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August 30, 2011

New Books: Drawing from Memory

In my spotty posting of late amid vacations and hurricanes, I've been focusing on children's nonfiction, slowly chipping away at my initial statement that it's hard to find good books in the genre. Allen Say's Drawing from Memory, though, is a particular standout, and particularly unusual: an autobiographical memoir in the form of a picture book.

Say is a revered veteran children's book author, responsible for dozens of charming and always very beautiful picture books whose art bears the influence of his Japanese origins; several have become family favorites in recent years. In Drawing from Memory, he turns his immense talent upon his own life—and specifically on his road to his lifelong career as a cartoonist, artist, and author.

It's a tale with some familiar tropes—aspiring artist is told by his father that art is not a suitable profession, then pursues it anyway thanks to a mentor/substitute-father figure. But the specifics are powerful. (For instance: Say's parents and grandparents sent him to Tokyo to live by himself at age 13 so that he could attend a prestigious school there, with predictable and not-so-predictable effects on his relationship with them, and particularly with his mother.)

And the author's means of conveying his story is breathtaking: He expertly blends words, real family and historical photographs, and his own illustrations of memories of places, people, and situations (along with wistful and occasionally heartbreaking confessions of lapses in that memory, as when he cannot recall the name of a favorite schoolteacher). The resulting combination of media is more or less unique, and makes the already personal tale Say is telling almost impossibly so. You feel at times as if you're right there alongside the author as he journeys through his life.

This is not, clearly, your typical picture-book fare, especially as Say's childhood coincided with World War II, and as such, the intended audience is certainly a little older than one expects a book of this size and shape to be. But his treatment, while it doesn't shy away from the facts of his life and the history going on during it, is never overly grim, and our six-year-old (who's starting to show some interest in cartooning himself) was fascinated by the true story. Kids older than that, particularly if they have any interest in drawing and/or storytelling themselves, will be rapt, I think. As will most adults with such interests—or who have childhoods of their own to remember.

[UPDATE: Though Amazon seems to say you can purchase this book now, I've been told by the publisher that it's not officially out till October, so if you're having problems picking it up immediately, my apologies! (You should at least be able to preorder till then, though, I should think.) I'll update further with any new information.]

[Cover image courtesy of Scholastic]

August 25, 2011

New Books: Charting the World

It figures that as soon as I write about how difficult it can be to find standout children's nonfiction, a slew of books come along to prove me wrong. The latest discovery is Richard Panchyk's Charting the World,  and where Winter's Tail played its real-life subject matter into a children's-book format, this is more an adult-style book made interesting for and accessible to children. (As a result, we're also talking slightly older children here—the book itself says ages nine and up, but its sweet spot really feels like tweens and even teens to me.)

Simply put, this is a book about maps, and Panchyk covers all the bases, starting with the history of geography itself and then moving on to that of mapmaking, from, as the subtitle says, "cave painting to GPS." It's true history, too, not dumbed down in an attempt to appeal to its younger audience in the slightest, which I know kids who are truly interested in the subject will appreciate.

But what keeps Charting the World from being nothing more than a good middle-school textbook—and mind you, it would be an excellent base for teaching classes on geography, cartography, or even certain aspects of history, I think—is the 21 activities Panchyk has interspersed through the tour. Kids are given the chance to put the skills they're reading about into direct action—using a contour map to build a 3D island model, say, or surveying their own backyard, or making a nautical map of a playground puddle.

This hands-on approach to learning is, of course, a time-tested tool of kids' science books, but it's novel and refreshing to see it applied to a nonfiction children's book that's as much about history as science. And it works like a charm in making a book that could, despite its many vivid images and illustrations of maps past and present, have seemed dry at first glance more appealing and inviting to kids.

[Images courtesy of Independent Publishers Group]

August 17, 2011

New Music: The Golden State

In covering kids' music, I've found quality of all kinds and genres, but I have to admit that I gravitate toward the stuff that, even while catering to childhood interests in its subject matter, sounds like music my wife and I might have listened to before our boys were born. (I never turn down a good opportunity for denial, basically.)

The Hipwaders are a band with such a sound. As the title of their fifth CD, The Golden State, implies, this is a California group, and their music nods to a wide, eclectic range of home-state icons, from the Beach Boys to Camper Van Beethoven. Lead singer/guitarist Tito Uquillas adds his own thumbprint to the mix with his college-radio-style vocals, sort of a mix of Michael Stipe, Fred Strickland, and Cracker's David Lowery. The tunes are catchy, daring in their use of unusual harmonies and vocal lines, and altogether enjoyable to kids and parents alike.

That alone makes the Hipwaders a good choice to listen to, but this group also draws parents—who are usually, let's face it, happy when kid bands are good enough to be mere toe-tapping background music—into the lyrics more than usual. That's not because they don't cover kid subject matter; The Golden State features pet dogs, bullies, toy trains, and the like. It's more that the Hipwaders...approach everything a little differently. "Hey, Josie," for instance, is a song about a new baby on the way, but its anthemic chorus—simply "Hey, Josie, baby come on"—funnels the anticipation into power pop from some lost summer beach hit of the '80s or '90s.

They follow this offbeat way of tackling typical topics throughout the album—"Stand Up to the Bully" savvily uses a ska sound (think the English Beat by way of Vampire Weekend) to give its message proper grounding rather than the expected parental naivete; the laid-back, Cars-esque "Slow Children at Play" addresses why kids gather to play on pavement rather than in their backyards. Every song nails the perfect tone in its writing, speaking to kids the way they want to be spoken to: as an audience worthy of respect and direct discourse.

The Golden State is that rare kids' album that the whole family will listen to all the way through—and even be a little disappointed when its 16 tracks are done.

[Image courtesy of the Hipwaders]

August 14, 2011

New Books: Winter's Tail

I've become, in my time-pressed adult life, a big nonfiction reader, for many reasons. But I've always found children's nonfiction—at least beyond the work of giants of the genre like David Macaulay—to be difficult territory.

It's not that there's a lack of good nonfiction kids' books out there, especially in the science-and-nature genre, which offers tons of books about all sorts of animals and bugs and plants. It's more that there's not a lot that separates any one of these titles from the rest—most are driven by gorgeous, vivid photography and feature fairly basic writing. I always find myself at a loss to find reasons to recommend any particular one.

The dolphin saga Winter's Tail, from documentary-film and nature-book veterans Juliana, Isabella, and Craig Hatkoff, however, is an exception. While it also has its share of nature photography, this book is driven by its storytelling—so much so, in fact, that its tale is the basis for a major (fictionalized) family film that's coming out this fall. The saga of a dolphin that loses its tail in a crab trap and eventually learns to survive and thrive with a prosthetic one designed by a company that makes artificial human limbs, it grabbed the imagination of our six-year-old from the start and didn't let go.

Of course, we've also added the movie to our agenda later in the year (we’ll see how the true story mixes with Hollywood screenwriters and Harry Connick), but for now, I'm just grateful to have discovered a kids' nonfiction book I can say truly is several notches above the rest.

[Photo: Whitney Webster]

August 9, 2011

New Books: Spin

The technology of paper crafting in publishing seems to have undergone a revolution in recent years, with the results perhaps most evident in the realm of pop-up books. No longer the simple, somewhat cheesy little books of our generation's childhood, these are now dazzling works of paper engineering, led by the amazing work of Matthew Reinhart and Robert Sabuda.

But until now, the intricate folds and designs themselves were the wonder in these books. Ido Vaginsky's Spin takes the genre in another new direction, one of artistic double entendres. Pull the tab, and the cow head does a series of (surprisingly speedy) twirls before settling upside-down—at which point you realize that viewed this way, it's an owl. And so on with a series of cleverly designed illustrations that change form depending on how they're viewed.

The combination of paper mechanics—again, like old-fashioned tabs and pop-ups on steroids—and visual magic is dazzling and, in fact, somewhat thrilling. All of which makes Spin a whole lot of fun.

[Photo: Whitney Webster]

August 4, 2011

New Books: The Great Bear

I'm starting to be grateful that my kids and I speak the same language Australians do, and can thus easily enjoy the uniquely imaginative creative works natives of that country are creating for children. The Upside Down Show, Martine Murray's Henrietta series, the illustrations of Sophie Blackall and Freya Blackwood—the list goes on and on.

Australian writer Libby Gleeson's Half a World Away (which was illustrated by Blackwood), a lovely, dreamy treatment of the childhood-friend-moves-away trope, is another product of Down Under that's become a family favorite. So we were eager to read her latest, The Great Bear, which features dark, evocative illustrations by Armin Greder, as you can see from the cover.

And that's appropriate, for this is a far darker book than Half a World Away. Set in an ambiguous time and place that feels like Europe before the Industrial Revolution, it's about a circus bear whose existence is not pleasant. The bear is dragged from town to town, then made to dance in front of jeering, often abusive crowds. Until one day, that is, when he decides he's had enough—and lets out a huge roar that frightens the audience away before simply floating up into the sky to join the stars, in a series of wordless pages reminiscent of the art-only sections of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. (Though in fact, The Great Bear's use of this technique came first—it first appeared in Australia back in 1999.)

The book's end notes explain that this story is based on a dream Gleeson had (dreams played a significant role in Half a World Away as well), and Greder's illustrations reflect that, going from slightly nightmarish to open reverie as the plot unfolds. The dark setting is a bit eyebrow-raising for a children's picture book, and I can imagine some of the younger set finding it all frightening, but our three-year-old was riveted (in a good way). And the surreal denouement is quite beautiful to watch unfold, for child and parent alike.

Like Gleeson's earlier book, The Great Bear uses words and images to express a combination of consciousness and subconsciousness, in a unique way. I think many kids—and many adults—will be irresistibly drawn to it, as we've been.

[Cover image courtesy of Candlewick Press]