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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Imagination & Survival: 2 Picture Books from Australia

Shaun Tan’s Rules of Summer (2013) is only one of the great Australian children’s books of the past couple of years. Here are two more. Neither appears to have found a publishing home in the U.S., U.K., or Canada. So, attention publishers of North America and Great Britain! Bring out these two books in your countries:

  • Elise Hurst’s Imagine a City (Scholastic Australia, 2014)
  • Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood’s The Treasure Box (Penguin Group Australia, 2013)
Elise Hurst, Imagine a City (2014) Margaret Wild & Freya Blackwood, The Treasure Box (2013)

Elise Hurst’s Imagine a City invites readers to a “world without edges,” where anthropomorphic animals and people coexist, the subjects of paintings reach beyond their frames, buses are giant flying fish, and bears ride bicycles. The art makes the book feel that is both very contemporary and classic. Her pen-and-ink drawings feel like they’ve time-traveled from another era — Edward Ardizzone, E. H. Shepard, or maybe Winsor McCay. The visual motifs (especially the flying fish) recall Shaun Tan and David Wiesner. It’s as if she’s brought her sketchbook into a parallel, surreal world, and this book collects sketches of what she saw during her travels.

Elise Hurst, Imagine a City (2014)

Elise Hurst, Imagine a City (2014)

Hurst’s book suggests that books allow us to imagine worlds, and Margaret Wild & Freya Blackwood’s The Treasure Box also finds hope in books. In watercolors, ink, and collage, Blackwood illuminates Wild’s tale of a boy, displaced by war and sustained by the memory of a red book. The story begins, “When the enemy bombed the library, everything burned.” Next page: “Charred paper, frail as butterflies, fluttered in the wind. People caught the words and cupped them in their hands.” The only surviving book is one that Peter’s father had checked out of the library — his favorite book because it’s “about our people, about us.” He puts it in a box, and they take it with them as they flee the advancing armies. To say more risks spoiling the experience of those who’ve not read it. So, instead, I’ll simply note that it’s an eloquent defense of why, in the dangerous times in which we live, people need books.

Margaret Wild & Freya Blackwood, The Treasure Box (2013)

Margaret Wild & Freya Blackwood, The Treasure Box (2013)

Margaret Wild & Freya Blackwood, The Treasure Box (2013)

Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King's The Duck and the Darklings (2014)There are many other beautiful books I saw in Geelong and Melbourne,* including one that Erica Hateley showed me: Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King’s The Duck and the Darklings (2014). Unfortunately, I neglected to pick up a copy of this book. But I did at least want to give it a mention here — both to remind myself to get it, and to call it to your attention.

UPDATE, 11 July, 10:20 am: Since several non-Australians have asked, you can buy Australian books via Fishpond.com.  I bought a copy of Shaun Tan’s The Rules of Summer from Fishpond in November 2013, months before its US release.

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* I was there last week for two conferences: ACLAR and Literature and Affect.

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The Genius of Cul de Sac

Richard Thompson, The Complete Cul de Sac

Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac is one of two comic-strip masterpieces of this century.1 Fortunately for the busy comics-reader, you can now read the entire work in The Complete Cul de Sac (2 volumes, just out from Andrews McMeel). Unfortunately for the medium (of comics! of Art!), the complete run of the Thompson’s daily strip is a mere five years (2007-2012).2 Parkinson’s Disease forced him to end the strip a couple of years ago.

Cul de Sac, 14 Mar. 2010

But what a marvelous five years! Thompson’s ability to convey the emotional lives of children is a delight to see. Facing a bewildering and unpredictable world, Thompson’s child characters display a mixture of fierce independence (embodied in his preschooler protagonist, Alice) and insecurity (embodied in her neurotic older brother, Petey). They seek guidance from the fanciful logic of older siblings’ stories, half-remembered truths passed down from their elders, and their own inventive interpretations of reality. As fellow Cul de Sac fan Jeanne Birdsall (author of the delightful and keenly observed tales of the Penderwicks family) puts it, Thompson portrays “children living parallel lives from ours, seeing and hearing all the same things, but experiencing them in a completely different way.”3 Exactly.

Cul de Sac, 6 Jan. 2008

I especially love the way that the characters — especially the young children — talk past each other. Each is her or his own planet, and sometimes orbital paths bring them closer to each other, but other times they zoom in opposite directions.

Richard Thompson, Cul de Sac

And then there’s Thompson’s Art — yes, Art with a capital “A.”  As Bill Watterson wrote in the introduction to the first Cul de Sac collection, “With a mix of rambling looseness, blotchy crudeness, and sheer cartoony grace, Thompson’s expressive pen line is the equal of any of cartooning’s Old Masters.” And, as Art Spiegelman writes in his intro to the Complete Cul de Sac,

It’s that ferbile quill pen line — Thompson’s “cartoony grace” — that totally wins me over. It’s hard to master a quill pen! They tend to dribble ink and spatter if you push ’em too hard. They spit up blobs of wet ink or dry up in the middle of a line. Thompson’s mastery seems to be achieved by letting the instrument have its way. They line starts like it’s gonna behave — Mmp — then fattens up where you might not expect it to — MMNG — and then backs up on itself in a breathless skritch of scribbled hatch marks — HEENK!

Cul de Sac, 1 Feb. 2008

Above: the strip to which Spiegleman is referring.

More than that, it’s Thompson’s ability to make inkiness into art. As Spiegelman puts it, “How can a style be distinctively sophisticated while also humbly down-to-earth?”

Comics fans will also love the comics jokes! Petey’s favorite strip is Little Neuro, a parody of Winsor McCay’s classic Little Nemo. His Comics Camp teacher is Dan Spinnerack, because — as Thompson points out in his notes — “Comic books are commonly displayed on a spinner rack.”  And I swear that Alice’s friend Dill is the great grand-nephew of Happy Hooligan, the protagonist of Frederick Opper’s early-twentieth-century comic strip.

Cul de Sac, 8 Sept. 2008

My enthusiasm for Cul de Sac is such that I feel a bit like Dorothy Parker trying to write a review of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby: “I cannot write a review …. I have tried and tried, but it never comes out a book review. It is always a valentine.”  So, not that you need more to read, but if you’ve any interest in the narrative art of the comic strip, do yourself a favor and check out Thompson’s Cul de Sac. And then give copies to your friends.

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  1. Since you asked, I’ll tell you: the other is Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts. And, yes, you may argue with me in the comments, below.
  2. It ran for five years as a daily, but there are some Sunday strips that go back for a few years — to February 2004.
  3. Jeanne Birdsall, email to author, 28 May 2014.

More Cul de Sac on this blog:

  • Cul de Sac = Classic (28 July 2010). One of the very first posts on Nine Kinds of Pie was on Cul de Sac!  Here’s an excerpt I should’ve incorporated into this post: “Cul de Sac is funny, but is character-driven rather than gag-driven.  The humor develops from Petey, the anxiety-ridden comic-book obsessed older brother; Alice, the force of nature that is his younger sister; Ernesto, who may or may not be imaginary (Petey isn’t sure); Dil, who has thus far survived his older brothers’ many experiments; and many others.”
  • My report for Comic-Con, July 20, 2013.  Scroll down to “Team Cul de Sac” to read Lincoln Pierce (Big Nate), Mark Tatulli (Lio), Jenni Holm (Babymouse) and others sing Thompson’s praises.

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What Happens Next? A Review of S. S. Taylor’s The Expeditioners

S. S. Taylor, The Expeditioners, illustrated by Katherine Roy (2012)When will the next book in the series be published?

This was my first thought upon finishing S. S. Taylor’s The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon (McSweeney’s McMullens, 2012). It’s a mystery-adventure-fantasy set in a dystopian parallel universe, where four children seek the answers to a mysterious map, as they evade agents of a corrupt American government, and uncover more mysteries along the way.

I don’t want to give too much away here, but — as in any good mystery — the book has a strong narrative drive, keeping you wondering what will happen next.  In the first chapter, Kit (the narrator) gets chased through a marketplace, and then caught by a man with a clockwork hand. The man gives him a package that seems to have come from Kit’s late father.  And that’s all of the plot I’m going to tell you.

The main characters — two boys, two girls — are fully realized, and I was particularly pleased to note that both of the female protagonists are strong and smart.  The secondary characters are also credible, including Leo and Lazlo Nackley, a powerful father and sneering son who reminded me a little of Lucius and Draco Malfoy. There’s Mr. Mountmorris, a Machiavellian and frog-like historian, who… ah, I again feel I should resist the impulse to describe him further.

On Facebook, my friend Marah Gubar compared The Expeditioners to Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society (2007), suggesting that those who enjoyed that novel will also like this one.  She’s right. I would also add that The Expeditioners is faster-paced, and pulls you in more swiftly than Stewart’s book. Taylor — who I have known for about a dozen years — honed her narrative craft as a mystery writer (for adults), and this well-plotted tale clearly benefits from that experience.

When my two-year-old niece is about seven, I will definitely be adding this book to Emily’s Library. I think she’ll enjoy it. If you love mystery and adventure, you’ll enjoy The Expeditioners, too.

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Strike!

As American fast food workers strike for a living wage, it’s worth remembering that this struggle has a long history. It’s also worth teaching some of this history to children, so that they can learn about collective action, and fighting back against the powerful.  Julia Mickenberg and I collect some of these stories in the “Work” and “Organize” sections of our anthology, Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature (2007), but there are many more such stories out there.  Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet‘s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (2013) is one of those.

Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet, Brave GirlA picture book published earlier this year, Brave Girl tells of newly arrived immigrant Clara Lemlich, who — as Markel’s text tells us — “knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong.”  When “no one will hire Clara’s father,” she gets a job as a garment worker to support her family, and quickly discovers what is wrong: companies hire immigrant girls to make clothing, paying them just a few dollars a month. Markel effectively dramatizes the cruel working conditions: “locked up in a factory,” she and the other young women are “stitching collars, sleeves, and cuffs as fast as they can. ‘Hurry up, hurry up,’ the bosses yell. The sunless room is stuffy from all the bodies crammed inside. There are two filthy toilets, on sink and three towels for three hundred girls to share.”  They’re also fined a half day’s pay for being a few minutes late, fined if they prick a finger and bleed on the cloth, and fired if that happens twice.  With just a few vivid details, Markel’s words and Sweet’s images gives us a sense of the oppressive, stifling working conditions.

“But Clara is uncrushable,” Markel tells us.  That’s one of the key messages of the book.  Clara is a fighter.  Hungry and exhausted, she goes to the library to learn, getting by on a few hours of sleep a night. When the men don’t think that the women are tough enough to join a union and strike, Clara (the book always calls her by her first name, perhaps to create greater intimacy between character and reader) leads them out on strike.  Police arrest her, hired thugs beat her: “They break six of her ribs, but they can’t break her spirit. It’s shatterproof.”

Another key message is that collective action creates change. At the book’s climax, Clara calls for a general strike, and in the winter of 1909 leads 20,000 garment workers out on a general strike.

Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet, Brave Girl

The third important lesson young readers will take away here is that progress is hard-won and imperfect. The garment workers win the right to unionize, gaining better pay and a shorter workweek. However, getting there required them to walk the picket lines in the dead of winter, where they faced police brutality, backed by a legal system indifferent to their cause. In the end, though 339 dress manufacturers agreed to unions, the Triangle Waist Factory — where Clara herself worked — did not. Indeed, two years after this strike, the Triangle Waist Factory’s business practices (such as locking the workers in) killed 146 when a fire broke out in the building.

Amplified by Melissa Sweet’s watercolors and fabric-themed collages, Markel offers a history that should inspire a new generation of activists.  So, as you celebrate Labor Day today, remember the unions that made it possible.

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Abe Lincoln’s Dream

Lane Smith, Abe Lincoln's Dream (2012): coverLane Smith’s Abe Lincoln’s Dream invites us, with America’s 16th president, to travel through dreams and corny jokes, and to consider the state of the nation. In a tone that falls between the humor of his John, Paul, George and Ben (2006) and the reflective mood of the Caldecott-Honor Grandpa Green (2011), Smith’s latest picture book imagines an encounter between President Lincoln’s restless ghost and Quincy, a girl who has strayed from her White House tour group. It’s a visually absorbing, gentle story in which good (and bad) humor stave off melancholy, and which encourages readers to reflect on American history.

“Encourages” may be too strong a word. It’s more that the book’s subtlety grants us the space to reflect. Quincy shares her first name with the middle name of America’s 6th president, John Quincy Adams, who, in his post-presidential career fought against slavery. She resembles an older version of the African-American girl from Smith’s The Big Pets (1991). But the book never mentions her race, Adams, nor his politics. Nor that a two-page spread of Lincoln strolling through roses may allude to both the Rose Garden and the variety of flower known as the Lincoln Rose. However, the accretion of these details and others grant the book a visual richness that invites re-reading.

Heck, the book is even typographically engaging. Abe Lincoln’s Dream’s layout recalls broadsides, with lines of text in alternating sizes, some in all capitals. Miraculously, designer Molly Leach has created this broadside look without sacrificing readability. There’s also something in these rectangles of text that echoes two other recurring rectangles: Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, and his long legs.

In Smith’s rendering, Lincoln’s limbs are absurdly long and sharply angular — features that are both comic and accurate. (Lincoln was 6′ 4″.)  These images also reflect a child’s perspective on an adult: as a giant pair of legs that towers over her. Smith introduces this motif in the book’s opening pages, when three different presidential dogs get spooked by Lincoln’s ghost. FDR’s Fala ends up below a framed pair of legs (in the lower part of a portrait), LBJ’s Yuki approaches a pair of legs (LBJ’s) that extend up and off the page, and Reagan’s Rex cowers near table legs.

"Do you know how long a man's legs should be?" from Lane Smith's Abe Lincoln's Dream (2012)

Yes, there are also several silly jokes, some of which involve legs. Lincoln evidently had a fondness for this sort of humor.  (Who knew?  I didn’t.)  Presumably, these jokes helped him cope with the heavy burdens of office. As he tells Quincy, “I apologize if I appear restless, but there was so much to do beyond 1865. Our union was so fragile, so uncertain. Like that ship on the rocky sea.”

In response, Quincy tells him that “A lot has changed since 1865.” Then, Lincoln’s ghost takes her hand and they fly up above the White House.  As Smith’s narrator explains, “The ghost did the flying. The girl answered the questions.” While they soar above the Capitol, past a mural of the Statue of Liberty (and other places), she tells him that things have improved since then. Her words share the page with images that do and do not support her optimism, though the book itself ultimately gestures towards a better future.

"And equality for all?" from Lane Smith's Abe Lincoln's Dream (2012)

When you’re living in a country reluctant to face climate change, its wars, economic inequality, or its crumbing infrastructure, it’s a daily challenge to find hope. Though Abe Lincoln’s Dream doesn’t explicitly address these issues (and there’s no reason it should), its conclusion supplies the hope that all political change requires, and that children seem to possess in greater quantities than adults. The night after her visit, Quincy dreams of “a tall man in black, on a boat moving rapidly toward the rising sun.” On the next (and final) pages, there he is, standing towards the prow of a patriotic steamboat, smiling as he faces the future. Here’s hoping that Quincy’s dream comes true.

"He was smiling" from Lane Smith's Abe Lincoln's Dream (2012)

Learn more about Abraham Lincoln, & Lane Smith:

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Eat, drink, and be merry

Maurice Sendak, Bumble-Ardy (2011)

Bumble-Ardy gets adopted by his Aunt Adeline after his “immediate family gorged and gained weight. / And got ate.”  When he throws himself a birthday party without her permission, Aunt Adeline threatens his guests: “Scat, get lost, vamoose, just scram! / Or else I’ll slice you into ham!”  On the next two-page spread, Bumble tells his aunt, “I promise! I swear! I won’t ever turn ten!”  There are other jokes about — and references to — death in Bumble-Ardy.  One reason for this theme may be that Maurice Sendak’s new picture book is a celebration of mortality.  It sings us the “Happy Birthday” song, but changes the lyrics to We’re all gonna die!

Bumble-Ardy is a genuinely jubilant book.  Its thematically death-saturated commemoration of its title character’s ninth birthday is not gloomy.  If it inadvertently evokes the early Christian practice of celebrating deathdays,1 that’s likely because its 83-year-old author understands what its nine-year-old protagonist does not: each birthday brings us one year closer to our death.  As is the case with other Sendak heroes (such as Where the Wild Things Are’s Max, and In the Night Kitchen’s Mickey), Bumble is a version of his creator.  They share a birthday of June 10th — Sendak was born in 1928, and Bumble (according to the book) in 2000.  Reinforcing this connection, Sendak repeats the date four times on the opening three pages, each with a different year.

On the title page, the birthday’s fourth and final appearance is June 10, 2008. That was a significant date and year for Sendak: he turned 80, had a triple-bypass that temporarily left him too weak to work or walk his dog, and mourned the passing of his partner of more than 50 years, Dr. Eugene Glynn.  Though Dr. Glynn died in May of the previous year, in 2008 Sendak spoke publicly about his sexuality for the first time. Asked by the New York Times whether there were anything he had never been asked, Sendak answered, “Well, that I’m gay.”  It’s tempting to see Bumble — as he bursts through the June 2008 calendar on the title page and shouts “Well!” — as an echo of Sendak’s declaration of his own sexual identity.

But biographical interpretations are tricky, and ultimately limiting.  While all artists’ lives influence their works, no work is purely a reflection of its creator’s autobiography.  All art offers indications elsewhere, ideas and themes that cannot be reduced to a life history.  In this book, two pigs carry a banner reading “SOME SWILL PIG,” evoking Charlotte’s “SOME PIG” in E.B. White’s classic novel.  On the page before the title page, Bumble reads the Hogwash Gazette, which announces “WE READ BANNED BOOKS!” — an allusion, perhaps, to In the Night Kitchen’s status as a banned book.  The masquerade party itself seems a more chaotic, more artistically eclectic version of Rosie’s backyard show in The Sign on Rosie’s Door.  (Incidentally, like Lenny in that book, Bumble also wears a cowboy hat.)

At the party, one of Bumble’s guests comes dressed as death — skull mask, skeletal costume beneath a black cloak — but carries a banner wishing Bumble long life.  “MAY BUMBLE LIVE 900 YEARS!” it proclaims.  And that’s the heart of this book.  It knows that death will come later or sooner, but it’s willing to celebrate while it can.


1. Early Christians thought it would be sinful to observe the birth of Christ or of saints, as doing so would continue the pagan practices of the Egyptians and Greeks.  One should instead (they thought) celebrate the day on which a saint ascended to heaven.  Around the 4th century AD, they began to change their mind, paving the way for the celebration of Christmas.  See Charles Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things (1987), p. 33.

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Speak, Topiary

Lane Smith, Grandpa Green (2011): cover

The capacity to surprise is a sign of a true artist.  Though famous for his visual and verbal wit, Lane Smith has written a gentle, moving book about growing old. Grandpa Green has humor, but it relegates its sole joke to a footnote.  (After reporting that in fourth grade, Grandpa Green “got chicken pox,” Smith adds an asterisk and a note to assure us “Not from the chickens.”) Minimal prose combined with a mostly green palette conveys a subtly elegiac quality, as if recollecting a near future in which Grandpa Green’s garden is all that remains of him.

Grandpa Green’s topiary depicts the major events in his life.  In spare text, the narrator — a young boy strolling through the garden — says a few words about each event.  And I do mean a few words.  Most pages have less than a dozen.  On the first, “He was born a really long time ago” has informal diction, suggesting that the boy is a confidant of ours.  Next to those words, a baby-shaped topiary appears to be crying.  Turn the page to discover that the water is fountaining up from a hose held by the boy.  That’s the first of a series of visual cues — each two-page spread has one — hinting at the scene to come.  The topiary rabbit leads us to a giant topiary carrot, because grandpa “grew up on a farm with pigs and corn and carrots…,” and, as the next two-page spread adds, “eggs.”  The illustration of a topiary egg, chick, and rooster point to the chicken-pox joke, providing occasion, on the following two-page spread, to illustrate characters from the stories he read while recovering from his illness — The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Little Engine That Could.

Lane Smith, Grandpa Green (2011): "He had to stay home from school. So he read stories about secret gardens and wizards and a little engine that could."

Like the “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woof’s To the Lighthouse, Smith succinctly and swiftly moves us through the years, which — in Green’s case — offers a personal history of the twentieth-century.  Rather than pursuing his dream of studying horticulture after graduating from high school, Green “went to a world war instead.”  Abroad, he “met his future wife,” married her after the war, and “had kids, way more grandkids, and a great-grandkid,” a.k.a. the narrator.  As the boy strolls through his great-grandfather’s life, gathering items that his grandfather misplaced, the physical absence of Grandpa Green gestures towards his inevitable status as memory — which, as we learn in the beautiful dénouement, is the function of the garden.  Grandpa forgets things, but “the important stuff, the garden remembers for him.”

There are other children’s books about aging and loss — notably Dr. Seuss’s satiric You’re Only Old Once! (1986) and John Burningham’s gentle Granpa (1984) — but Grandpa Green is closest to Crockett Johnson’s posthumously published Magic Beach (2005).  It’s slightly mysterious, with a light tone that keeps melancholy mostly at bay.  Grandpa Green is a book that stays with you, as do all whom we have loved and lost.

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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (2011)The problem with a blurb from Neil Gaiman on a cover is that, invoking Gaiman, it inevitably diminishes the book by comparison.  This is not the book’s fault.  Gaiman is one of our most gifted contemporary writers.  Catherynne M. Valente may not be, but I wouldn’t even be thinking about the comparison if Gaiman’s endorsement were absent from the cover. Her The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is clever, well-plotted, engaging, and inventive.  It’s not Gaiman, but it is good.

Better points of comparison are L. Frank Baum and J.M. Barrie.  As Barrie does in Peter and Wendy, Valente several times calls children “heartless,” and deploys a narrative voice that shifts between third person, second person, and first person — though it stays mostly in third. As Barrie’s narrator does, Valente’s invokes that heartlessness to consider the child’s desire to abandon home for fairyland: “September did not even wave good-bye. One ought not to judge her: All children are heartless.”  That said, and again following Barrie’s example, Valente does invite us to judge her protagonist.  As many parents are, these narrators are torn between granting the child her freedom and keeping her close by.

Instead of being transported from Kansas via tornado, 12-year-old September gets whisked away from Nebraska by the Leopard of Little Breezes.  Also bringing to mind the Oz books, Valente’s fantastic characters combine nature and machinery in ways that recall Baum’s. There’s Lye, a golem made of soap; Gleam, a lamp that speaks through messages on its shade; and herds of velocipedes (free-range bicycles). Valente also seems to have taken seriously Baum’s goal (in his introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) to strive for a “a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.”  Valente’s tone suggests that the “good” characters will not come to any harm.  That said, and as is also true of Baum, by about halfway through the book, much that threatens the heroine seems to revoke the promise of a nightmare-free story.  As the narrator observes, “I have tried to be a generous narrator and care for my girl as best I can. I cannot help that readers will always insist on adventures, and though you can have grief without adventures, you cannot have adventures without grief.”

In discussing a few of the many works that likely inspired The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, I do not mean here to deride the book as “derivative.”  All art derives from other art.  What makes something feel original is the way in which it combines all that inspired it.  Neil Gaiman’s books do this work seamlessly. Transformed by his imagination, his influences feel organic.  They don’t feel like influences at all.  To read a Gaiman novel is to get caught up in his world — you may catch allusions to Norse mythology, or Victorian writer Lucy Clifford, but the feeling is something fashioned out of whole cloth.

This is not entirely the case with Valente, though the garrulous narrator may be partially the cause.  Fond of shifting out of third person and offering editorial comments, the narrative voice prevents readers from becoming too absorbed in the story.  Pushing its audience way from such absorption, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making instead gives them space to think about the narrative, the allusions, the books that seem to be Valente’s favorites.  As fans of Lemony Snicket know, such a narrator can also be fun to spend time with.  He (or she) treats the reader like a confidante, suggesting an intimate, even privileged, relationship with the person holding the book.  Valente’s narrator is not only good company; she (or he) is wise, witty, and unpredictable.  As she (he?) admits late in the novel, “I am a sly and wicked narrator. If there is a secret to be plumbed for your benefit, Dear Reader, I shall strap on a head-lamp and a pick-ax and have at it.”

In this review, I’ve deliberately avoided “secrets”: narrative is one of the many pleasures of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairlyand in a Ship of Her Own Making.  So, you’ll find no spoilers here.  Featuring a female lead who is both thoughtful and brave, the book is a fantasy that offers a meditation on fantasy’s tropes.  As Dumbledore does in the Harry Potter series, this novel too dismisses the idea that its hero is a “chosen one.”  Late in the book, one of September’s allies remarks, “You are not the chosen one, September.  Fairyland did not choose you — you chose yourself.”

Should you choose to read Valente’s novel, you’ll find it a smart, metafictive tale, with plenty of adventure, humor, and insight.  Neil Gaiman calls it “A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom.”  He’s right.

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Chris Van Allsburg’s True Story

Chris Van Allsburg, The Queen of the Falls (2011)His first non-fiction work, Queen of the Falls (2011) is also one of Chris Van Allsburg’s best.  Indeed, in some ways it marks a return to form.  After writing and illustrating a picture book each year for about 15 years, Van Allsburg stopped producing picture books for a while.  Following Bad Day at Riverbend (1995), he took a break.  Seven years passed before Zathura (2002), the sequel to Jumanji (1981) and the only so-so book in his career.  Four years later came Probuditi! (2006), a much stronger story than its predecessor and his first book to star African-Americans.  His new book is even better.  With Queen of the Falls, we’re back to the classic Van Allsburg of the 1980s and 1990s — but we’re also going somewhere he’s not gone before.  He’s using his gifts for the fantastic to make history live.

The story is true, but Van Allsburg does not abandon his penchant for surrealistic juxtapositions.  Describing Niagara Falls’ height “as tall as a seventeen-story building,” he fills a full page with a late-nineteenth-century building of precisely that height, rising up in the middle of the falls, water cascading around each side.  On the page opposite, in an inset illustration, a little girl’s face seems to look in the direction of this sight, inviting us to see it as more than just a visual metaphor — even though that’s all it is, as subsequent illustrations of the falls reveal.  For that moment, we believe that it’s real, and share her awe.  Other such juxtapositions derive not from the imagination but from apparent incongruities in the real world.  Annie Edson Taylor standing next to a barrel as large as she is, and the huge barrel’s sudden smallness when atop the vast falls recall Magritte’s experiments with size, like Le Tombeau des Luteurs (1960) or Les valeurs personnelles (1952).

It is also one heck of a story.  Annie Edson Taylor (1838-1921) was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.  The first man to achieve the same feat did so a full decade later.  When she did it, she was a 63-year-old widow.  And this was in 1901.  As Van Allsburg’s narrator reports, “Americans could not have been more amazed if they’d read a horse had hit a home run, or a baby had been elected president.  How could anyone, let alone a woman, survive a trip over Niagara Falls?”  Echoing his The Widow’s Broom (1992), Queen of the Falls critiques sexism without editorializing: the phrase “let alone a woman” registers as condescending, but he trusts readers to pick up on that.

While you read the book, you forget she survived … until she does survive.  Van Allsburg deftly creates suspense, allowing us to wonder.  Just prior to the plummet, a two-page spread shows the barrel a couple of feet from edge of the falls, where the waters rush down, beyond our view, past the bottom of the page.  At bottom right, a single line of text states: “‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.”  Turn the page, and the next image is Annie, inside the barrel, her mouth open, eyes wide and looking heavenwards.  Even when you know the outcome, it’s hard not to feel her fear.

Here’s hoping that Mr. Van Allsburg creates more historical picture books. His narrative art draws us in, makes us think, makes us feel, makes us wonder. Who better to explore the mysteries of history?

Above, Van Allsburg talks about the creation of Queen of the Falls.

 

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