Most Eagerly Anticipated…
As you might know from previous blogs, I am a HUGE fan of Jeffers and this latest offering has only fortified my fanship! In Up and Down, Jeffers returns to us that lovably odd pair of friends, of boy and penguin, from the earlier Lost and Found. His work always touching without being corny or sentimentally syrupy, Up and Down is true to this storyteller's art.
Readers reconnect with the eccentric characters to learn that even though "they always did everything together," the penguin has decided there is "something important" he must do all by himself: fly! But he soon discovers that his wings don't seem to work very well, and runs off to enlist himself as the new "living canonball" at a nearby circus. But his friend, the boy, is never far off... When the canon-sprung penguin comes hurtling back down to earth, the arms of his friend are waiting to catch him. The lesson that day is that penguins don't care much for flying. But more valuable is the unspoken lesson delivered loud and clear, in the importance of friendship. And beyond that still, readers are left with the feeling that fly or no-fly, whatever it is you most love doing, and wherever feels like home, well, that'll do just fine.
So together again and heading off into the sunset, the boy and penguin make their escape from the circus-life back home to do what they do best: play "their favourite game," backgammon.
(Follow this link to read an extract.)
It's a thrilling day for me when I stumble upon a new illustrator/writer. (And, to clarify, by 'new' I mean only that they are new to me, like America to Columbus but without all that messy conquering business...) And David Mackintosh is a stupendous discovery for a lover of children's books! Described by the blurb as a "funny book about an out-of-this-world boy by a sparkling talent," the publishers tell no lies. Marshall Strong is the new-boy at school, and the teacher advises he sit in front of the class till he "settles in." This is much to the displeasure of Mackintosh's narrator as Marshall takes up the seat next to him. "He looks different to me," he decides on one look at this uninvited schoolmate. And his stationery is strange. And his "ear looks like a shell," and he has lips like "my tropical fish, Ninja." Things are altogether Not Right.
And as Marshall Armstrong leaves school on a penny-farthing, the narrator concludes that he "doesn't fit in at our school," with big, bold letters as emphasis,
"Not one bit."
So naturally, when he is invited to Marshall Armstrong's birthday party, our narrator is more than just a little resistant. But he is soon to be pleasantly surprised... They are not denied delicioius treats or forced to read the newspaper with Marshall's dad, as he had suspected. Instead, the children enjoy a spectacular day of running around the house, swinging on a monkey pole, sliding down a fireman's pole and drinking "REAL lemonade made from lemons. And with pips." As it turns out, Marshall is as "great" as his birthday party and initial perceptions are turned upside-down.
And when the story ends with a shy-looking "Elisabeth Bell" who "is new to our school," Marshall and the narrator are ready for her, suggesting that she sit in the front with them "for the first few days until she settles in."
While the 'moral' of Mackintosh's story is a relatively common one, it is the perspective that is most appreciated. The voice of the narrator is undeniably a child's and there is no adult intervention to administer the day's lesson. Ultimately, the narrator and Marshall are their own agents in welcoming Elisabeth Bell to the classroom. And in the illustrative work we have a similar recreation of the child's experience. Often working against a plain white background, Mackintosh's mixed-medium of predominantly pencil crayon, collage, and watercolour may appear simplistic. But as with children's insight, his artwork constantly surprises with attention to those details that the grown-up eye might so often overlook. From the glasses "pinched ... from another boy" because they bear the name, "Ray Ban," to Marshall's shoelaces that are "straight, not crisscrossed," Mackintosh reminds readers that little escapes such curious eyes. Picture books such as this are invaluable to us. They reassure and reaffirm in young readers their extraordinary views of even the most 'mundane' or 'everyday'; and hopefully, they return to parents and adult readers those maybe forgotten ways of seeing the world.
It wasn't my intention to pull out a selection from the bookshop shelves that each, in their own way, seem to deal with what it means to Be or to Belong or to be Befriended, but somehow so it is. And try as our chameleon will, he is finding all this 'B'-ing very difficult indeed. Long-established and celebrated creator of children's books, Gravett clevery employs the natural wonder of the chameleon as a trope for human awkwardness (and ultimately metamorphosis) in the pursuit of self-knowledge and acceptance. And what appears to be a unique education in shapes and colours is really an education in matters of the heart, too. It is my 'most surprising' in that I found myself so very touched by Gravett's chameleon in ways that I cannot entirely explain and ways that surprised me...
In the beginning, our chameleon is the colour blue because he is "lonely." But when he comes upon a banana, he spots the chance to end his loneliness. "Hi," he says to the banana, mimicking its shape and changing colour to match the fruit's yellow. And so it goes with a "Pink cockatoo" ("Hello, hello, hello"), a "Swirly snail" ("Nice to meet you"), a "Brown boot" ("Howdy"), a "Stripy sock" on a washing line ("Can I hang out with you?"), a "Spotty ball" ("Pssst"), a "Gold fish" (greeted with a series of empty bubbles), and a "Green grasshopper" (who hops off with a chameleon in futile pursuit)... All to no avail. Perched on a "Grey rock" (and grey in colour himself), our chameleon gives up. He turns invisible (but for a faint outline) on a "White page," resigned to a friendless existence, when from beyond the next page comes a speech bubble: "Hello?" And at last, we turn the page to witness two very ecstatic "Colourful chameleons" who have finally found each other.
A story of Being True, children will leave this colour-filled adventure with the wisdom that there is little gain in being something you're not in the hope that others will approve. Never underestimate a story told simply and honestly.
Most Surprisingly Necessary...
I would like to close my eyes, and open them to find a world where gender stereotypes have been nipped in the bud once and for all. But the world says "Humbug!" to that idea... Instead, chainstore toy emporiums still offer a plethora of plastic princess crowns and dollies that actually wet themselves for the express pleasure of little girls, with superhero masks and frighteningly angry-looking machine-guns for little boys. I'm not saying little girls shouldn't enjoy costume jewellery, or little boys aspire to the code of Spiderman... But it's the strict regulation of toy-gender specificity that I feel some issue with. (I am most suspicious of the gifts given to little girls shaped like ironing boards, baby bottles, and vacuum cleaners, in the alluringly pretty pastels of pink and purple, but I'll save the rant for another rainy day...)
I teach English Literature part-time at my town university, and the first-year course is compulsory for those students enrolled in Education. As is the case with anything Compulsory, the reception of the books on the syllabus is often tentative. Why must these young men and women who one day want to teach a bunch of 6-year-olds be subjected to such heavy abstract nouns like Race or Gender? And I hope Naughty Toes might prove useful in such future inquests.
Trixie's sister, Belinda is a ballerina. Along with being a ballerina, Belinda does not appear to jump in puddles or mess ice-cream on herself. Most importantly, Belinda does not have "naughty toes." Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Trixie. From the purple-and-green ballet leotard she chooses for its flair (while Belinda "picks classic pink and white"), to her hair that "sticks out all over like dandelion," naughty toes are just the beginning of Trixie's problems. Constantly upsetting the ballet teacher, Trixie struggles to "find spirit" as a rock in the school play. Meanwhile, her sister (and the star of the show), Belinda, turns twirls on the stage in a "sequinned blue tutu" as the "fairy princess." When the two go backstage, it seems that things could not get any worse for the naughty-toed sister. A beautiful bouquet of pink roses are waiting for Belinda with a card: "For my prima ballerina, with love from Madame Mina." But Trixie has her own surprise in store... A box tied together with red string, and a note that reads "Follow your feet"... Inside, a pair of dazzling red shoes and matching top-hat reveal that Trixie is not a ballerina... She is a "tap dancer!"
What I love most about this story is that at no point does the reader sense anything more than Trixie's love and admiration for her "swan"-like sister. And in the end, it is through this little heroine's warmth and special charm that readers come to recognise both girls for the talented young individuals they are.
The Most Mysterious...
There is little I have to say about this one... 'Reverence' seems to be about the best I can come up with. But, I'll try, reverence and all..
Chris van Allsburg first discovered these 'mysteries of Harris Burdick' in the company of a Peter Wenders. Once in publishing, Wenders had received 14 illustrations from a stranger, Harris Burdick, who wished to know what the publisher thought of his work. Each of the 14 illustrations was but a selection of the illustrations that accompanied 14 different stories by Burdick. The publisher liked his work and the artist promised to bring the accompanying stories the very next morning. But Harry Burdick never returned, leaving Wender with the mystery of these 14 pictures, each given a title and caption courtesy of their missing creator. It is these abandoned works that have been reproduced in this collection by Van Allsburg in black-and-white along with their original titles and captions, for readers to mull over in their own imaginations.
There is some strange magic at work in this picture book. There are those that hint at the eerie, the impossible, the fated, and The End. And then, I am sure there will be the favourites. Mine has become the picture entitled "THE SEVEN CHAIRS," with a caption that reads: "The fifth one ended up in France." A chair is suspended in mid-air, with a nun perched mutely atop. Light streams in through the high cathedral windows and two 'men of the cloth' look on the spectacle with a holy solemnity. I think it is their seriousness, off-set by the utter absurdity, that tickles me pink with this one.