Mock Caldecott 2012: Manhattan, Kansas Edition

With thanks to the Children’s and Adolescent Literature Community (ChALC) for organizing the event and the Manhattan Public Library (especially Melendra Sanders) for hosting it, we held a Mock Caldecott at this afternoon. We weren’t able to get all of the books we wanted to look at, and we likely overlooked other Caldecott contenders.  But, based on what we did get to review, here are the top choices of our group (composed of undergraduates, graduate students, children’s lit faculty, and members of the community).

The Winner:

I.C. Springman, More (illus. Brian Lies, 2012)Brian Lies, More (text by I.C. Springman).

The people voting for this one felt that Lies‘ artwork makes this book work.  The brief text offers only indicators of quantity (“a few,” “lots,” “too much”); the illustrations of all the items the magpie gathers result in an increasingly full nest.  While there’s clearly some didactic intent (the magpie hoards too much), the pictures convey the accretion of stuff in a way that’s playful and fun.  The book strives to teach us to want less, but never does it feel like it’s preaching at us.

The Honor Books:

Jon Klassen, This Is Not My HatJon Klassen, This Is Not My Hat.

This book won praise for the dynamic relationship between the pictures and words.  The small fish thinks that the large fish (from whom he stole the hat) will never catch him,  but the illustrations contradict him.  If the premise (hat thievery!) recalls last year’s excellent I Want My Hat Back, Klassen‘s new chapeau-centric book holds its own and, in some senses, may be even better than his 2011 effort.  It’s no sequel to the other book, but a completely new work, complete with hat-based humor.

Julie Fogliano, And Then It's Spring (illus. by Erin Stead)Erin Stead, And Then It’s Spring (text by Julie Fogliano).

People enjoyed the very detailed illustrations, which offered the eye many places to look.  Each of the animals in the pictures (none of which were named in the text) had its own distinct personality, and were fun to follow from page to page.  As is true of the other two books, the text here is very brief; Stead‘s pictures carry the day, telling us of those days just before spring, when everything looks brown.  Great balance between artwork and words.

There were many others that didn’t quite make the cut.  For example, Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Green, Karina Wolf’s The Insomniacs (a particular favorite of mine), Maurie J. Manning’s Eisner-esque Laundry Day, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Extra Yarn all made the finals.  And we were sorry to discover that the artist behind Up Above and Down Below, Paloma Valdivia, lives and works in Chile.  (The Caldecott goes to American illustrators.)  Many of us loved that book, but… it was ineligible due to the nationality of its artist.

So. What are your favorite picture books from 2012? And which do you think will win the Caldecott Medal?

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Avant-Garde Children’s Books; or, What I Learned in Sweden Last Week

There are a lot of modernist children’s books, and a fair few directly influenced by the historical avant-garde — and, yes, I am sharing images, below.  I learned about these books (and a great deal more) last week at Children’s Literature and the European Avant-Garde, a conference at Linköpings University, in Norrköping, Sweden.  You would think that the author of a book with two chapters on the intersection between the avant-garde and children’s literature might be better acquainted with this body of work.  But I wasn’t.  As I listened to the international group of scholars speak, I often found myself thinking: Wow! Why didn’t I know this artist’s work?

  1. One answer was well, Phil, because you’re an American, and so unfamiliar with the Icelandic avant-garde or Hungarian modernism.
  2. But another, and equally important answer, was that this is the nature of specialized research: people uncover material that others do not, hidden in archives, long forgotten, … or from another field and never yet considered in this context.  This is one reason we go to conferences.
  3. Finally, there is very little written on children’s literature and the avant-garde.  It’s safe to say that this conference gathered together the largest group of people investigating this subject.

For your enjoyment, here is some of the art.  Following that, brief reflections on the conference itself.


Salvador Bartolozzi
Salvador Bartolozzi's Pinocho Boxeador (1929)
The conference program took its cover image from Pinocho Boxeador (1929), one of 48 booklets featuring Pinocho (based on Collodi’s character, Pinocchio).  As Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer told us, the artist was Salvador Bartolozzi (1882-1950), an anti-Fascist poster designer who fled Spain in 1939.  For more images, see 50 Watts‘ post on Bartolozzi’s Pinocho.

Lou Loeber
Gouden Vlinders by S. Franke, with art by Lou Loeber
Saskia de Bodt introduced us to Dutch modernist picture books, including Lou Loeber’s de Stijl experiment, Gouden Vlinders [Golden Butterflies] (1927).  Loeber’s style (stijl!) put me strongly in mind of the Tangrams I played with in the 1970s.
Gouden Vlinders by S. Franke, with art by Lou Loeber
Gouden Vlinders by S. Franke, with art by Lou Loeber

Wouter van Reek

Wouter Van Reek, Keepvogel en Kijkvogel: In Het Spoor Van Mondrian (2011)

Wouter van Reek’s Keepvogel en Kijkvogel: In Het Spoor Van Mondriaan (2011) — also introduced to us by Saskia de Bodt — has also been published in English as Coppernickel Goes Mondrian (2012).  This is one of many books I’ve added to my “to buy” list.

Wouter Van Reek, Coppernickel Goes Mondrian (2012)

Wouter van Reek's Keepvogel en Kijkvogel: In Het Spoor Van Mondrian (2011): interior 2-page spread


Bauhaus toys!

Michael Siebenbrodt, of the Bauhaus Museum Weimar, showed us (photos of) lots of Bauhaus toys and children’s furniture, such as Peter Keler’s Wiege (1922), a cradle — which, he told us, is weighted at the bottom so that it won’t roll all the way over.

Peter Keler, Wiege (1922)

Lyonel Feninger — modernist painter and creator of the Kin-der-Kids comic (1906) — created many toys, mostly (as I recall) for his kids or friends.

Lyonel Feininger: toys

Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack’s top (designed in the 1920s) is still in production.  It’s available from the Naef Store.  That’s a link to the US version of the store, in the previous sentence: for other locations, try Naef’s main website.

Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, top


Einar Nerman

Would someone please reissue Einar Nerman’s children’s books?  As Elina Druker told us, Nerman (1888-1983) was a Swedish caricaturist strongly influenced by Art Nouveau.  His picture books are largely unknown today, but they look fantastic.  There’s the beautiful Crow’s Dream (1911), in which animals take over and rule a city — a satirical commentary on our treatment of animals and of each other.  I can’t find images of that on-line, but the great illustration blog 50 Watts has images from Fairy Tales from the North (1946), a few of which I’ll include below.

Einar Nerman, Fairy Tales (1946)

Einar Nerman, Fairy Tales (1946)

Einar Nerman, Fairy Tales (1946)


Samuil Marshak and Vladimir Lebedev

Marshak and Lebedev, Yesterday and Today (1931)

Because I was moderating this session, I failed to take many notes on Sara Pankenier Weld‘s insights into poet Marshak and artist Lebedev.  I can tell you that the above title, in English, is Yesterday and Today.  Also worth noting: MoMA has just published an English-language edition of Marshak and Lebedev’s Baggage (1926).

Marshak and Lebedev, Baggage (1926, English translation 2012)

During this same session, Evgeny Steiner juxtaposed US and Soviet books that seemed to mirror each other.

Slide from Evgeny Steiner's presentation

As I said above, my moderating prevented me from getting many notes taken.  But, here (above) is one slide, at least!


Sandor Bortnyik

Sandor Bortnyik only created one children’s book, the title of which Samuel Albert translated as Spot and Dot’s Adventurous Journey (shown below, published 1929).

Sandor Bortnyik, Die Wunderfahrt

There are apparently several versions of this, one of which has nonsensically playful verse — if I remember correctly, this version has neither been published nor translated.  A Hungarian modernist, Bortnyik created posters, advertisements, and paintings.  He was a major artist, but I’d never heard of him until hearing Albert’s talk.


Kurt Schwitters

While we’re in the 1920s, I must here mention — as Hadassah Stichnothe and others did — the typographical delight that is Kurt Schwitters’ Die Scheuche (The Scarecrow, 1925).

Kurt Schwitters, Die Scheuche (1925)

Kurt Schwitters, Die Scheuche (1925)

A collection of Schwitters’ fairy tales, plus a full English version of the above appears in Schwitters’ Lucky Hans and Other Merz Fairy Tales (translated by Jack Zipes, 2009).


Otto and Marie Neurath’s ISOTYPE children’s books

Today, we’re familiar with silhouetted figures on signs, or graphs that use as a unit of measurement the image of the item measured.  Until hearing Hanna Melse’s paper, I didn’t know about the children’s books inspired by this pictorial language — which was named ISOTYPE (for International System Of TYpographic Picture Education).  Looking at the pictures, I thought that Chris Ware and Mark Newgarden would be especially interested — each image speaks with great economy and clarity, which is a stylistic trait they both admire.

Marie Neurath, Wonders of the Modern World (1948)

above: Marie Neurath, Wonders of the Modern World (1948)

Neurath, Tips for tots: An ISOTYPE Book on the Seasons (1944)

above: Otto and Marie Neurath, Tips for Tots (1944)

To learn more, see the ISOTYPE Revisited exhibit.


The Avant-Garde’s Legacy in French Children’s Literature

Nathalie Parain, ronds et carrés (1932)

above: Nathalie Parain, ronds et carrés (round and square, 1932)

Sandra Beckett‘s discussion of the avant-garde and its legacy in French children’s literature was my favorite presentation.  It gave me a greater understanding of French children’s literature’s willingness to take risks and push boundaries (in contrast to, say, American children’s literature).  Beyond the paper’s thesis, I was intrigued by the books — some which I will seek for my own library, and others for my niece Emily’s Library.

Edy-Legrand, Macao et Cosmage ou l'experience du bonheur (1919)

above and below: Edy-Legrand, Macao et Cosmage ou l’experience du bonheur (1919).  Sandra Beckett calls it “the most visually daring work of an artist who would go on to become one of the premier illustrators of the 20th Century.”  Edy-Legrand was only 18 at the time he created the book.

Edy-Legrand, Macao et Cosmage ou l'experience du bonheur (1919)

Evgeny Steiner would likely (and correctly) point out that Edy-Legrand’s images are more Art Nouveau than strictly surreal, but I presume that readers of this blog post won’t mind.

Lise Deharme, Le Coeur de Pic. Illustré de vingt photographies par Claude Cahun (1937)

Above: Lise Deharme, Le Coeur de Pic, illustrated with photographs by Claude Cahun (1937).  Andre Breton, Man Ray, and other surrealists admired this book.  In his foreword to Le Coeur de Pic, Paul Eulard wrote, “The book has the age that you want to have.”

Parain, Mon Chat (1930)

Above: Nathalie Parain, Mon chat (1930).  You can also read the book in its entirety here.

El Lissitzky, About Two Squares (1922)

Sandra suggested that El Lissitzky’s About Two Squares (1922, above) influenced Anne Bertier’s Mercredi (2010, below).

Anne Bertier, mercredi (2010)

This book (above) looks great & will definitely be joining Emily’s Library.

Moving into the 1960s and 1970s, publisher Harlan Quist’s pop art children’s books — also a focus of Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer’s talk — are all (or nearly all) out of print.  Many Quist books bring to mind Heinz Edelmann’s work (he was art director on Yellow Submarine), though not all do.

Albert Cullum, The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died But Teacher You Went Right On (1971)

above: Albert Cullum, The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died But Teacher You Went Right On (Quist, 1971).  The book has 30 illustrations, each one by a different artist.  Here’s the one by Nicole Claveloux:

Nicole Claveloux's illustration for Albert Cullum's The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died but Teacher You Went Right On

And one by Cathy Deter:

Cathy Deter's illustration for Albert Cullum's The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died but Teacher You Went Right On

One by Gerald Failly:

Gerald Failly's illustration for Albert Cullum's The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died but Teacher You Went Right On

You can find many more pictures from The Geranium on the Windowsill… at Codex 99‘s post on the book (my source for the above images).

Eugène Ionesco & Etienne Delessert, Contes 1 2 3 4

above: Eugène Ionesco and Etienne Delessert, Contes 1 2 3 4 (originally published 1969-1973), and recently republished in English as Stories 1 2 3 4 (McSweeney’s, 2012).

Eugène Ionesco and Etienne Delessert, Contes 1 2 3 4

above: another illustration from Eugène Ionesco and Etienne Delessert, Contes 1 2 3 4.

Jules Walker Danielson has an extensive post on and interview with Etienne Delessert, which I recommend to you for further reading.

Peignot & Constantin, Au pied de la lettre

above: Jérôme Peignot and Robert Constantin, Au pied de la lettre (2003). Photo of slide created by Sandra Beckett.


Pop Art Children’s Books

I do realize that some of the above cross over into “Pop Art,” but since these next few images are from Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer’s talk (“Just what is it that makes pop art picturebooks so different, so appealing?”), I thought I’d give us a new section title.

Peter Blake's version of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1972)

above: Peter Blake’s version of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1972).

Inspired by Heinz Edelmann, Peter Max created The Land of Yellow (1970), The Land of Red (1970), and The Land of Blue (1970).

Peter Max, The Land of Yellow (1970)

above: Peter Max, The Land of Yellow (1970).

Peter Max, The Land of Blue (1970) and The Land of Red (1970)

above: Peter Max, The Land of Blue and The Land of Red (both 1970).  Photo of Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer’s slide.

Etienne Delessert, How the Mouse Was Hit on the Head by a Stone and so Discovered the World (1971)

above: two-page spread from Etienne Delessert’s How the Mouse Was Hit on the Head by a Stone and so Discovered the World (1971).  Original image on 50 Watts.


A Very British Avant-Garde

In her “A Very British Avant-Garde,” Kim Reynolds presented the results of the kind of archival research required to figure out just where these avant-garde books for children are being produced.  To a one, I had never heard of any of the books she talked about.

Jean de Bosschere's The City Curious (1920)

Kim reports that The Little Review called Jean de Bosschère’s The City Curious (1920) “a sinister little story.”

Jean de Bosschere's The City Curious (1920): The City Curious

Jean de Bosschere's The City Curious (1920): The Eggs running along

above: images from  Jean de Bosschère’s The City Curious (1920).  You can see more images from the book here.

Enid Bagnol, Alice and Thomas and Jane (1930)

above: my rather blurry photo of Kim’s slide featuring Enid Bagnol’s Alice and Thomas and Jane (1930).

Edith Saunders, Fanny Penquite (1932)

above: Edith Saunders, Fanny Penquite (1932).  This more obscure title was published Oxford University Press and, as I recall, Kim was unable to find more information about the book’s author.

Lewitt-Him, The Football's Revolt (1939)

above: Lewitt-Him, The Football’s Revolt (1939) — a book about a football that decides it no longer wants to be kicked about!

Bertrand Russell, The Good Citizen's Alphabet, with drawings by Franciszka Themerson (1953)

above: Bertrand Russell, The Good Citizen’s Alphabet, with drawings by Franciszka Themerson (1953).


I’ve left out a lot here, including Sirke Happonen‘s fascinating discussion of the production of Tove Jansson’s innovative Hur gick det sen? (1952) — the title means What Happened Next?, but the English translation bears the title The Book About Moomin, Mimble, and Little My.  And Olga Holownia’s award-winning presentation on the Icelandic avant-garde (which doesn’t really get going until the 1950s…!).  But the preceding, at least, offers a glimpse at some of the children’s books we learned about.

What’s harder to capture is the camaraderie of the event.  There were no competing sessions.  So, people from 25 countries all spent the better part of three days together.  Wisely, the organizers scheduled coffee breaks every couple of hours, and arranged for us all to have lunch together at the Museum of Work— a short walk from the conference venue.  Alas, there was little time to explore Norrköping, but we had evenings free.  I very much enjoyed hanging out with Kim Reynolds, Sandra Beckett, Olga Holownia, Nina Christensen, Sara Pankenier Weld, Anna Czernow, Evgeny Steiner, Samuel Albert, and many others whose names I should be mentioning here (apologies for omissions!).

Children's Literature and the European Avant-Garde, Norrköping, Sweden. Sept. 2012. Photo by Allegra Roccato.

Thanks to Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer, Elina Druker, Maria Nikolajeva for organizing it.  Thanks to Allegra Roccato (who also took the above photograph) and the European Science Foundation for providing administrative and financial support.

And, coming up in my next post…: a few words on Tove Jansson’s Moomins, who are (inexplicably!) largely unknown in America.


Correction, 17 Oct. 2012, 5:25 pm.  Samuel Albert informs me that Bortnyik did not write the (unpublished) nonsensically playful verse for the book.  So, I’ve struck the words “by Bortnyik himself.”

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Jose Aruego (1932-2012)

Maurice Sendak, Ellen Levine, Jean Craighead George, Leo Dillon, and now Jose Aruego.  It’s been an all-too-mortal year for children’s books.  Mr. Aruego died on August 9, his 80th birthday.

I never met Mr. Aruego, but he did kindly grant Julia Mickenberg and me permission to use his illustrations for Charlotte Pomerantz’s The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo (1971) in Tales for Little Rebels (2008).  For all such permission requests, I included a self-addressed stamped envelope to facilitate the reply.  He returned the envelope, embellished with his own beautiful script rendition of my name.

Jose Aruego, envelope addressed to Philip Nel, 2005

It seemed as if, even though this was a mundane request, he was going to respond with his full attention.  Next to his signature, he added — in beautiful tiny script, on a post-it note — a request for a copy of the book, once published.

Jose Aruego, postscript to Philip Nel, 2005

His biography is a fascinating one.  As we note in Tales for Little Rebels, he grew up in Manilla where, at school, he sat next to and befriended Benigno Aquino — the Philippine leader assassinated (decades later) for opposing Ferdinand Marcos.  Though as a young man Aruego trained to practice law, he lost the sole case he tried, leaving the profession after a mere three months.

Aruego’s heart wasn’t in the law.  It was in art.  Inspired by his childhood love of comic books, he decided to study art in New York City, because he thought of it as the comic-book capital of the world.  In the late 1950s, he enrolled at the Parsons School of Design, studying with Leo Lionni — the artist about to gain fame in the children’s book world for Little Blue and Little Yellow (1959), Swimmy (1963), Frederick (1967), and many others.

Robert Kraus and Jose Aruego, Leo the Late Bloomer (1971)After graduating, Aruego worked for ad agencies, sold cartoons (New YorkerSaturday Evening PostLook), and eventually decided on pursuing free-lance illustration full-time.  He married and later divorced artist Ariane Dewey: they co-illustrated over forty-five books together, both before and after the dissolution of their marriage.  He also illustrated over a dozen by Robert Kraus, including Whose Mouse Are You? (1970) and Leo the Late Bloomer (1971).

A bit of a late bloomer himself, Aruego created many great children’s books during his over fifty years as an artist.  He’s a great example of a person who followed his own path, and, in so doing, found his true talent.  Rest in peace, Mr. Aruego.  Thanks for leaving us all the gift of your sensitive, detailed, warm, amusing art.

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Fall 2012 Graphic Novel Course: New! Improved! Flawed!

I sometimes feel that I should apologize to students who took earlier iterations of my courses. I know more now than I did then, and have crafted a much better syllabus than we used for that earlier class.  That said, I also know that in a few years’ time, I will consider my current (new! improved!) syllabi to be embarrassingly inadequate. But, then, the more we learn, the more we are conscious of how much we do not know.

My new “Graphic Novel” course — its third iteration — occasions these reflections. I’m particularly pleased with the paper assignments: Using Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning Philosophy and Practice (a required text for the first time), I’ve scrapped one large paper for two smaller ones, both of which require (a) creativity and (b) analysis of part a.  One of these creative assignments is to render an entire novel as a single-panel cartoon.  Yes, this is challenging, but Brunetti walks you through the process, and students can follow his example (click for larger image).

From Ivan Brunetti's Cartooning Philosophy and Practice (2007, 2011): The Catcher in the Rye as a single-panel comic

The idea in both this and the other creative assignment is to get the students to think like a comics artist.  It is not to create a comics artist.  I’m an English professor, and this is neither a creative-writing class nor a studio class & so I do not expect them to create art.  In evaluating students’ work, I’m grading their analysis rather than the creative work itself.  Why did they make these choices and not different ones?  Do they think their choices worked? What have they learned from the experience? These are the questions their analysis must address.

Ivan Brunetti, Cartooning Philosophy and Practice (2011)I want students to see just how difficult and complex the comics form is. With a novel, you have all that is available to a creative writer — diction, tone, metaphor, point of view, and so on. With comics, you have all that is available to a creative writer and to an artist. It’s not only the words that matter; it’s every millimeter of space on the entire page. Students need to think about layout, design, size, shape, space, perspective, and so on.  Graphic novels — I’m using the term “comics” and “graphic novel” interchangeably — are far more formally complex than ordinary novels.  I hope the creative assignments will help students appreciate the form’s complexity.

In order to deepen their sense of how comics work, I’m also assigning more critical reading. Scott McCloud’s definition (juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence) — itself a modified version of Will Eisner’s — has become the dominant way of thinking about comics. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993)And it’s a valuable paradigm. But Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik provide another model, Brunetti yet another, and Robert C. Harvey another still.  It’s valuable for students — and all of us — to ponder competing theories of how comics work.

An ideal course would give equal time to the single-panel comic (which McCloud excludes from his definition), the daily comic strip, the comic book, and the long-form graphic narrative (often called the “graphic novel”). Mine spends most of its time on the longer-form works, but does include more comic strips than it used to — and that’s an improvement. What I really want is a brief anthology of classic comic strips, running from Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland) to Richard Thompson (Cul de Sac). The large format of McCay would make his inclusion tricky, but let’s say we just include one McCay and as a fold-out.  Then you’d want other greats: George Herriman, Otto Soglow, Frank King, Ernie Bushmiller, Hal Foster, Milt Caniff, Crockett Johnson, Walt Kelly, Charles M. Schulz, G. B. Trudeau, Lynn Johnston, Lynda Barry, Bill Watterson, Aaron McGruder, Richard Thompson.  Oh, and I’m sure I’m missing someone.  Anyway, one could do a week’s worth of a narrative-driven strip but otherwise restrict the selection to a few Sunday strips per artist, say. This is the anthology I want to assign. Since it doesn’t exist, I furtively copy a very few strips for the course pack or handouts.

Ho Che Anderson, KingIt’s all about balancing competing interests. I want different graphic styles, different time periods (my course offers only a glance a medium’s history, alas), different identity categories (race, gender, sexuality, nationality, &c.). On this last point, I’m pleased to be including Ho Che Anderson’s excellent King: A Comics Biography, but sad to have lost Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese and even Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (!).  There are texts I feel bad about cutting (Persepolis, which does at least remain on my Lit for Adolescents syllabus), work that I keep meaning to include but don’t (Joe Sacco’s Palestine), and artists I lack the courage to assign in an undergraduate class (I’ve taught the brilliant, powerful, disturbing work of Phoebe Gloeckner in a grad class, but not undergrad).  But I like what’s there: Spiegelman’s Maus, Tan’s The Arrival, Barry’s One Hundred Demons, Tezuka’s Buddha (Vol. 1), Bechdel’s Fun Home, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen, Ware’s brand-new Building Stories (which isn’t out until October), and all the rest.  (If you didn’t follow the link to the syllabus in the second paragraph, then click on relevant words in this sentence.)

Every syllabus is an impossible puzzle that begets a series of necessary but regrettable compromises. That’s never more true than in Big Broad Course Topics: Children’s Literature, The Novel, the Graphic Novel. These topics are immeasurably huge, and a single semester cannot even approach doing them justice.

But… that’s OK. Each such course provides an introduction to the material, and gives students the skills to seek out more knowledge on their own. And this is the point of college: to prepare students for a lifelong journey of learning. Students should graduate from a university proud of what they’ve learned, but also humbled and inspired by all they’ve yet to learn. College is only the first step.

Taken in that context, I’d say that my syllabi for Fall 2012 — while they could be better, and will be, in future — represent a pretty good first step.  (Though, of course, critical comments are always welcome!)

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Let’s Talk About Taste

There’s a new Facebook meme: “How to determine who to unfriend on Facebook.”

How to determine who to unfriend on Facebook

Click on the link, and you get a list of “Friends who like Nickelback.”

Friends who like Nickelback

The joke depends upon pervasive dislike of the popular Canadian band. At best, I find the group’s music benign. I could imagine it being used to sell soda or life insurance. Yet Nickelback’s massive success suggests that its fans are hearing something that I’m missing. Perhaps they hear vocalist Chad Kroeger’s raspy shout as emotional intensity, the bland homilies (“every second counts because there’s no second try / so live like you’ll never live it twice”) as profound insights, and the bombastic production as appropriately anthemic.

Or perhaps it’s more complicated.  Certainly, it’s a question of taste.

Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007)In his book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007), Carl Wilson tackles this question using another Canadian megastar as his case study: Céline Dion.  Most of the books in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series examine a critically important album: the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Prince’s Sign the Times, Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, Elliott Smith’s X/O.  For his entry in the series, Wilson chose Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love because he wanted to answer the question of why “do each of us hate some songs, or the entire output of some musicians, that millions upon millions of other people adore?” (1). He picked her Let’s Talk About Love because it has that Titanic song on it.

And because it gives him an opportunity to create humorous chapter titles: “Let’s Talk About Hate,” “Let’s Talk About Schmaltz,” “Let’s Sing Really Loud,” and “Let’s Talk About Taste” are a few of them.  A music critic for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, Wilson has a sense of humor, but the book is a serious inquiry into taste.  It’s also become one of my favorite books. As anyone who has spoken to me in the last few weeks will tell you, I’ve been evangelizing it — rather as one does upon hearing a particularly wonderful piece of music.  I want to share this book with everyone.  If you have any interest in taste or in music, you really must read it.

The book both is and is not about Céline Dion.  Wilson takes her and her work seriously, but does so as part of his larger inquiry. In “Let’s Talk in French,” he considers her Quebec roots and the province’s particular musical culture — specifically, the conflict between the chanson (the poetic, sometimes political work of “homegrown Gainsbourgs and Dylans (it was mostly guys)” that began in the 60s) and the kétaine ( “tacky” or “hickish,” pre-60s “variety-pop”) (26-27).  In “Let’s Talk About Schmaltz,” he historicizes the term: Yiddish for “chicken fat,” schmaltz comes from vaudeville, and it’s not a bad thing. If a song or performance lacks schmaltz, then it’s too dry. However, if it has too much, then it’s, well, schmaltzy. But schmaltz can be about big emotions… which, of course, are what defines Céline’s music.

I especially enjoy that the book engages with questions of taste — and, yes, Hume, Kant, Bourdieu, & others make appearances here (Wilson has done his homework). In the twenty-first century, we don’t talk much about taste any more. As Wilson puts it, “We don’t commend someone’s good taste because we don’t want to be caught wearing morning coats and waxed mustaches and asking what the devil is up with the wogs. We don’t use bad taste except as a jocular antagonym in which bad means good” (149-150). He’s right. Making judgments on taste feels anachronistic or elitist. We’re much more likely to use “taste” in a fuzzy, laissez-faire way, dismissing (or accommodating) difference by saying “oh, it’s just different tastes” or “well, people have different tastes.”

As a scholar, I’m constantly called upon to appreciate works that may not be to my taste. So, I read in terms of genre, evaluating a work as, say, an excellent example of a horror novel, or a picture book, or a poem, or a graphic novel — or, really, many genres.  (It’s rare to find a work that fits only one genre.)  This mode of art appreciation feels natural to me because, for as long as I’ve been listening to music, I’ve been listening to different kinds of music. The music I remember from earliest childhood includes Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.  My parents must have had !!Going Places!! (1965), because I distinctly remember Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s version of “Walk, Don’t Run” — I knew that before I knew the Ventures’ original. By about 11 years old, I began to develop my own musical tastes: novelty records (“Weird Al” Yankovic and anything played on the Dr. Demento Show, really), the Beatles, AC/DC, ’50s rock ’n’ roll, and the J. Geils Band (this was 1981-1982). That soon expanded to encompass ’60s R&B, ’80s new wave, jazz, what is now called “classic rock” (but was then AOR), hip-hop (then known as rap), and, well, nearly any type of music.  Here’s a snapshot of my “Top 50 Most Played” in iTunes — or Top 35 because that’s all that fits on the screen (click for larger image).

screen shot of Phil Nel's "Top 50 Most Played" on iTunes, 21 June 2012

That’s quite representative, although it skews towards music I’ve had longer and omits the top two most-played artists in my iTunes: They Might Be Giants (292 songs, excluding covers, solo work, and podcasts), and the Beatles (194 songs, also excluding covers and solo work).

I’ve long prided myself on my eclectic tastes, but Carl Wilson has me pegged.  As he says,

American sociologists Richard Petersen and Roger Kern in the mid-1990s suggested that the upper-class taste model had changed from a “snob” to an “omnivore” ideal, in which the coolest thing for a well-off and well-educated person to do is to consume some high culture along with heaps of popular culture, international art and lowbrow entertainment: a contemporary opera one evening, the roller derby and an Afrobeat show the next.  They speculate that the shift corresponds to a new elite requirement to be able to “code switch” in varied cultural settings, due to multiculturalism and globalization. (96)

So, while I may think my wide-ranging tastes are democratic or open-minded, Wilson would claim that I’ve just adopted the contemporary “omnivore” ideal.  In fairness, Wilson indicts himself, too: “Indeed you could fairly say that my experiment is an attempt to expand my cultural capital among music critics, to gain symbolic status by being the most omnivorous of all” (100).

I can’t think of a better or more succinct education in taste and in popular music than Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love. It’s delightful, fun, and compact (only 164 pages).  If you’re interested in music, you’ll enjoy it.

Even if you listen to Nickelback.

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Syd Hoff at 100

Syd Hoff (1912-2004) would have been 100 this year.  As readers of this blog will know, I corresponded with Syd (here’s one letter & here’s another) while researching my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (coming this September)!

In commemoration of Hoff’s centennial, Sarah Lazarovic has created a wonderful cartoon, based on Dina Weinstein’s exhibit at the Miami Public Library (June 14-October 1, 2012).  Here’s the first page of her cartoon (click to enlarge).

Sarah Lazarovic, "Syd Hoff's Cartoon Life," p. 1

The entire comic is on-line at Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life.  See her website for more of her work.

Syd Hoff posts (on this site):

Syd Hoff links (elsewhere):

Hat tip to Julia Mickenberg for Lazarovic’s comic.

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Ignorance Is Not a Virtue

Boy wearing a dunce cap sitting in front of a blackboardThe critic who touts his ignorance as a virtue should not have a job as a critic.  Any “news” publication that employs such a person in this capacity is shirking its responsibility to provide well-informed discourse.

So, then.  Why would Time magazine or the New York Times employ Joel Stein?

In his “Adults Should Read Adult Books,” Mr. Stein writes,

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

Stein defends his position by admitting that he has not read the works he disparages:

I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like. Maybe there are complicated shades of good and evil in each character. Maybe there are Pynchonesque turns of phrase. Maybe it delves into issues of identity, self-justification and anomie that would make David Foster Wallace proud. I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read “The Hunger Games” when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.

And so readers of the Times are left to wonder: why publish the words of a man who has not done his homework?  Is merely showing up now all that’s required to get an “A”?  If I received a paper as poorly argued as this, I would give it a poor grade.  However, having read Mr. Stein’s piece, I wonder if, in future, I should instead suggest that the student submit the paper to the Times‘ “Room for Debate” section.

The New York Times‘ motto used to be “All The News That’s Fit to Print.”  Reading Mr Stein’s piece, one wonders if the paper has changed its motto to “Anything That Fits in Print.” Or perhaps it simply holds its “Room for Debate” writers to a lower standard.

It’s worth having a debate about the aesthetic merits of literary works of all genres and for all age groups. Let’s talk about Suzanne Collins, Thomas Pynchon, Dr. Seuss, J. K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Virginia Woolf, Charles M. Schulz, Maurice Sendak, Herman Melville, Margaret Wise Brown, Art Spiegelman, Toni Morrison, M.T. Anderson, George Herriman, Shaun Tan, and Langston Hughes.  We should embrace arguments about taste and literary merit.  These are important conversations to have.  We are unlikely to arrive at a consensus on a canon of “great works,” but we can come to a better understanding of the mercurial standards of taste, and our own relationship to those standards.

However, an intelligent conversation requires that we, first, read the works under discussion. Given that Joel Stein fails to meet even so basic a standard as this, his continued employment as a professional journalist is baffling. So, New York Times and Time: surely, you can do better than this?

_____________

To give credit where it’s due, this brief post takes its inspiration from a conversation today on Jane Yolen‘s Facebook page, where Kevin Andrew Murphy wrote: “But the sin of Stein and [Ginia] Bellafante is not that they wrote scathing reviews, but that they wrote scathing reviews preening in their own ignorance and claiming it as a virtue.”

Image from “Who’s wearing the dunce cap? This girl” at LovelyGirls.

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Harry Potter, Seriously

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997): coverChildren’s literature is literature. Intelligent adults already know this. However, as those of you who study or write or teach children’s literature are well aware, the world is full of alleged grown-ups who insist on spreading the myth that children’s literature is not literature, and (thus) cannot be studied as such.

A week or so back, journalist Alison Flood reported on a conference alleged to be “Billed as the world’s first conference to discuss Harry Potter strictly as a literary text.” Presumably, that’s a swipe at the fan-organized conferences, the first of which was (I believe) Nimbus 2003: The Harry Potter Symposium, held nearly 9 years ago. While fan conferences do discuss the books as literary texts, it’s also true that they cover other, less traditionally “academic” subjects.  (Full disclosure: I’ve been an invited speaker at two of the fan conferences, including Nimbus 2003.)  However, it seems a bit of a stretch to say that this was “the world’s first conference to discuss Harry Potter strictly as a literary text.” It was not.

Ms. Flood also seems unaware of the vast body of scholarship on Rowling’s series — which Cornelia Remi has for years diligently tracked on her exemplary bibliography.  While Potter scholarship does vary in quality, the ignorance of Professor John Mullan — who is quoted in the article — is truly exemplary. There’s a rare purity in his empty prejudices, shaped without knowledge or reflection. According to Flood’s article, Mullan said, “I’m not against Harry Potter, my children loved it, [but] Harry Potter is for children, not for grownups…. It’s all the fault of cultural studies: anything that is consumed with any appearance of appetite by people becomes an object of academic study.” Professor Mullan concludes that the academics attending the conference “should be reading Milton and Tristram Shandy: that’s what they’re paid to do.”  In one sense, it’s apt that a poorly informed article would be supported with a quotation from a poorly informed academic.  In another sense, one might pity Mullan and Flood for being ill-equipped to complete their tasks — in his case, intelligent commentary, and, in hers, responsible journalism. As Clementine Beauvais noted in her report on the conference, “It isn’t just careless, or uninformed, to dismiss the Harry Potter series as a serious object of analysis; it is intellectually dishonest.”

One suspects that Mullan and Flood would be surprised to learn that — in addition to the scores of books and articles about Rowling’s series — a portion of the manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone for American readers) is currently on display in the British Library, alongside works by Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Blake, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ted Hughes, and George Eliot.  Indeed, the exhibit — Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands — does not segregate children’s literature from “adult literature,” a decision which would likely distress Professor Mullan. In addition to Rowling, the British Library’s exhibit features Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Arthur Ransom’s Swallowdale, Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (the book which, in revised form, became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).  It also includes comics by Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore.  It’s a fascinating, well-curated exhibit.

Rowling’s manuscript pages (written in longhand) display an earlier version of Chapter 6’s first page (67, in the Bloomsbury edition).  In the published chapter, the second paragraph begins, “Harry kept to his room with his new owl for company.  He had decided to call her Hedwig, a name he had found in A History of Magic”  After another three sentences, the paragraph concludes:

Every night before he went to sleep, Harry ticked off another day on the piece of paper he had pinned to the wall, counting down to September the first.

On the last day of August, he thought he’d better speak to his aunt and uncle about getting to King’s Cross station next day, so he went down to the living-room, where they were watching a quiz show on television. He cleared his throat to let them know he was there, and Dudley screamed and ran from the room.

‘Er — Uncle Vernon?’

Uncle Vernon grunted to show he was listening.

In Rowling’s handwritten manuscript, the second paragraph begins, “Harry spent most of his time in his room with Widdicombe his owl.”  Then, there’s some crossed-out material that’s hard to read with added harder-to-read tiny new material above it, after which Rowling writes:

            He pinned a piece of paper on the wall, thinking of the days before he went to September the first marked on it, and he ticked them off every night.  On the thirty first of August he thought he’d better speak to his uncle about getting to King’s Cross next day. So he went down to the living room, where the Dursleys were watching a quiz show on television.

Harry cleared his throat to tell them he was there, and Dudley screamed and ran from the room.

“Er — Uncle Vernon?”

Uncle Vernon grunted to show he was listening.

The revisions to the above offer a glimpse into Rowling’s creative process.

Three items stand out.

  1. First, the original name for Harry’s owl was not Hedwig, but Widdicombe.  Hedwig was a medieval saint. Widecombe-in-the-Moor is a town in Devon, England.  Ann Widdecombe is a British Conservative Party politician; however, given the distance between Rowling’s views and hers, as well as the close relationship between Harry and his owl, the socially conservative former member of Parliament is likely not the inspiration for the character of Harry’s owl. The town is the most likely source because Rowling collects words she likes, including those from street signs — Snape’s surname came from an English town. The new name for Harry’s owl offers stronger thematic resonances with the character, a noble owl who endures much suffering on Harry’s behalf. The change to the original name also reminds us how carefully Rowling considers her characters’ names. As is the case with Dickens’ names, Rowling’s names often telegraph a key trait of the character.
  2. Second, based on this selection, Rowling struggles more with descriptive passages than she does with characterization. The books’ sentences — which combine vivid detail with fast-paced narrative — derive from Rowling’s diligent editing. “He pinned a piece of paper on the wall, thinking of the days before September the first marked on it, and he ticked them off every night” becomes “Every night before he went to sleep, Harry ticked off another day on the piece of paper he had pinned to the wall, counting down to September the first.” Though only two words shorter than the earlier version, the published sentence is more sharply constructed. Its opening clause establishes place and time of day, allowing us to visualize where Harry is: “Every night before he went to bed” tells us that he’s in his bedroom, formerly “Dudley’s second bedroom” (32).  It also establishes this ticking-off-days as a repeated behavior, occurring “Every night.”  Where the original version begins by directing our attention to the paper on the wall, the new version first sets the scene before bringing in the subject of the sentence (our title character) and his nightly activity:  “Harry ticked off another day.”  It does not need to tell us that he is “thinking of the days before” school begins because the nightly counting-down clearly conveys that the subject is on his mind.  The new sentence also ends with “September the first,” placing emphasis on the day Harry awaits, and providing an effective transition to the next sentence, which begins with “the last day of August.”
  3. Third, I say that characterization comes more easily to Rowling (based on this admittedly limited sample) because she makes very few changes to the descriptions of the Dursleys. In both, they are “watching a quiz show on television,” which (for Rowling) signals their shallowness.  Always rude to his nephew, “Uncle Vernon grunted to show he was listening” (in both).  Still spooked by his recent encounter with magic, “Dudley screamed and ran from the room” (in both). How apt that Rowling should have greater facility with character. Though she has a fully imagined secondary world, key to readers’ enjoyment are characters to whom they can relate. Rowling’s debt to the mystery genre helps make her books page-turners, but she has such avid fans because she’s able to make people care about Harry, Hermione, Ron, Sirius, Ginny, Dumbledore, Neville, and others.

I concede that my off-the-cuff analysis of a few textual differences could be more robust. But my larger point here is that of course Harry Potter can be — and often is — the subject of academic analysis. Indeed, for roughly a dozen years, it has attracted a great deal of attention from literary critics. If we are interested in the craft of the most popular and influential writer of her generation, then it’s worth taking J. K. Rowling’s work seriously. If we care about the adults today’s children will become, then we need to take children’s literature seriously. Stories provide children with their earliest ideas about how the world works, and about what literature is and why it matters. Professor Mullan should care about books for the young because the children who enjoy reading are the ones most likely to grow into adults willing to read Laurence Sterne and John Milton. But we all should care about children’s books not merely because they help create literate grown-ups. We should care about them, study them, hold conferences on them, and write them because they are Art.

Links of interest:

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Tributes to Maurice Sendak: Visual Artists Respond

Fitting that the passing of an artist should inspire so much art.  Here are a few tributes to Maurice Sendak that I’ve enjoyed. (I’ve assembled links to prose tributes at the bottom of my reminiscence of Maurice; The Comics Journal has its own page of mostly prose tributes, too.)


Pat Bagley

Pat Bagley, tribute to Maurice Sendak

This is easily my favorite, and the one that I think Sendak himself would most have enjoyed. Pat Bagley dos a great job in representing Sendak’s un-sentimental approach to death. Sendak often spoke of his own mortality, and accepted the inevitable with a dark sense of humor.


Hanna Freiderichs (a.k.a. AgarthanGuide)

Avengers on Parade (RIP Maurice Sendak) by AgarthanGuide
Under her Deviant Art pseudonym ArgathanGuide, Hanna Friederichs has created Avengers in a Sendakian parade.  You can find it on her Deviant Art page and Tumblr.  The image calls to mind Sendak’s many parades — in Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig (1952), and his own Where the Wild Things Are (1963). The above image derives from a less well-known source: his 1961 mural for Larry and Nina Chertoff that now resides in the Rosenbach Museum.

Maurice Sendak, Chertoff Mural (1961)
The photo of Sendak’s mural, above, comes from The History Blog‘s great story about it, which I recommend.

Update, 13 May, 9:30 am: Thanks to Roger Sutton’s post, added Hanna Friederichs’ full name.


Harry Bliss

Harry Bliss, Sendak

Harry Bliss‘s graveside portrait of Babar, Madeline, Curious George, and the Man with the Yellow Hat evokes how everyone in the children’s literature community has felt — artists, scholars, writers, librarians, teachers, editors, agents, all of us.  Losing Maurice Sendak has felt like a death in the family.  As Kenneth Kidd put it, “Could be the select company I keep, but my Facebook newsfeed is a virtual wake.”


Debbie Milbrath

Deb Milbrath, RIP Mr. Sendak

Most artists invoke Where the Wild Things Are (presumably because it’s Sendak’s most recognizable work), but Debbie Milbrath references a more thematically appropriate work: Outside Over There (1981), in which Sendak filters the kidnapping (and accidental murder of) the Lindbergh baby through Mozart’s Magic Flute,  and ends up with a work that offers glimmers of hope through its darkness.


Andy Marlette

Andy Marlette, Where the Wild Things Are

Andy Marlette imagines wild things paying tribute to Maurice Sendak.  There were many such cartoons — I’ve only included a few here.


Jeff Koterba

Jeff Koterba color cartoon for 5/9/2012 "Sendak"

Jeff Koterba makes Sendak into Max, apt since — as Sendak has admitted — Max is a version of Maurice himself.  I suspect Sendak intended an allusion to Wilhelm Busch’s Max und Moritz (1865).


Nate Beeler

Nate Beeler, [RIP Maurice Sendak]

Nate Beeler imagines roaring terrible roars and gnashing terrible teeth — a first response to Maurice Sendak’s passing.  The first stage of grief.


Bob Englehart

Bob Englehart, [Max and wild thing]

 In Bob Englehart‘s image, a wild thing comforts Max.

Sarah McIntyre

Sarah McIntyre, [Max and wild thing]

I like that Sarah McIntyre has drawn the wild thing seeking comfort from Max. The kid is handling it better than the monstrous, giant, wild thing. Sendak always said that children understood much more than adults give them credit for.


Chris Eliopoulos

Chris Eliopoulos, [Max alone]

Understated, lovely.  The creator of Misery Loves Sherman, Chris Eliopoulos has many different websites to visit.


Mark Streeter

Mark Streeter, And the Wild Things Cried

Mark Streeter‘s comic says what Chris Eliopoulos’s implies — but Eliopoulos assumes a knowing reader, and Streeter does not. Strange though it may seem to those of us in children’s literature, there are people who do not know Maurice Sendak’s work.


Stuart Carlson

Stuart Carlson, RIP

Stuart Carlson‘s tribute seems an apt one to end on. First, mourn. Next, hang your teddy bear, threaten the dog, shout at your mother, and board a boat (… to where the wild things are).

More on Sendak from Nine Kinds of Pie (this blog):

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: Chris Ware’s cover

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)

Graphic genius Chris Ware designed the cover for my Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (due this September from the University Press of Mississippi). The front cover is above.  The full, wrap-around cover is below.  Click on it for a larger image.  Trust me: you’ll really want to see all of the detail.  It’s beautiful.  It’s perfect.  I’ve never been happier about one of my book covers.  And for those keeping count, there are six previous books (two co-edited), all of which have striking covers.  The other designers were no slouches.

But Chris Ware is a genius. And no, I am not overusing that word.  But, yes, perhaps we should add a few more words to describe the cover itself. Clever. Detailed. Vivid. Art.

Full, wrap-around cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)

He’s done the cover in the style of Crockett Johnson.  In the case of the girl dancing above Krauss’s typewriter, it’s Mary Blair filtered through a Crockett Johnson aesthetic; for the boy sliding own her back, it’s Maurice Sendak filtered through Johnson. (The girl is from Krauss‘s I Can Fly, illustrated by Blair; the boy is from her A Hole is to Dig, illustrated by Sendak.)  Finally, Ware transforms all of these styles into something uniquely his own.

Fans of Johnson and Krauss: Are you getting all of the references here?  Would you like some help?  I could fully annotate this cover, but I wonder if that would detract from the pleasure of exploring it yourself.  The academic in me wants to proceed with the annotations, but the art lover wants to stay silent, so that your eyes can linger on Ware’s art, looking slowly, experiencing it on its own terms.  And… the art lover wins.  (No annotations.)  Enjoy!

And: Thank you, Chris Ware!

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