Stories for Young People,” David Aitchison, North Central Coll.
  3. “Young Readers, Young Heroes, and Dime Novel Hysteria,” Martin Woodside, Rutgers Univ., Camden

125. The Counterpublics of Underground Comix

Thursday, 7 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., 10B, ACC

A special session

Presiding: Margaret Galvan, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York; Leah Misemer, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison

Speakers: Ian Blechschmidt, Northwestern Univ.; Jonathan W. Gray, John Jay Coll. of Criminal Justice, City Univ. of New York; Aaron Kashtan, Miami Univ., Oxford; Joshua Kopin, Univ. of Texas, Austin; Samantha Meier, independent scholar; Lara Saguisag, Coll. of Staten Island, City Univ. of New York

Session Description:

In the 1970s and 1980s, underground comics provided an opportunity for less dominant groups to form communities by representing alternative kinds of experience. Panelists aim to open up the conversation on underground comics to include the ignored voices, such as those of women, minorities, and LGBT communities in San Francisco and elsewhere in the United States.

137. Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Jewish Children’s Literature

Thursday, 7 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., 308, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the Children’s Literature Association and the forum LLC Sephardic

Presiding: Meira Levinson, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York

  1. “Jewish-American Young Adult Literature and the Missing Global Jew,” June S. Cummins, San Diego State Univ.
  2. “American Novels of the Beta Israel: Narrating Exodus Abroad to Shape Alliances at Home,” Naomi Lesley, Holyoke Community Coll., MA
  3. HaMelech Artus: Concepts of Childhood in a Medieval Hebrew-Italian Arthurian Romance,” Esther Bernstein, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York

Responding: Tahneer Oksman, Marymount Manhattan Coll.

180. Print, Materiality, Narrative

Thursday, 7 January, 7:00–8:15 p.m., 4BC, ACC

A special session

Presiding: Jeannine DeLombard, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

  1. “The Politics of Format in Early Black Print Culture,” Joseph Rezek, Boston Univ.
  2. “Personifying Periodicals: Big Magazines and Modernist Form,” Donal Harris, Univ. of Memphis
  3. “‘Something to Hold Onto’: Materiality and the Graphic Novel,” Hillary L. Chute, Univ. of Chicago

222. Developments in Comics Pedagogy

Friday, 8 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., 8A, ACC

A special session

Presiding: Keith McCleary, Univ. of California, San Diego; Derek McGrath, Stony Brook Univ., State Univ. of New York

Speakers: Maria Elsy Cardona, Saint Louis Univ.; Susan E. Kirtley, Portland State Univ.; Elizabeth Mathews Losh, Coll. of William and Mary; Elizabeth Nijdam, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Joe Sutliff Sanders, Kansas State Univ.; Nick Sousanis, Univ. of Calgary

For abstracts and biographies, visit

Session Description:

Participants discuss how they have used comics and graphic novels to design unique courses in composition, language, literature, and new media, offering overlapping perspectives in program creation, multimodal integration, gender and cultural studies, and project-based learning. The session welcomes audience participation to discuss new approaches in teaching comics.

248. The Afterlife of Popular Children’s Culture Icons

Friday, 8 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., 203, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the Children’s Literature Association

Presiding: Paul Cote, Univ. of Maryland, College Park

  1. “From Madcap to Mourning: The Muppets after Henson,” Paul Cote
  2. “The Afterlife of the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up,” Carrie Sickmann Han, Indiana Univ.–Purdue Univ., Indianapolis
  3. “How Do You Solve a Problem like Mickey Mouse?” Peter Kunze, Univ. of Texas, Austin
  4. “‘His Active Little Crutch’: The Adaptations and Influence of Tiny Tim,” Alexandra Valint, Univ. of Southern Mississippi

297. Children’s Literature Scholarship and Its Publics

Friday, 8 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 303, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the forum GS Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Presiding: Philip Nel, Kansas State Univ.

Speakers: Julie Danielson, Seven Impossible Things before Breakfast; Marah Gubar, Massachusetts Inst. of Tech.; Roger Sutton, The Horn Book; Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Univ. of Pennsylvania

Session Description:

Because children’s literature is so popular, and children’s literature studies is an interdisciplinary field, scholars of young people’s literature have always addressed multiple publics—work continued today through social media. What are the risks and rewards of this more expansive, inclusive kind of work? Who does it? How is it valued? Should it be valued more, and—if so—why?

314. New Work in Language Theory

Friday, 8 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 305, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the forum TM Language Theory

Presiding: Thomas F. Shannon, Univ. of California, Berkeley

  1. “Creating and Translating Ideophones in Italian Disney Comics: A Linguistic and Historical Inquiry,” Pier Pischedda, Univ. of Leeds
  2. “An Aspect of Interdigitations: Lexical Blending in Language Contact,” Keumsil Kim Yoon, William Paterson Univ.

318. Fables, Folktales, Games, and Comics: Folklore and Visual Media

Friday, 8 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 407, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the American Folklore Society

  1. “Representing Black Folk: Jeremy Love’s Bayou and African American Folk Culture,” Jonathan W. Gray, John Jay Coll. of Criminal Justice, City Univ. of New York
  2. “Animal Terrorism: Adam Hines and the Crisis of the Animal Fable,” Christopher Pizzino, Univ. of Georgia
  3. “Slippers, Pumpkins, and Branches: Resisting Walt Disney in Disney’s Cinderella (2015),” Katie Kapurch, Texas State Univ.

Responding: Alexandria Gray, Univ. of Washington, Seattle

421. Satire and the Editorial Cartoon

Friday, 8 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., 311, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the forum GS Comics and Graphic Narratives

Presiding: Nhora Lucia Serrano, Harvard Univ.

  1. “The Radical Genealogy of the Editorial Cartoon,” Frank A. Palmeri, Univ. of Miami
  2. “Between Words and Pictures: Telling the Graphic Story of United States Slavery in Abolitionist Satirical Cartoons,” Martha J. Cutter, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs
  3. Punch, Counter-Punch: Mimicry, Parody, and Critique in the Colonial Public Sphere,” Tanya Agathocleous, Hunter Coll., City Univ. of New York
  4. “Pulling John Chinaman’s Queue to Get Him in Line: Domesticating Gestures in Nineteenth-CenturyPunch Cartoons,” Joe Sample, Univ. of Houston, Downtown

443. Cash Bar Arranged by the Forum GS Comics and Graphic Narratives

Friday, 8 January, 7:00–8:15 p.m., JW Grand 1, JW Marriott

489. Keep Children’s Literature Weird

Saturday, 9 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., 306, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the Children’s Literature Association

Presiding: Karen Coats, Illinois State Univ.

  1. “Will the Real Author Please Stand Up? Issues of Ownership and Agency in Chloe and the Lion,” Tharini Viswanath, Illinois State Univ.
  2. “The Weird, the Wild, the Wonderful: A Cross-Cultural Look at Normality in Children’s Literature,” Nina Christensen, Univ. of Aarhus; Philip Nel, Kansas State Univ.
  3. “Wild and Weird: Delineations in Duhême dessine Deleuze: L’oiseau philosophie,” Markus Bohlmann, Seneca Coll.

494. Latina/o Comics

Saturday, 9 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., Lone Star C, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the forums GS Comics and Graphic Narratives and CLCS 20th- and 21st-Century

Presiding: Christopher Pizzino, Univ. of Georgia

  1. “Super-politics: Relámpago and Chicanismo,” José Alaniz, Univ. of Washington, Seattle
  2. “Prepotencia por impotencia: El Santo versus El Santos and the Struggle for Identity,” Christopher RayAlexander, Johns Hopkins Univ., MD
  3. “The Tragic in the Comic: The Use of Childhood Flashbacks in the Work of Jaime Hernandez,” Melissa Coss Aquino, Bronx Community Coll., City Univ. of New York

521. Dystopia and Race in Contemporary American Literature

Saturday, 9 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., 4A, ACC

Program arranged by the College English Association

Presiding: Francisco Delgado, Stony Brook Univ., State Univ. of New York

  1. “The Direction from Which the People Will Come: Shifting International Borders in Leslie Marmon Silko and Karen Tei Yamashita,” Francisco Delgado
  2. “Sickness and Cities: Octavia Butler, Speculative Fiction, and the Rise of Neoliberalism,” Myka Tucker-Abramson, Univ. of Warwick
  3. “Redrawing Race Relations: The Use of the Graphic Novel to Rewrite American History,” Scott Zukowski, Stony Brook Univ., State Univ. of New York
  4. “Which Faction Are You? The (Dis)Abled Coding of Race in Divergent,” Jennifer Polish, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York

543. Gender in Young Adult Dystopias

Saturday, 9 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 10A, ACC

Program arranged by the forums GS Speculative Fiction and TC Women’s and Gender Studies

Presiding: Madelyn Detloff, Miami Univ., Oxford; Ian MacDonald, Wittenberg Univ.

  1. “‘Black and Fat’: Deviant Gendered Bodies in Patrick Ness’s More Than This,” Erin Michelle Kingsley, King Univ.
  2. “‘A New History’: Alternate Constructions of Gender and Kinship in Queer Dystopian Literature,” Angel Matos, Univ. of Notre Dame
  3. “Mother of Revolution: The Failure of Self-Sacrifice in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games,” Bethany Jacobs, Univ. of Oregon
  4. “Dystopian Feelings: Disciplining Affect in The Hunger Games and Divergent,” Sarah Sillin, Gettysburg Coll.

574. The Verse Novel for Young Readers

Saturday, 9 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m., 4BC, ACC

Program arranged by the forum GS Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Presiding: Michelle Ann Abate, Ohio State Univ., Columbus

  1. “Drawing In and Pushing Back: The Verse Novel and the Problem of Distance,” Mike Cadden, Missouri Western State Univ.
  2. “Why Aesthetics Matter: Discovering Poetry in the Verse Memoirs of Marilyn Nelson and Jacqueline Woodson,” Richard McDonnell Flynn, Georgia Southern Univ.
  3. “What Can Verse Novels Tell Us about the Aesthetics of Poetry for Young Readers?” Karen Coats, Illinois State Univ.

741. Charlie Hebdo and Its Publics

Sunday, 10 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., Lone Star C, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the forum GS Comics and Graphic Narratives

Presiding: Martha B. Kuhlman, Bryant Univ.

  1. “‘Jeg er Charlie’: Charlie Hebdo and the Danish Mohammed Cartoons,” Frederik Byrn Kohlert, Univ. of Montreal
  2. “The Other Charlie Hebdo,” Mark Burde, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  3. “‘Comment sucer la droite sans trahir la gauche?’: Charlie Hebdo in Its Contexts,” Bart Beaty, Univ. of Calgary

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27 Words + 18 Watercolor Pictures + 2 Mice = 1 Great Book

Sergio Ruzzier, Two Mice (2015): coverSergio Ruzzier’s Two Mice (Clarion, 2015) exemplifies the elegant efficiency of the picture book. Illustrate just the right moments in the narrative, add a few well-placed words, and you can create an engaging, imaginatively rich story.

Well, I say you. But, most likely, you can’t. Most of us can’t. I certainly can’t. Remarkably, Sergio Ruzzier can. He makes it all look effortless, too.

As Maurice Sendak once observed, a picture book most resembles a poem (Caldecott & Co. 186). Like the poem, the picture book is a compact form, requiring precision, and careful management of all its many parts — artistic style, color palette, layout, design, typeface, diction, pacing,… all of it. As if this weren’t challenging enough, Ruzzier has limited himself to twenty-seven words, created a concept book that also tells a story, and repeated the same numeric pattern —1-2-3, 3-2-1 — precisely four times.

In its precise balance of words and pictures, Two Mice’s narrative unfolds with perfect economy. Before the title page, Ruzzier shows us “One house” — a cozy cottage. On the title-page spread are “TWO MICE” in their beds; the white one is asleep, and the spotted one is just getting out of bed. Their light green bedroom is far more spacious than the house’s outside view (from the previous page) suggested it might be. On the right-hand page, a small mouse hole in the baseboard offers a wink at the common but unacknowledged paradox of those anthropomorphic animals who populate so many children’s stories. (If these mice are stand-ins for people, then what are their mice?) The next page depicts “Three cookies”: in a warm yellow kitchen, both mice are seated at a light blue table. The mouse who rose first is eating two of the cookies; the mouse who rose second has only one cookie, and looks on grumpily at his (or her) housemate.

Sergio Ruzzier, Two Mice (2015): Three cookies.

Initiating the descending numeric pattern, the next two-page spread also launches the mice’s adventure, as they arrive at a dock where there are “Three boats” and “Two oars.” Like Remy Charlip’s Fortunately (1964), Two Mice follows a “reversal of fortune” narrative, in which nearly every two-page spread revises the expectations of the previous two-page spread. The promise of adventure, suggested by the un-spotted mouse, as he (or she) gestures towards the three boats, instead yields — on the next two-page spread — an unfair distribution of labor. There is “One rower”: the spotted mouse rows, while his (her) un-spotted housemate rests. As the story progresses, the narrative intrigue increases. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but I will divulge that two more of the book’s twenty-four nouns are “shipwreck” and “escape.”

Two Mice is a brief master class in the picture book form, an engaging narrative, an elementary counting book, and a pleasure to read and re-read. So. Read it to the young people in your lives. Or, to borrow Ruzzier’s idiom…

One reader.

Two children.

Three cheers!

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Disagreement, Difference, Diversity: A Talk by Christopher Myers

Christopher Myers, Kansas State University, 22 Oct 2015This is not the title of the talk that Christopher Myers gave here on Thursday. It was called “Please Don’t Agree with Me: the Need for Disagreement in Debates About Literature for Young People.”  However, I’ve aligned these three words — disagreement, difference, diversity — in my title because one of Myers’s central points is that respectful, thoughtful disagreement respects difference, and that this respect makes diversity (in its various forms) possible.

As he says, “the most disturbing” argument is that “difference doesn’t really exist.” Contrary to this claim of absence, “Difference is real. The narrative that we are all the same underneath is a fear of difference.”  I like this idea because we so often hear the “we are all the same” narrative — offered, often, with the very best of intentions, affirming our shared humanity, encouraging us to see past any differences to build upon what we have in common. While these points of intersection can provide moments of connection, if we really wish to understand another person, we need to get to know their different life experiences. Or, to put this another way, we also have difference in common.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism & Racial Inequality in Contemporary AmericaThough Myers did not invoke color-blindness (in a racial sense), the “difference doesn’t really exist” way of thinking exemplifies what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls color-blind racism, a refusal to acknowledge difference that serves as a kind of “ideological armor for a covert and institutionalized system in the post-Civil Rights era. And the beauty of this new ideology is that it aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards” (3-4). As Bonilla-Silva argues, via such color-blind racism, whites can “enunciate positions that safeguard their racial interests without sounding ‘racist.’ Shielded by color blindness, whites can express resentment toward minorities; criticize their morality, values, and work ethic; and even claim to be the victims of ‘reverse racism’” (4). Color-blindness is a myth, and anyone who tells you “I don’t see race” (though they may mean well) is lying to you, or to themselves, or both. We all see race. But racial difference need not be an impediment to understanding, or to friendship, or to love. We have difference in common.

Christopher Myers, JabberwockyMyers did not take his own argument in that precise direction. Or, perhaps, he deliberately preferred to imply that argument rather than state it directly. (Note to Christopher Myers: should you happen upon this and find that I am misrepresenting your claims, please clarify, debate, rebut, etc. in the comments below. Thank you!) Myers instead focused on literature and on learning, noting that, via children’s and YA literature, “we give frameworks for thinking about difference.” He did a wonderful job of contextualizing this argument within canonical works, mentioning (for instance) that Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is a narrative of difference.

I particularly loved his point that agreement can efface difference, whereas “Disagreement recognizes an actual difference.”  As he said, “The narrative of I really, really care” — about diverse books, or about the need to secure human rights for Black citizens of the U.S. — “is really stressing me out right now.”  The reason it was stressing him out is that if everyone did indeed really really care, these problems would not be problems.  As he put it, “The problem wouldn’t exist if we all agreed that these things shouldn’t happen.”  Exactly.

His point about agreement effacing difference also reminded me of this passage from Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978; English translation, 1980):

Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978; English translation, 1980)You know what it’s like when two people start a conversation. First one of them does all the talking, the other breaks in with “That’s just like me, I . . .” and goes on talking about himself until his partner finds a chance to say, “That’s just like me, I . . .”

The “That’s just like me, I . . .’s” may look like a form of agreement, a way of carrying the other party’s idea a step further, but that is an illusion. What they really are is a brute revolt against brute force, an attempt to free one’s ear from bondage, a frontal attack the objective of which is to occupy the enemy’s ear. All man’s life among men is nothing more than a battle for the ears of others. The whole secret of Tamina’s popularity is that she has no desire to talk about herself. She offers no resistance to the forces occupying her ear; she never says, “That’s just like me, I . . .”

Saving Kundera’s gender politics for another day (or, perhaps, for the comments, below), Kundera’s “That’s just like me, I . . .” resonates with what Myers was saying. Agreement effaces difference. If we really listen to other people, we hear the differences as well as the commonalities, and we do not try to impose our narrative upon theirs. “That’s just like me, I . . .” is attack disguised as sympathetic engagement. In contrast, disagreement is a great way to talk about and to respect difference.

And I do not mean that we always “agree to disagree”: that can be a valuable approach, of course, but some disagreements are so profound that simply “agreeing to disagree” becomes a way of papering over the depth of disagreement. I mean, instead, that respectful disagreement can be a path to better understanding — of both the other person’s position and your own position, which is another point that Myers made.  Here is another: “Real disagreement is also real connection.”  Yes.

Christopher Myers, Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books? (art, photographed, from New York Times, 16 Mar. 2014)Myers himself, by the way, is an excellent speaker — remarkably, he delivers a fluent talk without any notes — and knows a lot about an array of subjects, from art to filmmaking, to censorship, to design. You probably know him for his children’s books, and for essays like “Young Dreamers” and “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” — and he’s eloquent on these subjects. If you don’t know these pieces or his other work, his curiosity, intellect, and versatility make him an artist whose work you should get to know, whether or not you agree.

Thoughts? Disagreements? Use the comments below.  Thanks.

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Harold is 60. So is his purple crayon.

For Crockett Johnson‘s 109th birthday (today!), we’re celebrating Harold’s 60th birthday… with a few tributes from other artists.

URNewYork (2esae & Ski)

First, it’s graffiti artist URNewYork (2esae & Ski), as photographed by Michael Weinstein for C.J. Hughes’ “The East Village Embraces a Colorful Past” (New York Times, 9 Nov. 2015).

Harold by URNewYork. Photo by Michael Weinstein.

The art appeared in an abandoned property at 324 East Fourth Street, in the East Village. The developer decided to photograph the art before renovating the building.

Lane Smith

Harper Collins has invited artists to create their own tributes to Harold. In this one, Lane Smith has his monkey from It’s a Little Book reading Harold and the Purple Crayon to Harold himself!  An appropriately meta tribute to a book that itself reflects on the art of storytelling and picture-making.

Lane Smith: Harold & It's a Little Book

Bob Staake

In another of the tributes solicited by Harper Collins, Bob Staake adds a touch of color to Harold’s Trip to the Sky.

Bob Staake's Harold

Karen Hallion

Dipping into the Nine Kinds of Pie archive for Karen Hallion’s Harold and the Purple TARDIS (April 2012).

Harold and the Purple Screwdriver

Madeline Stuart

In another one from the archive, Madeline Stuart renders Harold in 3-D for a display window at L.A.’s Compas. Johnson’s book plays with perspective, as Harold uses his line to render some items in 2-D, and some in 3-D. So, I particularly like seeing Stuart’s 3-D rendition — viewed, appropriately, through a window.

Harold and the Purple Crayon, at Compas (designed by Madeline Stuart)

Fans of Harold might also enjoy these:

Thanks to Michael Patrick Hearn for alerting me to the Harold mural (in the Times article), and to Lane Smith for sharing his artwork. I’m reposting Bob Staake’s art from his Facebook page. (I hope he doesn’t mind!)

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Innocent Children and Frightened Adults: Why Censorship Fails (at From The Square: The NYU Press Blog)

NYU PressIn recognition of the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, I’ve written a short piece for From the Square: The NYU Press Blog.  It’s called “Innocent Children and Frightened Adults: Why Censorship Fails.”  Here’s a brief excerpt:

While censorship will not keep young people safe, censors and would-be censors are right about two things. First, books have power. Second, responsible adults should help guide young people through the hazards of the adult world.

However, like all attempts to safeguard children’s innocence, removing books from libraries and curricula are not only doomed to failure; they are an abdication of adult responsibility and, as Marah Gubar writes of associating innocence with childhood, “potentially damaging to the wellbeing of actual young people.” A responsible adult recognizes that innocence is a negative state — an absence of knowledge and experience — and thus cannot be sustained. Shielding children from books that offer insight into the world’s dangers puts these children at risk. As Meg Rosoff notes, “If you don’t talk to kids about the difficult stuff, they worry alone.” Books offer a safe space in which to have conversations about difficult subjects. Taking these books out of circulation diminishes understanding and increases anxiety.

Check it out!

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A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teen-Ager (in the Iowa Review)

Iowa Review 45.2 (Fall 2015): art by Shaun TanI’m honored to be a part of The Iowa Review‘s special section on children’s literature, and even more honored that the journal has chosen to feature my essay on-line, for free. Two and a half years ago, “A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teen-Ager” began as a blog post.  It means a great deal to me that, revised and substantially expanded, the piece now appears in The Iowa Review‘s fall 2015 issue.

There are several reasons why. Though it’s immodest of me to admit, I think it‘s the best thing I’ve written. Also, I am a scholar: to be in a publication that prints the work of great writers is a singular honor. Yes, I strive to write with precision. I hope that each sentence inspires you to read the next one. But scholarly publication encourages the tendency to over-subordinate, obfuscate, or meander in arcana. As a result, stylish academic writing often seems an oxymoron, even though Helen Sword’s excellent book proves that it need not be.

Perhaps it goes without saying that it’s mind-blowingly amazing to be in the same issue with Shaun Tan (whose art also graces the cover) and Jeanne Birdsall? I mean, wow. To be included alongside writers I admire is wonderful. Finally, I’m also happy that the essay’s publication happens to coincide with the sixtieth birthday of Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955).  Perhaps that fact — coupled with its on-line presence and Shaun Tan’s artwork — will help more readers find their way to it.

So, a hearty thanks to Harry Stecopoulos for encouraging me to expand and submit this essay. Additional thanks to the Iowa Review‘s Deputy Managing Editor Jenna Hammerich, to the other contributors, to HarperCollins and the Estate of Ruth Krauss for letting us use the image, and, of course, to Crockett Johnson.

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Emily’s Library, Part 9: 14 More Books for Young Readers

Welcome to another installment in my attempts to build the perfect children’s library for my niece and, in so doing, guide others to great books for young people. Indeed, this post is being published as I depart to visit Emily — carrying three of the books mentioned below! (See if you can guess which three.)

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail, One Word from Sophia (2015)

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015)Averbeck and Ismail‘s book has a nice sense of humor, and a clever protagonist who loves words. What? That’s not enough for you? OK, well, it’s also a great example of what I call incidental diversity: it features characters of color, but race is not explicitly part of the story. (Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day is the classic example of this type of book.) Indeed, the protagonist’s family might be all of African descent; or there might be some of African descent and others of European descent. It’s not clear, and it’s not important to the story. I’m thinking that Emily will like the book because it has a smart and determined heroine, fun wordplay, and good jokes. If you need more reasons to check this book out, take a look at my blog post devoted to One Word from Sophia.

Kelly DiPucchio and Christian Robinson, Gaston (2014)

Kelly DiPuccio and Christian Robinson, Gaston (2014)Gaston does not quite seem to have his poodle sisters’ knack of behaving well, though he does his best. Then, a chance encounter with a family of bulldogs (one of whom is a poodle) makes Mrs. Poodle and Mrs. Bulldog wonder if there’s been a mix-up. A gently comic story about what it means to be part of a family, with an unexpected twist. Even better, because Robinson’s visual palette evokes classic children’s illustrators like Roger Duvoisin, the book feels like a classic from the moment you pick it up.

Marianne Dubuc, The Lion and the Bird (2014)

Marianne Dubuc, The Lion and the Bird (2014)A gentle tale given to Emily by a friend of the family — but one I would have otherwise given to her myself. It’s about making a new friend, the joys of friendship, and the sadness that accompanies the inevitability of being apart. (We cannot always be near those we love. Or, as the book says, “And so it goes. Sometimes life is like that.”) With few words and beautiful art, Dubuc’s book communicates the joy and loneliness of having and missing friends.

Michael Hall, Red: A Crayon’s Story (2015)

Michael Hall, Red: A Crayon's Story (2015)A big part of the fun of Hall‘s book is that the reader immediately knows something that the book’s characters fail to recognize. Though the main character is identified as Red, we can see that he’s just a blue crayon in a red wrapper. So, right away, readers understand that the words and the pictures contradict one another — the red wrapper does not accurately identify the crayon’s color. Of course, the metaphor is also hard to miss: superficial judgments based on labels fail to miss what’s inside a person (or crayon). But you don’t need to catch the tale’s allegorical elements to enjoy Red’s discovery that he is in fact Blue, and very good at drawing blue things, too!

Ben Hatke, Julia’s House for Lost Creatures (2014)

Ben Hatke, Julia's House for Lost Creatures (2014)The creator of the Zita the Space Girl comics directs his talents towards a new medium: Julia’s House for Lost Creatures is Ben Hatke’s first picture book. In it, independent-minded Julia — who looks to be about five but has the confidence and responsibility of someone older — sets up her home right by the sea. The house is vast. It’s cozy. It’s got knick-knacks, lots of books, and a workshop where she can make things. But it’s too quiet, and so she paints a sign, hanging it up outside the front door: “Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.” They start coming: Patched Up Kitty, a very sad troll, a mermaid, gnomes, and more! Soon, looking after all the lost creatures is wearing Julia out. So, she comes up with a plan. If learning to live and work with others is a message here, the book’s appeals reside in the quirky, spacious old house, the variety of creatures (each of whom has a distinct personality), and seeing resourceful Julia in charge of them all.

For more, including original sketches, see Jules Danielson’s post on the book.

Tove Jansson, Moomin’s Desert Island (1955/2013)

Tove Jansson, Moomin’s Desert Island (1955/2013)Drawn & Quarterly has been republishing Jansson’s Moomin comic strips in two forms: (1) large black-and-white books, each of which includes several narratives; (2) small, single-narrative color books. (They’ve added the color to Jansson’s original strips.) The latter are ideal to introduce young readers to Jansson and to comics in general: single story, nicely colored, and, well… Moomins! So, I’ve been giving these smaller books to Emily. Some of these narratives appear — in a different version — in Jansson’s novels. Others do not. This is one of the latter.  Read an excerpt at the publisher’s site (click on the word “excerpt”).

Tove Jansson, Moomin and the Sea (1957/2013)

Tove Jansson, Moomin and the Sea (1957/2013)This is an early and quite different version of the events narrated in Jansson’s novel Moominpappa at Sea (1966). Indeed, for those interested in the way that Jansson’s Moomin universe evolved, a comparison between this work and the (considerably darker) Moominpappa at Sea would be interesting. For young people, though, just enjoy this installment in the Moomins’ ongoing quest to live life on their own terms.  Read an excerpt at the publisher’s site (click on the word “excerpt”).

If you’d like to learn more about the Moomins, you might use my earlier blog post on them as a starting point. If you’re already a Moomin fan, then I highly recommend Boel Westin’s magnificent biography Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words (2014).

Jean Merrill and Ronni Solbert, The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars (1967)

Jean Merrill and Ronni Solbert, The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars (1967)To read this as a didactic story about not destroying others’ property is to miss all the fun. Sure, by the end of the book, the elephant does learn not to smash small cars. So, there is an appropriate ”lesson” here. But the joy is in the smashing. He smashes small cars and then sings about it:

Smashing cars! Smashing cars!

How I love to smash small cars!

Merrill — author of the classic children’s novel, The Pushcart War, which you should also read — even provides music for the song. Solbert’s crayon-and-ink artwork sets the playful tone for this tale of destruction and (ultimately, in the final few pages) reform. It’s a silly, joyous tale that offers an official advisory against smashing things, even as it embraces the impish impulse to destroy.

Sergio Ruzzier, A Letter for Leo (2014)

Sergio Ruzzier, A Letter for Leo (2014)Like Dubuc’s The Lion and the Bird, Sergio Ruzzier’s book is about two friends, one of whom is earthbound and the other of whom is only temporarily flightless. That is, Leo — protagonist, mailman, weasel (but the cute kind of weasel) — spends his days delivering mail, punctuated by short breaks to play bocce or to chat with friends. He never receives any mail himself, until he happens upon a bird, stuck in a mailbox and stranded far away from his flock. Like Groot, the bird only says one word — “Cheep” — but (also like Groot) his face tells us enough about what he wants or feels. Ruzzier’s faces give even his minor characters with a real sense of personality. There’s the joyous, loopy expression on the dog’s face, as Leo delivers a package that can only be a giant bone; and the kind, open face of the hen who pours Leo a cup of tea. And then there’s the fact that Leo plays bocce — most children probably don’t know the sport, but its specificity makes Leo that much more real. Little details like these make the book a delight to read and re-read. The story of Leo and Cheep is a warm tale of a friendship that transcends differences in language and species.

For original sketches and an interview, check out Jules Danielson’ post on the book.

Birgitta Sif, Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance (2014)

Birgitta Sif, Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance (2014)I bought both of these Birgitta Sif books because I noticed that, on occasion, Emily has exhibited some shyness. I would not say that shyness is a dominant character trait, but it reminded me of my own childhood shyness, and how important it is for young people to know that it’s OK to feel shy. All of us feel shy sometimes. (Don’t we?) Even better, Sif’s work is wonderful — whether or not you’re afflicted by shyness. When no one is watching, Frances Dean dances in a joyous reverie, as she listens to the birds sing. However, “when people were around, all she could feel were their eyes on her” — even though the artwork shows people minding their own business, reading a book, talking the dogs for a walk, playing with a toy sailboat. (Each of Sif’s characters seems to have her or his own inner life; even individual birds have different personalities.) The gap between Frances’ awareness and Sif’s art hints at a way past acute self-consciousness: other people are paying less attention to you than you think. By the book’s conclusion, Frances dances. And some of the other characters dance with her, too.

Birgitta Sif, Oliver (2012)

Birgitta Sif, Oliver (2012)The title character of Sif’s first book prefers the company of his imagination to that of other children. He reads, creates art, plays piano for his stuffed animals, invents his own (solo) version of tennis, and has a tendency to bring his stuffed animals with him. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that, in many of Sif’s two-page spreads is a girl, who also enjoys reading and tends to travel while carrying her stuffed-animal friend in the crook of her right arm. Sif handles this subtly; all the characters in these spreads are doing their own thing. So, the similarities between this girl and Oliver could easily be overlooked. However, by the book’s end, the two — her name is Olivia — have discovered one another, and a friendship has begun.

For both of these books, a merry tip of the hat to Jules Danielson’s Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog, where you can read an interview with Sif (as well as posts on other Sif books).

Beatrice Schenck de Regniers and Maurice Sendak, What Can You Do with a Shoe? (1955)

Beatrice Schenck de Regniers and Maurice Sendak, What Can You Do with a Shoe? (1955)Clearly inspired by Ruth Krauss’s books of the early 1950s, What Can You Do with a Shoe? rises above other Krauss imitators via art from Krauss’s frequent collaborator, Maurice Sendak. I don’t know the story of the book’s creation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Schenck de Regniers also drew from her observations of children (as Krauss did). I chose it as a gift for Emily because I notice that she enjoys experimenting, combining clothes in novel ways, or using a household item in a way that it wasn’t intended. Featuring the gently mischievous, very real children of Sendak’s imagination, What Can You Do with a Shoe? honors a child’s impulse to experiment. And that’s good!

Frank Tashlin, The Bear That Wasn’t (1946)

Frank Tashlin, The Bear That Wasn’t (1946)You probably know Tashlin for his animated cartoons (featuring Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny) or his films (The Girl Can’t Help It), but he also wrote several children’s books: The World That Isn’t (1951), The Possum That Didn’t (1950), and The Bear That Wasn’t (1946). His former colleague Chuck Jones also created an animated adaptation of this one. The story’s premise? While a bear hibernates, men build a factory above his cave. When he awakens, the employees expect him to be working. He insists that he’s a bear; they don’t believe him. It’s a satire of conformity, and the absurdity of trying to be anything other than who you are. I mean, hey, if you’re a bear, you’re a bear!

Rowboat Watkins, Rude Cakes (2015)

Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)Rowboat Watkins‘ Rude Cakes is my favorite picture book of 2015. It has sentient pastry, cyclopses, and a delightfully off-kilter sense of humor. It’s classic in the way that Arnold Lobel or James Marshall are classic. I like the book so much that I wrote an entire blog post about it. Read the post and then, more importantly, read the book.

That’s all for now. There will be more “Emily’s Library” installments in the future! Meanwhile, here (below) are the previous posts in this series, and other links that’ll help you find good books for young people.

Related posts on Nine Kinds of Pie:

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

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Five reasons to get One Word from Sophia

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015)

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015) was published this month. Here are for reasons you should get (buy, borrow, barter) the book for the young people in your life — or for yourself. (Grown-ups can read children’s books, too, you know.)

  1. It’s funny. Sophia wants a giraffe for her birthday. So, of course, the four adults in her life — Mother, Father, Uncle Conrad, and Grand-mamá — need to be convinced. A clever child, Sophia crafts four pleas, each tailored to the specific adult. To her mother, a judge, Sophia offers some legal arguments, including “In the last fifty years, no giraffes have been recalled for defective parts, and new models have a particularly strong safety record.” To her father, a businessman, she explains that giraffes “are a good source of manure, which can be sold at a profit to garden centers and activists. In short, people will pay me for poop.” Yasmeen Ismail’s exuberant watercolor-and-colored-pencil illustrations show both Sophia’s sincerity and the absurdity of her aspirations — but never mock her big dreams.

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015): "In short, people will pay me for poop."

  1. The book loves language. A running joke — spoiler alert — is each adult’s claim that Sophia’s argument goes on too long. Averbeck has each character deliver this verdict with a different word (“verbose,” “effusive,” “loquacious”), which the book defines in the main text and in a little glossary on the inside back cover. Also, Averbeck subtly adjusts the language so that it echoes that of the formal proposal (for Sophia) and of the specific career (for the adult). For Uncle Conrad, a politician, “Sophia polled the other members of the household” — actually her stuffed animals, Mr. Bun, Tiger Eye, Pony Boy, Snakey Poo, and Ted — so that she can report that “Four out of five respondents are in favor of giraffes.” Her mother (the judge) renders “her decision” by saying “I will have to rule against a giraffe at this time.” Juxtaposed with Ismail’s expressive characters in a bright domestic setting, the workplace language is gently amusing.

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015): "The four problems were . . ."

  1. Incidental diversity. There are far too few books like Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day — or, what I like to call “incidental diversity.” What I mean by this is that the character’s race is incidental to the story. One Word from Sophia is a great example of incidental diversity. Indeed, as my friend Michelle Martin pointed out to me, the family could either be mixed-race or a black family with a range of skin tones. This ambiguity is an additional strength (how many picture books show mixed-race families?). In an interview with Jules Danielson, Averbeck described his response to seeing Ismail’s art for the first time: “I was surprised by the multi-racial cast, because it wasn’t evident in the line sketches. But I was also completely delighted, since I actually believe that #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Plus, the multi-racial family in the book reflects my own family, to whom I’ve dedicated One Word from Sophia. I wondered how Yasmeen knew that.”
  1. Sophia is smart and determined. This — in addition to the aforementioned three reasons — is why One Word from Sophia will soon be in Emily’s Library. I want my niece to have plenty of books featuring smart, ambitious, admirable female characters. The fact that the book has a sense of humor is also welcome — since Emily has a sense of humor, too.
  1. It has already been endorsed by three of the Niblings! For all I know, Betsy, Minh, and Mitali may also like it. I haven’t asked them. But both Travis and Jules have written about it: Travis lists it first in his “Ten to Note” for the Summer of 2015. Jules both interviewed the book’s creators and posted some of Ismail’s art and sketches on her blog. And now,… I’ve devoted a blog post to the book as well. It’s one of my favorites for 2015. (Another favorite is Rowboat Watkins’ Rude Cakes, to which I’ve devoted a separate post.)
A generous tip of the hat to Michelle Martin for introducing me to this book.

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Maurice Sendak’s Will

Maurice Sendak, Northeast cover (Hartford Courant Sunday Magazine, 19 Dec. 1993)

Wills offer unique insights into people’s lives — what they value most, how they see themselves, how they hope to be remembered. Ruth Krauss left most of her estate to homeless children, a fact which floored Maurice Sendak, when I told him: she died the same year that We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, Sendak’s book about homeless children, was published. Today, on what would have been Maurice Sendak’s 87th birthday, here is his will (click for a pdf).

And here is my inevitably subjective interpretation of what this 22-page document tells us about Maurice Sendak. If the named items in his collection of manuscripts, letters, toys, and ephemera tell us which literary and cultural figures were dearest to him, then those figures are:

  • Beatrix Potter
  • Mickey Mouse
  • Herman Melville
  • Henry James
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
  • James Marshall

Maurice Sendak, cover for Herman Melville's Pierre (1995)But especially Herman Melville, who is named three times. To the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Sendak gives all of his “rare edition books, including, without limitation, books written by Herman Melville and Henry James” (2), and his “collection of letters and manuscripts written by persons other than [him], including, without limitation, letters written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (also known as the Brothers Grimm) and Herman Melville; and the publishing contract for ‘Pierre’ between Herman Melville and Harper and Brothers Publisher” (3). His affection for all of these figures is well known. In 1995, he even did an illustrated edition of Pierre, dedicating the pictures “in remembrance of” his brother Jack, who died earlier that same year. What fascinates me is that he so loved the novel that he obtained a copy of Melville’s contract with Harper and Brothers.

Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "Youth is hot, and temptation strong" Sendak, Melville's Pierre: [untitled] Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "The secret is still a Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "Pierre and Isabel stood locked"

Sendak’s love for Mickey Mouse is also no secret. He named the protagonist Maurice Sendak's earliest extant drawing: Mickey Mouse (1934)of In the Night Kitchen “Mickey” after the mouse (and because “M” is Sendak’s own first initial), and painted that book’s “Mickey Oven” in the red of Mickey’s shorts and yellow of Mickey’s shoes. (Originally, he’d wanted to use an image of Mickey, but Disney refused to grant permission.) Sendak’s earliest surviving drawing (from 1934, the year he turned 6) is of Mickey Mouse. So, Mickey’s appearance in the will is more confirmation than revelation. Still, though, it is the first item he lists among those going to the Rosenbach: “Such articles of my Mickey Mouse collection as my executors, in their sole and absolute discretion shall select” (2). He then directs that “the remaining balance of [his] Mickey Mouse collection” go to the Maurice Sendak Foundation, Inc.

Maurice Sendak, detail from Mickey Oven, In the Night Kitchen (1970)

Suggesting that he wanted to help scholars study the works of those he collected, Sendak also took care to locate like materials together. When I interviewed him back in June 2001, he fretted over whether work related to his collaborations with Ruth Krauss should go with the rest of his materials or to the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where her papers are. In that conversation, he concluded that the Krauss work should go to Storrs. The will James Marshall and Maurice Sendak, Swine Lake (1999)indicates either that he changed his mind or forgot this earlier decision, but he does remember to send “all of [his] collections of books and related papers, drawings, works of art and letters created by James Marshall” to Storrs. He also gives his “two (2) walking sticks that previously belonged to Beatrix Potter and William Heelis” to the Beatrix Potter Society in London.

There’s something about these physical objects that captures the imagination — Maurice Sendak with Beatrix Potter’s walking sticks! Maurice Sendak with original letters from Mozart, Melville, and the Brothers Grimm! Maurice Sendak with vintage Mickey Mouse toys! What we collect reflects who we are. The books on the shelves, the art on the wall, and the saved childhood memorabilia all offer a glimpse into a person’s interior life. When I think of these things that were dear to him, I imagine him at home, contemplating his collection. I also wish I’d taken him up on the invitation to visit, but I was then too shy, too intimidated by the idea. (Visit the great Maurice Sendak? At his home? Me? Uh….).

Maurice Sendak's will (2011)His will suggests that, if we are to catch sight of Sendak’s inner life, we will have to glean it from his works and from the works of those he collected. The second item on the will’s first page orders the destruction of his personal papers: “I direct my executors to destroy, immediately following my death, all of my personal letters, journals and diaries” (1). As a biographer, I feel a pang of loss at this sentence — what insights these materials would have offered! But I am not writing Sendak’s biography. And whoever does will have plenty to work with. In addition to being a public figure (many interviews!), Sendak collected his non-fiction in Caldecott & Co. (1988), worked with Selma Lanes on The Art of Maurice Sendak (1980) and with Tony Kushner on The Art of Maurice Sendak Since 1980 (2003). All three of these works are partly biographical. Adding to that record, next year will mark the appearance of Peter Kunze’s Conversations with Maurice Sendak, which includes — for the first time — my 2001 interview.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)I remember Sendak once saying, somewhat ruefully, that Where the Wild Things Are would be in the first line of his obituary. He was proud of the book, but he did so much more, and hoped people would recognize his larger body of work. As if to aid in that recognition, Sendak leaves his original works in libraries where others can study them. He gives his “designs of sets and costumes for operas, plays and ballets” to the Pierpont Morgan Library (2). To the Maurice Sendak Foundation, he bequeaths “All the works of art created by me for my books and all materials related thereto, including, without limitation, manuscripts, dummies, sketches of and for my books, changes to and proof sheets for my books, and all related ephemera” (5). Indicating that Sendak wants scholars to have access, he asks that the Maurice Sendak Foundation “make arrangements with the Rosenbach Museum and Library for the display” of these items. Indeed, he specifically asks the Maurice Sendak Foundation to use his house “as a museum or similar facility, to be used by scholars, students, artists, illustrators and writers, and to be opened to the general public” (4-5).

Rolling Stone, 30. Dec. 1976: cover by Maurice SendakAs you probably already know, the question of which materials go where is the subject of a lawsuit. (The Rosenbach Museum is suing the Sendak Foundation.) I won’t speculate on that dispute here, but I will say that authors’ and artists’ legal legacies are intriguing. Since wills and lawsuits are a matter of public record, they’re also available for our consideration. Indeed, though I don’t have the time to pursue this, someone should edit an essay collection titled In the Event of My Death: The Legal and Literary Afterlives of the Great Children’s Writers. In addition to authors’ and artists’ wills, there are other notable legal battles, such as those between A.A. Milne’s heirs and the Walt Disney Company, or Dr. Seuss Enterprises vs. Penguin Books (1997).

Posthumous lawsuits tell us as much about the artist’s friends and advisors as they do about the artist. But the will displays what and who was most important to the late artist. In this brief, speculative essay, I’ve focused more on the what than the who, but — as you’ll see, if you read the will — the who for Maurice Sendak is clear. It’s Lynn Caponera, Sendak’s caretaker and friend and, today, one of the executors of his estate. What’s so wonderful about Sendak’s will is that he remembers not just the friends and family who were dear to him, but all of us who care about art. So, on his birthday, I’ll add my thanks to a great artist not just for leaving a rich legacy, but for envisioning a future in which his own legacy can be appreciated and studied.

Further reading on Maurice Sendak (mostly on this blog):

Image credits: Maurice Sendak, “Northeast cover” (Hartford Courant Sunday Magazine, 19 Dec. 1993) from Sendak in Asia: Exhibition and Sale of Original Artwork (1996); Sendak, cover and four illustrations from Herman Melville’s Pierre or the Ambiguities (The Kraken Edition, 1995); Sendak’s earliest extant drawing (Mickey Mouse, 1934) from Selma G. Lanes, The Art of Maurice Sendak (1980); Sendak Sendak, detail from Mickey Oven, In the Night Kitchen (1970); James Marshall and Maurice Sendak, Swine Lake (1999); first page of Maurice Sendak’s will (2011), courtesy of probate court in Bethel, Connecticut; Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963); Sendak, cover for Rolling Stone (30. Dec. 1976).

Thanks to Sara & David Austin for sending the will, and of course to the probate court in Bethel, Connecticut, for providing access to it.

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The Cyclops Who Mistook His Cake for a Hat

Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)The best picture-book debut of 2015 is Rowboat WatkinsRude Cakes. Yes, I know it’s only May 7th. And I don’t claim to have read every picture book published thus far. But it’s going to be hard to top this one.

(Spoiler alert! There are spoilers below! Lots of them!)

The notion of an ill-mannered, sentient cake is funny on its own. But Watkins goes further. In the first half of the book, the titular character — a pink, bratty cake — refuses to listen to its parents or to wait in line, bullies a cupcake and a Cake in bathtub. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)marshmallow on a playground, and glowers in the sudsy water of the bathtub before reluctantly going to bed. So far, it’s a comic didactic tale. Then, enter a Giant Cyclops. Really. The cake is jumping up and down on the bed, playing with the little stuffed toy blue Cyclops that it stole from the cupcake, when — through the open window — a giant blue Cyclops hand enters, plucking the cake from its bedroom, lifting it up towards its toothy open mouth… only to wear the cake on its head. As Watkins narrator explains, giant Cyclopses “LOVE to wear jaunty little hats.” And this Cyclops thinks that the cake is a hat.

Rude cake jumps on bed. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)Watkins’ doodley, expressive line and soft watercolors provide his cakes and Cyclopes with the necessary solidity and silliness. Think of James Marshall’s hippo duo, George and Martha. Or of Laurie Keller’s misunderstood pastry, Arnie the Donut. As in any book by Marshall or Keller, Watkins’ characters have a real presence, and joy. Lots of joy. When I read the book, it feels like Rowboat Watkins is standing just behind the illustrations (where I can’t see him), and he’s smiling happily to himself. Or maybe he’s smiling at the fact that I am also smiling while I read his book.

He has imagined an oddly coherent universe populated by polite Giant Cyclopses, one rude cake, two beleaguered playmates (the cupcake and the marshmallow), and the rude cake’s exasperated parents (also cakes). In other words, Watkins understands Dr. Seuss’s principle of “logical nonsense”: as Seuss put it, “If I start with a two-headed animal I must never waver from that concept. There must be two hats in the closet, two toothbrushes in the bathroom and two sets of spectacles on the night table. Then my readers will accept the poor fellow without hesitation and so will I.” So, for instance, the Cyclops seems to come out of nowhere until you remember that the chocolate cupcake had a toy Cyclops, and the rude cake had a Cyclops poster over its bed. Later in the book, the child characters (rude cake, cupcake, marshmallow) frolic with Cyclopean balloons — each balloon has a giant eye. Theirs is a world in which Giant Cyclopses not only exist, but also are — in toy form — a cherished part of childhood. And why not? After all, we live in a world where we’d think twice about cuddling real live bears, but quite happily give children teddy bears to cuddle. In Watkins’ world, Giant Cyclopses are similar.

Rude cakes never say thank you. From Rude cake jumps on bed. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)

By the book’s end, our bratty cake learns some manners. But, as in Marshall’s George and Martha or Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, Rude Cakes sublimates its didactic impulse, expressing its lesson via the pleasures of story. Watkins’ book has a moral, but what makes Rude Cakes work is its playful, loopy storytelling. In his baked goods and Cyclopses, Watkins offers an unusual but perfect metaphor for how larger forces can shake an obnoxious child out of its selfish egoism, revealing the kinder, gentle person within.

Rowboat Watkins is an original, singular talent. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

P.S. If you’ve not read Jules Danielson’s magnificent interview with Rowboat Watkins, then get on over to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and read it now. Then, read it again. Mr. Watkins has thought very carefully about picture books. You could learn a lot from him.

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