Five reasons to get One Word from Sophia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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.

More Cul de Sac:

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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)

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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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