Thursday, June 28, 2012

One Way: A Trip with Traffic Signs

One Way: A Trip with Traffic Signs
Leonard Shortall ~ Prentice-Hall, 1975

Often in doing the sometimes-minor research I do on the books I find, the only thing I can uncover about them is a short, ages-old Kirkus review... and boy do they have some bite.

Case in point, give this one a read.

Shortall introduces STOP, SLIPPERY WHEN WET, NARROW BRIDGE and other traffic signs with rhymed couplets that manage to be both as fiat as that failing tire toward the end and as bumpy as the dirt road he takes us over on DETOUR. The scribbly pages are crowded with animals, vehicles, advertisements and structures encountered by a two-car party off on a Fourth-of-July outing, but as Shortall's diversionary touches are on the level of putting sun glasses on the sun and depicting the students at the SCHOOL CROSSING as bears on roller skates, an attempt to pass this off as anything more than a lesson could land you at a DEAD END.

Ouch. Granted, in this aptly-timed July 4th extravaganza, the rhymes aren't the best, but I do dig the pictures. Based on the fact that you have to pay well-above the full cover price for a used copy online, I'm betting other kids dug it back in the day. This is one reason I don't have a traditional book blog. I have no desire to talk about books I don't love (or at least find culturally significant or amusing). It would stink to have to be critical all the time. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who takes the time to make something out of nothing is OK in my book.... and besides, I love his "scribbly".

I've never seen sunglasses on the sun so hilariously rendered. I 'll bet that reviewer must have been having a crummy day. I wonder what he would've said about I Read Signs?

Also by:
Animals Manners


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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Helga's Dowry: A Troll Love Story

Helga's Dowry: A Troll Love Story
Tomie de Paola ~ Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977

One of my favorite things about children's book illustrators is that each has their own unique style, setting them apart from the rest. Tomie is one of those authors who you can easily name on sight from ten yards away in a raging blizzard at midnight with sunglasses on. The scrunched bodies and bold, washed colors. Just wonderful.

Here, we find the story of one troll woman and her search for love.

Helga was the loveliest Troll in three parishes. But, alas, having been orphaned as a Troll Child, she was also the poorest. So when Handsome Lars asked for her hand in marriage, Helga said, "But, Lars, I don't have a dowry. How can we marry without one? It is the law."

When Lars promises himself to a more fully-endowed troll, Helga takes matters into her own hands. With a good amount of cool and a knack for outsmarting the lazy, vain, and greedy, Helga soon makes herself one of the wealthiest ladies in town. But alas, true love doesn't always conquer all, and sometimes the one you are meant to adore isn't the one you imagined.... for it is better to be loved for who you are rather than what you're worth.

One silly thing about Tomie, on his website he has a list of links to things that he loves... including the company where be buys his iconic glasses, a link to Saab in case you want to drive what he drives, his favorite cheese and flour and meats, and a link to Netflix because he loves movies that much. This list of everyday loves -- along with a nice write up on his creative process -- makes a trip to his site a treat indeed.

Also by:
The Wuggie Norple Story
Pancakes for Breakfast
Oliver Button is a Sissy
Michael Bird-Boy


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Monday, June 25, 2012

Great Monday Give: There's a Nightmare in My Closet

I know I've given this book away before, but copies are just too much fun to hold on to!

Up for grabs this week is a gently loved copy of There's a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer. All you have to do to be entered to win is comment on this post between now and July 1st, Sunday at 11:59 CT PM. A winner will be selected at random and announced the next morning.

And in case you were wondering... Last week's give of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble goes to... Puppyloveprincess. Congrats and send me your mailing info to webe(at)soon(dot)com.

Have a great one, all!


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Oh, Were They Ever Happy!

Oh, Were They Ever Happy!
Peter Spier ~ Doubleday & Co, 1978

I'm always surprised by the memories of how much my sisters and I were allowed to do without adult supervision when we were young. During the summers of elementary school, we'd be gone all day long without ever seeing a parent. Into the woods... down to the marsh... walking to the drugstore to buy Lance crackers and a Coke. It also depresses me how little the children of today are allowed to do on their own, at least around these parts. There are only two boys in our neighborhood that I consistently see out and about on their bicycles and every time I see them on the playground alone, it makes my heart sing that at least some children in this neighborhood are having adventures...

That said, Spier's adventure here isn't exactly the sort I had in mind, but still... the fact that these children would even have to opportunity to stir of this sort of trouble is pretty amazing.

It happened on a Saturday morning that Mrs. Noonan said to her husband, "When are you going to paint the outside of the house? You've been talking about it for months."

After breakfast, Mr. and Mrs. Noonan left for a day of errands, they told the children to behave themselves, that the babysitter would be there in a few minutes, that they were to feed the cat and the dog and make their beds, that their lunch was in the refrigerator, and they would be back late in the afternoon.

But the sitter never showed up.

Ah, yes... the sitter. When she fails to materialize, the children get the notion to paint the house themselves and hilarity ensues. More than a bit of the Big Orange Splot in these pages. The title references the perceived reaction of the parents when they arrived home, though somehow I can't imagine it when down so sanely.

That's 1978 for you.

Also by:
The Fox Went Out On a Chilly Evening
The Star-Spangled Banner
Noah's Ark
Peter Spier's Christmas
Gobble Growl Grunt
Bored -- Nothing To Do!
Peter Spier's Little Bible Storybooks


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Friday, June 22, 2012

Flower Fairies of Summer

The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies
Cicely Mary Barker ~ Blackie and Son, 1926

I received this guest post from Ireland a while back, but only this morning did I fully read it and man-oh-man am I sorry now that I gifted my Flower Fairy books to a friend with girls. The Flower Fairies were some of my favorite books as a child, and now I'm going to have to see if my mother will send along the originals. Perhaps there might have one last chance with my son before he is lost forever to boyish things.

Please welcome Lucy Mitchell, as she shares a book memory and reminds us - girl AND boy - that we were all young once...

“I’ll show you my favourite guy.”

My six-year-old was tucked in on my left, browsing through something while listening to me reading The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmes. Much as I love bedtime stories, I was rushing. My husband was waiting downstairs with a tub of ice cream and the second series of The Wire on box set.

I glanced over his shoulder expecting to see our Bionicle 2008 Annual or the Green Lantern graphic novel borrowed from the library. But no, he was looking at Flower Fairies of the Summer by Cicely Mary Barker.

His favourite guy was the Herb Robert Fairy.

I have four sons, and they are wonderful. However, one (tiny, unimportant) downside for me is that I have had to accept that they will probably never read Rumer Godden's Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Noel Streatfield's shoe books don’t feature on their bookshelves. It’s okay, I’m over it, we have Nicholas and Emil and Ira and Homer Price. Still, when I saw what he was reading, I was very happy.

This little book had moved from my husband’s family home in Rathmines in Dublin to our home here in Terenure, also in Dublin. It came in 1993 when he bought the house. I think it was probably in a box along with his Beatrix Potters and miniature Winnie the Poohs. I remember noticing them on a shelf in the bathroom the first time he invited me over for dinner. I was so pleased that his shelf wasn’t a letdown as I had decided at that point he might be “the one.”

Anyway, prior to this, the Flower Fairies had come with Sue, my mother-in-law, from her family home in London when she met and married my father-in-law in 1966. Before that it came from her previous home in Egypt, where she lived until she was eight. The label from Isis Books in Zamalek is still on the inside cover. Zamalek was a district of Cairo on an island on the Nile. There it was purchased by Sue’s parents for her Aunt Marion who wanted to give her something special for her eighth birthday.

It goes without saying that the illustrations are delicately beautiful but another thing I love about them is that all the flowers featured are wild. My mother, a biology teacher and botany nut, loved wild flowers. During summers in the west of Ireland she taught me all their names. Birdsfoot Trefoil, Vetch, Harebell, Sorrel, Yarrow and more. Mum favoured the tiny, less obvious ones, the ones that didn’t grow on and suffocate other plants. So, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Gentian were never picked, only admired. Convolvulus was torn from whatever it was climbing on. Reading the book now, I remember her enthusiasm, and when I dig out her reference books, flattened, dried leaves and petals fall from their pages. It makes me sad that I cannot ask her more now and happy that I can at least remember some of it.

Flower Fairies of the Summer is well read, the spine long gone, the cover worn at the corners, having been studied and enjoyed many times.

Both by little girls and little boys.

(To learn more about Ms. Barker and her Flower Fairies, visit them, here.)


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Tuesday, June 19, 2012


David Macaulay ~ Houghton Mifflin, 1985

Today, a return to the awesome 80s. I can remember when The Way Things Work came out... being blown away by the detail of the drawings and the explanations that made the most complex machines understandable and the most simple theories, extraordinary.

Later, when I was a children's bookseller, that book (along with D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths) made the art of the hand-sell a snap. Macaulay's first book, Cathedral -- published in 1977, was a revelation, depicting a Gothic cathedral with so much care and precision, it made the soul ache. He followed that up with titles like City, Pyramid and Castle, and even won a Caldecott Medal in 1990 for his work Black and White. Somewhere in the middle of all this genius, he published a perfect little picture book aptly entitled BAAA (with three As). Which is basically the story of the end of humankind as we know it, and how the sheep we left behind handled it.

Excellent way to begin a children's book, no?

One day a flock of sheep in a remote pasture ran out of food. Their search for nourishment took them to an abandoned town, where they ate the lawns, flower beds and potted plants. Tired of traveling yet still hungry, they wandered into a house where a refrigerator hummed. Its food was cold and hard, but the sheep found it quite tasty. For the next few days, the sheep did nothing but eat, drink, and sleep. When they ran out of food in one house, they shuffled into another.

Soon they discover grocery stores and the warm glow of a TV full of static... then movies and clothes... Schools were established and bank accounts opened... leaders were born and a substitute food product was invented, Baaa. But as with the fall on mankind, sheep eventually fall victim to their own gluttony and humanity. With no sheep left to rule the earth...

Much later, a fish cautiously swam toward the beach, It stared at the land for a long time and then turned and swam in the opposite direction. The next day, it came back and this time swam a little closer to the beach before turning around. It came back several times that week. On the eighth day, it swam almost to the very edge of the water, intending to crawl onto dry land. But, at the last moment, it turned again and disappeared into the depths of the ocean.

So brilliant... and a perfect opening for all sorts of existentialist conversations with your child. My son finds the theme somewhat jarring and vaguely spooky, but he reads it again and again, all the same. Two hooves up!


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Monday, June 18, 2012

Great Monday Give: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

I know it's been a while since I did a Great Monday Give, but this morning, I happened to notice that I had a very nice paperback copy of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble hanging around, so I thought I'd pass it along.

All you have to do to be entered to win a copy of this classic William Steig book of magic and donkeys is comment on this post between now and Sunday, June 24 at 11:59 PM CT. A winner will be selected at random and announced the next day.

That said, have a great week all!


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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day

Just chiming in on a Sunday to wish all you daddies out there a great Father's Day! Wanted to point out this article in The New York Times Magazine about how to read race in vintage children's books. I get this question a lot from readers as the bulk of the books I read to and with my son are vintage and quite often from another era as far as race is concerned. The author of this article evades questions from his six-year-old about race in old books, and I do empathize with his quandary on the subject. However, I've always pointed out and overly-explained the racial stereotypes in books to my son.

I'm with Maurice Sendak on this one... "Tell them anything you want."

My son has never been too young to hear the truth.

Happy Daddy's Day, everyone!

(Image from The Daddy Book)


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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Who gave us...

Who gave us ... Peacocks? Planes? Ferris Wheels?
Madeleine Gekiere ~ Pantheon, 1953

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, Madeleine Gekiere only published two books that she both wrote and illustrated. The second was published by Lippincott -- The Frilly Lily and the Princess -- and was more of what would be called a chapter book. Kirkus described it in 1960 as the story of a "poetic king who cultivates a superb frilly lily and the practical king who delights in the fruit of his garden-- a square squash... when the square king rejects a gift of the lily, trouble brews between the two kingdoms... but the discreet princess, daughter of the square king, intervenes and the two gardens are forever united in hybrid vigor."

Who Gave Us... is more of a visual feast, a perfect picture book illustrating various cultural gifts from various different cultures. (The "us" in the title refers to Americans, of course.)

We invented the AIRPLANE and the FERRIS WHEEL
Do you know...

Who gave us the PIANO and ICE CREAM?

Who gave us PAPER and FIREWORKS?

And so on and so forth, around the globe to reveal where awesome things like bricks, roses, food canning, peacocks and baby carriages came from. The context reminds me of those old maps that used to include little pictures of the sort of industry that came from specific places. Thought provoking as the theme is, it's really the illustrations and graphic sense that make this book so fun to flip through. Sharp and bold in color, with whimsical drawings to counteract.

So the next time you hit the roller rink or find yourself squinting into the end of a microscope, remember we have the Dutch to thank!

Also by:
Switch on the Night


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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Meet Madeleine Gekiere

Any number of wonderful things happened while I was away in New York, and one sad thing. And, strange though it might be, one of the wonderful things was connected to the one sad thing.

A few years ago, while spending a month in San Miguel, Mexico, I met a very nice couple from Seattle, and in telling them what I do and recommending a few books, I found out that they had just - that very week - purchased a drawing by the illustrator of one of my favorite children's books, right there in a gallery in town. That is how I came to own a Madeleine Gekiere original for myself, and how I came to possess her contact information.

Four years later, on a day that just happens to be the day after the author of that favorite book died, I finally had a chance to ring her door bell and sit down for a chat with an incredible artist, a lovely woman, and generous spirit.

Born in Switzerland in 1919, Madeleine Gekiere came to America when she was just 20 years old. "This was the Hitler days," remembers Gekiere. "It looked liked Switzerland might be invaded. We were Jews, not in any sense of believing, but as you know, the Germans didn't make a difference. I graduated from school in '38, I was scheduled to go to England to continue, as at that point I thought I was gonna be a fashion artist. So, I went over and by the time the war broke out, I'd had my first love affair. I was torn between my lover and my parents who were raising hell, bombs were beginning to drop, so I let them persuade me back to Switzerland. We eventually came to America because it looked too dangerous to stay."

Her family fled to New York, where Madeleine aspired to be in fashion. "I was not really developed as an artist. I was trying to be a fashion artist, but I was really lousy at it. You don't know how to function when you are first starting out to things." She studied at New York University, the Art Students League, and Brooklyn Museum School, and eventually found her way as an artist, as a painter and sculptor, and began showing her work at the Babcock Gallery in New York in the 1950s.

It was during this time that she met the woman who would introduce her to the world of children's books. "Helen Sewell (the famed children's book author and illustrator) lived in the same house as we did. We were friends so she got me into this and then we did one together."

In ten years, Madeline illustrated many books for others and two that she both wrote and illustrated (The Frilly Lily and the Princess and Who Gave Us...?) Five of her books went on to be named by the New York Times as one of the Ten Best Illustrated Books of the Year. She illustrated several books for the poet John Ciardi, but felt she had "nothing to say or decide on those... the process was so restricting, I felt like I couldn't do my very best work. That's why I quit," Madeleine remembers. "You had to make color separations and all of that. It's changed now, but at the time I didn't want to deal with it, as an artist."

In creating Switch on the Night, she never met Bradbury, but simple drew the story how she saw it. "I never got any royalties on my other books... they simply paid me a lump sum. But, Ray Bradbury, no problem, he shared profits... just a very nice man. Even then he was a big shot. But he sent me an inscribed book (a first edition Fahrenheit 451) and was so generous. He didn't owe me anything."

Madeleine went on to become a successful artist and taught painting at City College in New York for more than 23 years. She made experimental short films during the 70s and 80s, and recently, the Anthology Film Archives screened her collection including the 1980 film Chewing, which I remember seeing in a show when I first moved to New York in the 1990s. Her work is part of the permanent collections of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, and the San Francisco Museum of Art.

At 93 years young, Madeleine is still living on her own in New York in the brownstone she purchased with her husband (the actor, Paul Potter), and she creates everyday. "Who the hell is even interested in all these books?... I can't believe it, that I got to be this old," she says with a laugh. Her favorite book she created was Who Gave Us? as she feels she was "making a social contribution, by saying everybody's contributed to the culture."

Her latest solo show was in February at the Fred Torres Gallery. And though she might not truly know it, I, for one, give a damn.

After looking at her glorious illustrations and books, I know you will, too.


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