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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Laurie Anderson & Lou Reed’s Rules to Live By

Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

I collect quotations — the epigrammatic, the wise, the thoughtful. Sometimes, I post these in my “Commonplace Book” entries. Here’s another for the commonplace book, offered by Laurie Anderson on the occasion of Lou Reed‘s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on Saturday, April 18, 2015. It’s “rules to live by,” co-written by Reed and Anderson, who were life partners for 21 years (and who married in 2008):

I’m reminded also of the three rules we came up with, rules to live by. And I’m just going to tell you what they are because they come in really handy. Because things happen so fast, it’s always good to have a few, like, watchwords to fall back on.

And the first one is: One. Don’t be afraid of anyone. Now, can you imagine living your life afraid of no one? Two. Get a really good bullshit detector. And three. Three is be really, really tender. And with those three things, you don’t need anything else.

Here’s the video of the entire speech, recorded by a member of the audience (so, the audio’s not great). This “rules to live by” portion runs from 8:55 to 9:46.

There’s also an imperfect transcript of Anderson’s speech in Rolling Stone. I hope a more precise transcription (or, perhaps, the full text of her speech) is forthcoming.

Because you should hear their music, too, here’s a recording of “In Our Sleep,” co-written by Anderson and Reed, and performed by them both. This remix is from the CD single. The original version appears on Anderson’s Bright Red (1994).

Photo of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.  I found it on this site (which seems to be defunct). So, for further information, try Mr. Greenfield-Sanders’ website.

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Reading the Penderwicks

Since you’re reading this blog post, you may have already read one or more of Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks books — the fourth of which, The Penderwicks in Spring, was published last month. In case you haven’t, here’s why you should.

Jeanne Birdsall, The PenderwicksJeanne Birdsall understands the emotional intelligence of children. She knows that they feel love, guilt, joy, loss, anger, excitement, jealousy, and sadness just as acutely as adults do. In fact, they often feel them more acutely than adults do, because children lack the full range of language and experience that allows us grown-ups (well, some of us grown-ups) to manage intense emotions. Evincing an acute awareness of children’s vulnerabilities and strengths, Birdsall’s four Penderwick sisters — and honorary Penderwick Jeffrey Tifton, Ben (who arrives in book two), Lydia (book four) — are also resilient, thoughtful, funny, fully realized characters. They and the adults in their lives feel like real people. Even though you meet them for the first time in these novels, you recognize them instantly.

Like Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters, Lynn Johnston’s Patterson children, and the protagonists of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwick sisters feel so real because we get to watch them grow up. Especially Batty, my favorite character. She’s just four years old in the first novel. Her best friend and confidante is Hound, the family dog. She’s shy, and far more perceptive than the either the adults or older Penderwick sisters give her credit for. This may be one reason why The Penderwicks in Spring is my favorite: it focuses the most on Batty, now ten years old, exploring her joy in discovering her musical talent and her misplaced guilt over — well, I don’t want to give that away. (Read the book!)

Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks in SpringThe Penderwicks in Spring is also my favorite because each Penderwicks novel is better than the previous one. Given that the National-Book-Award-winning The Penderwicks (2005) is already great, I’ve often marveled at her ability to make each successive novel is even stronger than the previous one. How does she do it? First, I think that — like the late Terry Pratchett — hers is a talent that just keeps getting better. Second, the most recent three Penderwicks books are not sequels. They’re each stories unto themselves. They’re windows into the lives of these characters, offering insights into different facets of their developing selves. Each book focuses more on a different Penderwick or group of Penderwicks, but somehow manages to advance the stories of all family members. Third, Birdsall is great at free indirect discourse — third-person narration, closely aligned with one particular character. This gift allows her to shift perspectives seamlessly, from Rosalind (the eldest), to Jane, to Skye, to Batty, to Ben, to Lydia, letting us know what they understand and what they don’t. Fourth, she understands how inadequate the word “children” is to describe a group of people who differ in ages, interests, genders, experiences, and their capacity for relating to others. This understanding makes her characters feel more like actual people. And it makes me care about them, and want to spend time with them.

Hers are fun and funny family stories, novels about how to love even those family members who may try your patience. They’re books with great animal characters (Hound! Duchess!), and human characters who understand the joy and beauty of music. They are novels you’ll want to read and re-read. If you’ve read her work, you already know this. If not, then you’ll just have to trust me on this one.

Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street Jeanne Birdsall, Penderwicks at Point Mouette Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks in Spring

There are four books in all, each subsequent one taking place at a later moment in time. Begin on a summer holiday with The Penderwicks. Return to the family’s lives in The Penderwicks on Gardam Street (2008). Join them for another summer vacation (a year after the first book) in The Penderwicks at Point Mouette (2011).  Come back home, five years later, for The Penderwicks in Spring.  (She’s currently writing the fifth and final Penderwicks novel.)

If you’ll be at or near Kansas State University on April 23rd (tomorrow), she’ll be speaking at 4pm in the Student Union, room 226. Free and open to the public! Come on by.


I wrote the above to introduce Jeanne Birdsall’s talk. Since it’s far more than I can use in an intro., I’ve posted the full text here. (Tomorrow, I’ll speak just a fraction of the above.)

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The Land Where We Invisibly Rule: They Might Be Giants’ Glean

They Might Be Giants' Glean

Man, you never lost your edge.

— They Might Be Giants, “All the Lazy Boyfriends,” Glean (2015)

They Might Be Giants‘ Glean — due out April 21 — is the band’s best record since its 1986 eponymous debut, affectionately known as The Pink Album (due to its pink cover). Like that record, it has a range of musical styles, unusual subject matter, and the unexpected lyrical turns that make a They Might Be Giants song a They Might Be Giants song. It’s even similar in length: the debut offered 38 minutes and 31 seconds of music; the new record provides 39 minutes and 1 second.

Spend some time reflecting.

— They Might Be Giants, “It’s Good to Be Alive,” Glean (2015)

That said, perhaps it feels like a classic because all but three of the songs are familiar. Only “All the Lazy Boyfriends,” “Aaa,” and the instrumental title track had not previously been released through their weekly Dial-a-Song.  Much to the delight of fans (me!), the band re-launched this service in January, which from 1983 until 2006 ran off John Flansburgh’s Brooklyn answering machine. (In 2006, the answering machine finally gave up the ghost.) The new web-based version shares not demos — as the original iteration did — but finished songs, complete with videos. Those of us (me, again!) who subscribed to They Might Be Giants’ 2015 Instant Fan Club have also been able to download these songs each week, and (on some weeks) bonus tracks as well.  So, prior to listening to Glean for the first time, I had — according to my iTunes playlist — already heard “Good to Be Alive” (released March 10) and “Answer” (Feb. 17) fourteen times each.  I’d listened to “Erase” (Jan. 6), “Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2” (Jan. 26), “I Can Help the Next in Line” (Mar. 3), “Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel” (Jan. 13), and “Hate the Villanelle” (Feb. 3) ten times each. By offering bonus tracks as well, They Might Be Giants has even been providing the b-sides to the singles.  So, one reason Glean arrives with this classic vibe is that I’ve been listening to most of its songs and b-sides for the past three and a half months.

I can help the next in line.

Do we have a problem here?

— They Might Be Giants, “I Can Help The Next in Line,” Glean (2015)

But, to puncture holes in the “familiarity” argument I’ve been advancing, I’ve been listening to these songs a lot because they’re really good songs.  The reason I know these songs well is because John Linnell and John Flansburgh are — astonishingly, thirty years later — still making great records. One of these is a catchy number about customer service, beginning with typical customer-is-always-right lingo (“I can help the next in line. / Have you been with us before?”), but quickly escalating into a confrontation (“I don’t think I like your tone”) and the threat of violence (“Put your hands where I can see them”).  They’re still following their respective muses, pursuing unusual ideas. Who else writes a song that is a villanelle about writing a villanelle?  First of all, a villanelle is hard to write. It’s a highly structured, complex poetic form that, as the Poetry Foundation’s website says, consists “of five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas.” Second, they’ve not just written a villanelle.  They’ve written a meta-villanelle, documenting some of the challenges of writing one of these. Third, they’ve set the entire thing to music. Brilliant!

It might seem like a thankless existence

But don’t lose hope just yet.

You’ll be remembered for your persistence

And this is the thanks you get.

— They Might Be Giants, “Answer,” Glean (2015)

The persistence of creative intelligent people amidst rising oceans of despair gives me hope.  That Flansburgh and Linnell, Toni Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Sleater-Kinney, Tim Egan, Kadir Nelson, Frank Turner, Jeanne Birdsall, Jaqueline Woodson, Lane Smith and so many others continue to make good art improves the quality of my life. I especially enjoy the optimistic ambivalence — or would that be ambivalent optimism? — of They Might Be Giants’ approach.  On the band’s first record, “Don’t Let’s Start” advised us, “Everybody dies frustrated and sad, / And that is beautiful.”  On this one, “Answer” offers a midtempo but cheery response to disappointment: “It may take an ocean of whiskey and time / To wash all of the letdown out of your mind / And I may not be the one you expected but I / Am the answer to all your prayers.”  That’s it exactly.  To quote one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs, “There is a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in.” There’s plenty of light in Glean, light through which the band filters absurdities, melancholia, poetic challenges, customer-service fiascos, and… is “Erase” about cognitive decline or the creative process? Or, perhaps, all of the above?

Glean is already one of my favorite records of 2015. Check it out. And whether or not you’ve subscribed to the Fan Club, you can hear new They Might Be Giants videos each Tuesday this year. Check those out, too. They’ll remind you why (to quote another Glean song) “It’s good to be alive.”  It is.

They Might Be Giants

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Regarding the Pain of Racism

When people ask me about the steps to empathize with someone who’s been incarcerated, as if — and in some ways, there is a grand liberal tradition of wanting to imagine that you can feel black pain, which is itself almost always an exercise in violence and privilege. Not just something that can’t be done. It is actually an exercise in violence. And so I actually think the challenge is to turn back upon yourself, and rather say: What would it feel like to feel that — to actually turn to yourself and say — what does it feel like to be in this moment, in this country that incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any nation in the world, and that has built an elaborate system of cages that actually does cage black people, and that’s how it came to be? What does it feel like to be on the side of that where I pay taxes for that, and the defense happens mostly in my name? And see if you can get yourself there, rather than imagining [that you can feel black pain]. And I think if you can feel that, yourself as someone who is inflicting massive pain, then that can become your barometer for where we are.  My barometer for where I am is not how I imagine black criminality.  My barometer for where we are is: How complicitous am I for this massive amount of systemized, enforced extraction of pain and death?

— Naomi Murakawa, from “Naomi Murakawa and Eddie Glaude in Conversation — The First Civil Right,” Princeton Community Television. Recorded at Labyrinth Books, 12 Mar. 2015.  (The above statement begins near minute 54.)

No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.

— Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2003), p. 7

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

— Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated on this day in 1968 and quoted in Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 203

Naomi Murakawa’s remark resonates deeply because I have been reading and thinking and writing about racism — a form of social violence that I have never had directed at me. I’m writing a book, currently titled Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Structures of Racism in Children’s Literature. To reiterate, I’ve never been on the receiving end of racism. Yet, as a white male, I have — every day of my life — benefitted from institutional racism and sexism.

But writing about privilege has a tendency to shift the focus too much to the oppressor. While addressing the oppressor’s role is important and necessary work, it can have the unfortunate, even immoral, consequence of shifting attention away from those in pain. Beneficiaries of racism and sexism do have a much greater moral responsibility to fight these structures of oppression, but narratives about white men (such as myself) voicing this awareness have a tendency to become self-congratulatory. And, frankly, you don’t get a cookie for doing the right thing.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessMurakawa’s comment nicely illuminates the ways in which affect can mobilize oppressors to challenge their complicity in that oppression. Since my taxes underwrite the nation’s prison industrial complex, I’m responsible for the pain and death inflicted. That’s a helpful — and, of course, profoundly soul-crushing —  way of shifting the emphasis away from the facile, ersatz empathy of merely imagining someone else’s pain, and towards acknowledging one’s role in perpetuating this systemic violence.

As Murakawa says, empathy is not only impossible but is itself a form of violence against the oppressed. And, as Susan Sontag says, “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.” Sympathy, however, is possible — so long as it’s cognizant of its limits. Certainly, sympathy is insufficient on its own, but it can motivate people to take the next step that Murakawa describes.

Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American LifeIf the second paragraph’s concluding sentence implies that I’m “doing the right thing” in undertaking this book on structural racism in children’s literature, I hereby redact that implication. Yes, I would like to be doing the right thing; I hope my work makes some sort of positive difference. But it’s presumptions, even arrogant, to suggest that. The profound limitations of my raced subject position enhances the likelihood that I will come up short. Obviously, I’m doing the research, reading works by Michelle Alexander, Karen Fields and Barbara Fields, Nell Irvin Painter, Randall Kennedy, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Michelle Martin, Kate Capshaw, Rudine Sims Bishop, Robin Bernstein, Claire Bradford, Zetta Elliott, and many others. (I have not yet read Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America, but it’s now on my list.)

Yet, somehow, in this project more than any other I’ve undertaken (including the biography of Johnson and Krauss), the research feels insufficient.

I think it comes down to this. I aspire to be an ally, but I would never call myself an ally. If and when a member of an oppressed group calls me an ally, I feel grateful and humbled. But a member of a dominant group cannot confer allyhood on himself or herself. Nor, of course, does the power to designate allyhood reside in one member of a group facing institutional oppression. However, that one individual has a better ability to evaluate allyhood than I do. Straight, white men do not get to call ourselves allies. But we can and should try to be allies.

In other words, it all comes down to the work itself. And, on that note, I should get back to work.

A tip of the hat to Brian Herrera for sharing the Murakawa video, via Facebook.

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Title of the Mix

Title of the Mix (a meta mix)This is the introductory text of this mix, which, before listing the songs (below), offers a few facts about them, such as the sad truth that the Free Design (track 3) had only one moderate hit, “Kites are Fun” (#33 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary charts, and #114 on the pop charts), or the happy fact that there are three Monty Python-affiliated songs here, one (8) from Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album (itself a “meta” title), another (20) from Monty Python Live! At City Center, and yet another (24) from the Original Broadway Cast of Spamalot. These sentences might also point out that since all “Python” tunes feature different performers, the three songs do not violate the mix-maker’s unwritten rule of never including two songs performed by the same artist. However, the rather dull nature of this observation renders it unlikely for inclusion here. Of perhaps greater interest might be the information that the Beatles’ (16) publishing company was “Northern Songs Ltd.,” and that George Harrison wrote this one. Or that, while not actually the shortest song in the universe (12), the track by that name appears on Sandra Boynton’s book-and-CD combo Rhinoceros Tap.

1) Title of the Song DA VINCI’S NOTEBOOK (2000) 4:27

2) Gotta Sing High KENNY WHITE (2010) 4:47

3) 2002 – A Hit Song THE FREE DESIGN (1969) 2:43

4) Hit Song DJ FORMAT featuring ABDOMINAL (2003) 4:45

5) Overnight Sensation RASPBERRIES (1974) 5:37

6) Top Forty MOSE ALLISON (1987) 4:23

7) A Happy Song  MICHAEL FLANDERS & DONALD SWANN (1959) 2:01

8) One of Those Songs THE KING’S SINGERS (1980) 2:20

9) The Hut-sut Song THE MERRY MACS (1941) 2:35

10) Happy Working Song AMY ADAMS (2007) 2:10

11) The Shortest Song in the Universe ADAM BRYANT & MICHAEL FORD (1996) 0:47

12) Bass Man JOHNNY CYMBAL (1963) 2:32

13) Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)? BARRY MANN (1961) 2:47

14) Number Three THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1986) 1:28

15) Only a Northern Song THE BEATLES (1969) 3:25

16) Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma MELANIE (1971) 4:03

17) The Folk Song Army TOM LEHRER (1965) 2:12

18) How to Write Ultimate Protest Songs CITIZEN FISH (1990) 2:54

19) Protest Song NEIL INNES (1975) 4:10

20) A Road Song FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE (2011) 3:04

21) Fountains of Wayne Hotline ROBBIE FULKS (2005) 5:29

22) Velvet Underground JONATHAN RICHMAN (1992) 3:29

23) The Song That Goes Like This CHRISTOPHER SIEBER, TODD ELLISON & SARA RAMIREZ (2005) 2:54

24) Atheists Don’t Have No Songs STEVE MARTIN & THE STEEP CANYON RANGERS (2011) 3:51

It’s highly unlikely that any omitted “meta” songs would be mentioned here, in this concluding paragraph, because that would deprive the listener of the fun of pointing out the mix’s inexplicable failure to include the Axis of Awesome’s “How to Write a Love Song,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Song for the Asking,” Howard Jones’ “New Song,” Elton John’s “Your Song,” the Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song,” or Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin’s “Sam’s Song,” to name but a few. It’s much more probable that these words would indicate that “Number Three” (15) appeared on They Might Be Giants, They Might Be Giants’ first album (also known as the pink album), or that “A Happy Song” (7) is one of three “Songs for Our Time” on At the Drop of a Hat.

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Nine More Kinds of Pi: Happy Pi Day 2015!

Since this blog takes its name from an artist who wrote about pie and painted π (see last year’s post), I try to offer a little tribute to this beloved irrational number each Pi Day. Today, at 9:26:53 am and pm (twice!), the date will spell out the first ten digits of the number. Well, it will if you write the date in the American style: 3/14/15, 9:26:53.

Last year, I managed to offer nine kinds of π / pie. And this year,… here’s another nine!

1. Andrew Huang’s “Pi Mnemonic Song” (2013)

I’ve featured π music on this blog before (see here and here), but only just discovered this piece, thanks to Paul DeGeorge, who shared it on Facebook. Yes, there’s a minor glitch late in the video. As Huang acknowledges on the song’s YouTube page, “there was an editing error at 1:18 with a couple of the numbers, but the song does all truly line up with Pi.”

2. “Joy of Bubbles,” π art from Cristian Vasile (2014)

Cristian Vasile, "Joy of Bubbles"

Vasile describes the piece as the “First few thousands digits of pi displayed over radial paths. Small size dots.” In an article from last year’s Pi Day, the Guardian shares art from Vasile and others.

3. π in superballs (2015)

Pi in superballs (Photo by Philip Nel)

Yes, these are my superballs, on my bathroom floor. Why do you ask? Also, technically, they’re not superballs (a brand name) — they’re just bouncy rubber balls. But they do spell π out to the 11th digit.

4. Sandra Boynton’s Pig & Pi (2015)

Sandra Boynton, Pi

Every day, Boynton posts something funny via Facebook and Twitter — here’s what she has for today. (I hope the pig finds some pie soon….)

5. Stephen Doyle’s global Pi (2015)

Stephen Doyle's global Pi

Doyle’s photographic portrait cleverly places the number within a circle, half of a globe — presumably to signal global Pi Day. This piece of art accompanied Manil Suri’s “Don’t Expect Math to Make Sense” in the New York Times, 14 Mar. 2015.

6. Technische Universität Berlin’s Pi mosaic

Technische Universität Berlin's Pi mosaic

Located outside the Maths Department at the Technical University of Berlin.

7. Tim Habersack’s π in color (click for larger image)

Tim Habersack's Pi in color

Click on the above to see the larger image (it takes Pi out to 786,432 digits). As Habersack explains, he “Wrote a php script which reads in the characters of pi one at a time. I assigned a single color to each character, 0 = white, 1 = teal, 2 = blue, etc. I create an image, and starting at position 0,0, I draw in my pi calculation one pixel at a time.”

8. Michael Albert’s Pi collage

Michael Albert's Pi collage

From PBS’s “6 Ways to Celebrate Pi Day.”

9. The Barbury Castle Crop Circle (allegedly)

Barbury Castle crop circle

Located in Wiltshire, England, this crop circle is alleged to be a graphic representation of the first ten digits of Pi. Full explanation here, though I’m a bit skeptical of it, myself.  Whether or not it spells out Pi, it is an impressive crop circle.

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Six Spots of Seuss News

Today would be Dr. Seuss’s 111th birthday! Actually, it is his 111th birthday, but Theodor Seuss Geisel is not around to celebrate it — he died in 1991, at the age of 87. In his honor, here are Six Spots of Seuss News …for all of you who yearn for Seuss. (For those who don’t, I have no use: go sing the blues in sockless shoes.)


Wisconsin Public Radio1) I’ll be talking to Central Time‘s Rob Ferrett on Wisconsin Public Radio, today (March 2nd) somewhere in the 5 o’clock hour. I was told that it’d begin at 5:40 pm Central. According to WPR’s website, I will be giving “the story behind the new book,” and helping “look back at the life of the legendary author.”  Not in Wisconsin?  Not to worry: you can listen live.

UPDATE, 3 March 2015: Here’s a direct link to the audio. 9 mins.


2) From Dr. Seuss’s “The Advertising Business at a Glance” series (1936), here is “The Copy Writer” (click for a larger image).

Dr. Seuss, "The Copy Writer" (1936)

Thanks to Samantha Owen for giving this to me, as an end-of-term/successful-completion-of-her-Master’s gift, last year!  For two more examples from “The Advertising Business at a Glance,” see p. 175 of Charles Cohen’s The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss (2004).  You can find other examples of Seuss’s advertising work elsewhere on this blog, too — such as here (several examples) and here (Ford TV ad). Or, better, just go straight to UCSD’s Advertising Artwork of Dr. Seuss site.


Dr. Seuss, What Pet Should I Get? (2015)3) What Pet Should I Get? As you have no doubt heard, a new Dr. Seuss book will be published this July. People have been asking me about it.  Here are a few answers to your questions.

Q: Have you seen it?

A: No. The manuscript is among the materials donated by Audrey Geisel (Seuss’s widow) to UCSD’s special collections in 2013 & 2014. I haven’t done research there in about ten years; I was last there in 2007, to give a lecture.

Incidentally, in its story on the news of this donation, the San Diego Union-Tribune published a page from what appears to be What Pet Should I Get?  It seems that the book’s working title was Pet Store.

A story board complete with typewritten notes taped from the Dr. Seuss book, "The Pet Store" (UCSD)

Q: Is it legit?

A: I have no reason to doubt its legitimacy. In addition to the existence of the above page (evidently from the book in question), Seuss wrote far, far more than he published. As he once said, “To get a sixty-page book, I may easily write a thousand pages before I’m satisfied!”

During the period that he wrote it (1958-1962, according to the press release), Seuss was so prolific that he started to publish books under other pseudonyms — that way, “Dr. Seuss” wouldn’t have more than one book coming out each season. The first such book was Ten Apples Up on Top! (1961), illustrated by Roy McKie and credited to Theo. LeSieg (which is “Geisel” backwards). All the LeSieg books were not illustrated by Seuss. Most were done by McKie, but several featured the art of others, including New Yorker cartoonists B. Tobey, George Booth, and Charles E. Martin.

Since there were already two of his books coming out in 1961 (The Sneetches and Other Stories, and Ten Apples Up on Top), Seuss may have decided against publishing another that year — or in whatever year he wrote it. He published two books in 1958, one in 1959, and two in 1960, one of which was One fish red fish blue fish.

Q: The press release says the book features the two children from One fish two fish red fish blue fish. What do you make of that?

A: One fish two fish red fish blue fish is a non-narrative book — Seuss’s first children’s book to lack a story. It’s more of a concept book, a series of episodes in which various fantastical creatures appear. The boy and the girl recur in a dozen or so of these episodes, most of which are only a couple of pages long.

My guess is that, while writing One fish two fish red fish blue fish, Seuss found himself with a full-length story featuring the book’s unnamed brother and sister. Since there was no room for an entire, book-length narrative in this collection of small episodes, he cut it.  Or, he may have written the full story first — What Pet Should I Get? — and then, one section of it inspired him to create (instead) an entire non-narrative book featuring the two children and the curious animals of One fish two fish red fish blue fish.  A third possibility is that What Pet Should I Get? is an earlier version of what became One fish two fish red fish blue fish.

For more, tune into Wisconsin Public Radio during the 5 o’clock hour (Central Time) today — probably at 5:40 pm.


Dr. Seuss, One fish two fish red fish blue fish (1960)4) The Fish in the Court.  Speaking of One fish two fish red fish blue fish, Justice Elena Kagan cited the book in a Supreme Court case last week.  The gist of the case (Yates v. United States) is that, when caught with undersized grouper, a Florida fisherman attempted to get rid of the evidence by throwing it (all of the fish) back into the sea. Officials charged the fisherman under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which prohibits destroying “any record, document, or tangible object” that might impede a federal investigation. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court actually sided with the fisherman, ruling that Sarbanes-Oxley only applied to documents and not to fish.  In her dissenting opinion, Kagan disputed the notion that a fish is not a “tangible object”:

As the plurality must acknowledge, the ordinary meaning of “tangible object” is “a discrete thing that possesses physical form.” Ante, at 7 (punctuation and citation omitted). A fish is, of course, a discrete thing that possesses physical form. See generally Dr. Seuss, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960). So the ordinary meaning of the term “tangible object” in §1519, as no one here disputes, covers fish (including too-small red grouper).

You can read the entire ruling on the Supreme Court’s website.  The above appears on page p. 29 of the pdf — p. 2 of Kagan’s dissent.

Thanks to Gary R. Dyer and Nathalie op de Beeck for the tip.


5) The Dr. Seuss Rap Quiz

Which of the following groups has no songs that reference Dr. Seuss? Also, if you try to Google this, you may get the occasional NSFW lyric. So,… don’t use Google. Use your brain.  Choose only the correct answer or answers.  First person to get the right answer will receive a Seuss-ish gift. Seriously.

A) A Tribe Called Quest

B) Beastie Boys

C) Blackalicious

D) Michael Franti & Spearhead

E) RUN-DMC

F) 3rd Bass

Tomorrow, I will post the answer at the very end of this post. I will also tell you which of these artists’ songs include references to Seuss or his works.


Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hat6) Was the Cat in the Hat Black? LIVE! March 10th! That’s “LIVE!” as in “LIVE in concert” because, on March 10th, I’ll be giving a fully illustrated version of this talk plus (for the first time!) some of the introduction to the book of which it will be a part.  When? Where?

It’s at 4:15 pm, Watson Forum, at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana.  More details via DePauw’s Dept. of English “Events” page.  Another reason for you to come: Michelle Martin will be giving a talk at 7:30 pm, in the Prindle Auditorium: “From the Kitchen to the Edges: Hair Representations in African American Children’s Picture Books.”  These are free and open to the public.

If you’d like to read “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?,” click on this sentence and/or email me for a copy.


Since it is Seuss’s birthday, you might enjoy perusing other posts tagged Seuss.  Here’s a selection:

Occasionally, I get asked to talk about Dr. Seuss:

  • “New Window into Dr. Seuss’s genius” (26 Feb. 2014). John Wilkens’ article in the San Diego Tribune discusses new Seuss material that his widow, Audrey, donated to the Dr. Seuss Papers at UCSD.
  • “Dr. Seuss: Mini-Biography.”  A&E Biography (2013).  Time: 4 minutes.
  • All Things Considered. Lynn Neary, “‘The Bippolo Seed’ : The ‘Lost’ Dr. Seuss Stories” (13 Apr. 2011): audio & transcript.  Charles Cohen & I talk about the new book of “lost” Seuss stories (edited by Charles).  Time: 3 mins, 30 secs.
  • Diane Rehm Show. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (22 Dec. 2010): audio | transcript. Reverend Derrick Harkins, Maria Salvadore, and I talk with Diane Rehm about the Grinch.  Time: 1 hour.
  • Morning Edition. Lynn Neary, “Fifty Years of The Cat in the Hat” (1 Mar. 2007): audio & transcript. Anita Silvey and I talk with Lynn Neary about the Cat in the Hat.  Time: 7 mins, 20 secs.
  • Talk of the Nation.  Steve Inskeep, “Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Dr. Seuss: A New Book Looks Back on the Life of Theodor Geisel” (10 Feb. 2004): audio.  I was a bit nervous at the beginning (I believe it was my first time on live national radio), but after the first few minutes I seem to settle into it well enough.  Time: 1 hour.

Though the website appears to have been designed to impede its utility, Random House’s Seussville‘s author section includes a bio. and timeline I wrote — the former heavily influenced by Judith and Neil Morgan’s excellent Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel.  (If you read only one book about Dr. Seuss, the Morgans’ bio is the one I’d recommend.)And… that’s all.  Happy Read Across America Day!*


*Each year on or near March 2nd (the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), the National Education Association sponsors Read Across America, designed to promote literacy. This year, it’ll be celebrated on Monday, March 3rd. Read more about it at the NEA’s website.

Read Across America: An NEA Project

ANSWER TO QUIZ (added 3 March 2015)

Alas, Cat’s valiant guess proves incorrect.  Apart from her, no one else took a stab at the question. I put the quiz in at no. 5 to see if anyone would actually read that far down. Either only Cat did, or my quiz measured not readership but the difficulty of answering the question.

The correct answer is C) Blackalicious.  You’d think that the group behind “Alphabet Aerobics” would have a song that references Dr. Seuss.  But, as far as I know, they don’t.  A Tribe Called Quest has an R-rated Seuss reference in “Clap Your Hands” (1993).  Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham makes an appearance in Beastie Boys’ “Egg Man” (1989) and gets alluded to in 3rd Bass’s “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “Green Eggs and Swine” (both 1991).  RUN-DMC name-checks Seuss in “Peter Piper” (1986), and Michael Franti & Spearhead’s “East to the West” (2006) mentions “the Lorax who speaks for the trees.”

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Sidewalk Flowers; or, the Poet and the Picture Book

JonArno Lawson & Sydney Smith, Sidewalk Flowers (2015)

This picture book is a wordless poem, written by a poet yet rendered by an artist. If that description sounds like one of the philosophical questions posed by JonArno Lawson’s poems (“can you remember / how you thought / before you / learned to talk?”), it should. Lawson conceived the book, and Sydney Smith drew it. Or perhaps I should say: Lawson had the vision, and Smith put it on the page.

Sidewalk Flowers’ protagonist, her red hoodie calling to mind Ezra Jack Keats’ Peter, is the book’s poet, open to the experience of the world, able to see her surroundings more fully than her preoccupied father. Her openness to her environs also recalls the protagonist of The Snowy Day (1962): both children walk through their respective neighborhoods, finding beauty in the everyday, moments of connection, and quiet insights that their busy elders tend to miss. She is the poet because of her capacity — if I may borrow Lawson’s description of his own poetic process — “to make unexpected discoveries” (Inside Out 29).

two-page spread from JonArno Lawson & Sidney Smith, Sidewalk Flowers (2015)

She discovers the flowers that most grown-ups would dismiss as weeds. She gathers them from between the gaps in the paving stones, the slim circle round the base of the signpost, anywhere that a persistent plant has found those “chinks in the dark” (to quote Roethke) and burst into bloom. Her ability (in the book’s first half) to perceive the radiance of these neglected flowers yields (in the second half) to an even greater capacity to share that beauty with others. Instead of hoarding her bouquet, she gives flowers to people (a man sleeping on a park bench) and animals (a small dead bird) until, upon arriving home, she has a just enough flowers to give some to her mother and two siblings.

It’s a poetic picture book, in its attentiveness to what us non-poets overlook, and to the deeper meaning of small gestures. Sidewalk Flowers is also a perfect example of why a poem is a perfect analogue for a great picture book. As Maurice Sendak once observed, the picture book is “a complicated poetic form that requires absolute concentration and control” (Caldecott & Co. 186). It does. As works like Sidewalk Flowers demonstrate, the picture book can also convey — to quote another poem of Lawson’s — the idea that “The truth may be simple / But its impact is complicated” (Think Again 21).


 Works Cited

Keats, Ezra Jack. The Snowy Day. New York: Viking, 1962.

Lawson, JonArno. “Tickle Tackle Botticelli.” Black Stars in a Night Sky. Toronto: Peldar Press, 2006. 116.

Lawson, JonArno. “What I Saw.” Think Again. Illus. by Julie Morstad. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 2010.

Lawson, JonArno, ed. Inside Out: Children’s Poets Discuss Their Work. London: Walker Books, 2008.

Lawson, JonArno and Sydney Smith. Sidewalk Flowers. Toronto and Berkeley: Groundwood Books, 2015.

Roethke, Theodore. “Root Cellar.” The Lost Son and Other Poems. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1948.

Sendak, Maurice. Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books & Pictures. 1988. Noonday Press, 1990.


More about Sidewalk Flowers and its creators

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The Sound of Silence; or, the Kansas Legislature’s Latest Blunder

Remain Vigilant (small version)In 2013, the Kansas Board of Regents revoked university employees’ right to freedom of speech, making a fireable offense any speech that might be conceived as disloyal, impair discipline, or fall under the broad category of being “contrary to the best interests of the employer.” Now, the Kansas legislature is proposing legislation that prohibits university employees from “using such employee’s official title when authoring or contributing to a newspaper opinion column.”  So, if you write an op-ed piece, you cannot identify your title or place of employment.  This law would only apply to university employees.

Here’s a question for the Kansas legislature: What makes you think those of us employed by Kansas universities would want to be identified as such? Given the state’s hostility towards freedom of inquiry and towards education at all levels, what advantage would a university employee gain in publicizing his or her academic affiliation?

After the Board of Regents’ violation of our rights, I have stopped including my university affiliation in all of my publications.  Here’s what my byline looks like on an article coming out in a couple of months:

Philip Nel's byline

If the Board of Regents restores our freedom of speech, and the legislature ceases trying to curtail those freedoms even further, I may consider acknowledging my affiliation in future.

But don’t bet the farm on it.

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