The biggest literary surprise for me last year was what I found between the covers of Kate Lebo's A Commonplace Book of Pie. I expected a small but quirky cookbook, which makes sense because Lebo is a pie maker. And while there are certainly several delicious sounding recipes (starting with basic pie crust and then including everything from Mumbleberry to Peach Ginger Pie), Lebo has a lot more to share here about pie than how one puts it together. Accompanied by Jessica Bonin's evocative paintings, Lebo writes about the essence of what makes each flavor of pie so memorable. I can't do justice to her prose; just read her description of Key Lime Pie:
When Annie Dillard writes, "Any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger," she means key lime pie. Which is dust, which is bone, which (according to Dillard) smells like pie. With which finger does the sacred wipe? Don't ask the key lime pie-lover. He works fast so he might deserve rest, reads hard so he might invent stories, beats his own time in one-man pie eating contests so citrus will make the gutters of his mouth sing. The finger that wipes his lips is his.
Now take a sigh and let all of those lovely words about pie float into your heart. What Lebo does is not only write about the virtues of using cold butter (repeated more than once); she also elevates her subject to the stuff of poetry. She gives us words that fit the wonderfulness we feel when the perfect piece of pumpkin or apple or raspberry pie graces our palates. And even more surprising, you will find not only Annie Dillard but also William Burroughs, Emerson, Muhammad Ali, and Isadora Duncan in the pages of this book about pie. It's a wonderful trick that Lebo has accomplished, creating a valuable cookbook that is a marvel to read. I don't care how old (or young) you are, lines like this cannot be resisted: "If you love peanut butter pie, you are either Dolly Parton or someone who loves her." Home economics would still be in every high school in America if the reading list included titles like A Commonplace Book of Pie, and we would all be much better for it.
Jeff VanderMeer takes the traditional writing guide and turns it on its head with Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. This full-color, slightly oversized title takes readers through topics of inspiration and creativity into more toolbox-oriented discussions of character development, plotting, and world-building. He also uses the development of his own work to explicitly show how stories change from draft to final copy while also looking at the structure of other stories, such as Ian Banks's "Use of Weapons" and Angela Carter's "The Fall River Axe Murders."
Wonderbook really sings when it comes to the design. The information is solid and engaging but the many, many illustrations, which include everything from original artwork (courtesy of artist Jeremy Zerfoss) to maps to photographs are stunning. The book is a feast for the eyes and with its glossy paper and variety of fonts, sidebars, and informative graphics, it draws readers in with every turn of the page.
The author wisely includes the thoughts of other writers here, from Neil Gaiman's essay on "The Beginning of American Gods" to personal pieces from Nnedi Okorafor, Catherynne Valente, Karen Joy Fowler, Charles Yu, Joe Abercrombie, and more. The variety of his contributors, both in their works, gender and ethnicities, is refreshing. There is something here for everyone, and many young writers will likely find authors to emulate and read up on within the book's pages. (George R. R. Martin fans should take note of an exceptionally long and interesting interview between him and VanderMeer on the "craft of writing.")
VanderMeer, Zerfoss, and designer John Coulthart have created something very appealing with this presentation and because of that Wonderbook should have high teen appeal, and be a go-to title for both high school and college classrooms; homeschoolers also need to take note.
Artist and visual essayist Debbie Millman plays a lot with words and design in her oversized collection Self-Portrait as Your Traitor. This book brought to mind the journalistic compulsions of my youth, when I felt like I had to get down on paper -- in one way or another -- all the feelings that threatened to otherwise overwhelm me. Millman is much more sophisticated than I was at sixteen, but the raw emotion is the same; these are the poems, stories, and thoughts she must share with the world. For readers, it's a chance to peek into a unique mind, and be alternately amused and shocked by what we find there.
So what do you read about in Self-Portrait as Your Traitor? How about a young girl's appreciation for a trinket as she battles a monster; a recollection of a first job out of college that encapsulates everything from the first brush of professional giddiness to an almost inevitable soul-destroying lack of self-confidence. There's even a peek at the lives of adults from the perspective of the child who hears everything and remembers it well into her own adulthood. (Is it a cautionary tale to know that we all end up sounding like our mothers at some point?)
Self-Portrait as Your Traitor is for older teens, for those with a jaundiced eye fixed on the world around them, for those who are sometimes angry and don't know why but feel that way just the same. Millman uses large fonts, varied backgrounds, and a lot of other techniques to make the book as intriguing to gaze at as to read. It won't fit in a backpack but will demand attention on the shelf and likely prompt a few journal entries in response to the author's passionate prose.
While reading all of these books, the appeal of good graphic design will become obvious and that is when teens will want to take a look at Chip Kidd's Go: A Kidd's Guide to Graphic Design. Kidd, whose book covers are instantly recognizable (see his Book One: Work: 1986-2006), has put together a basic study of the subject and provides readers with not only examples of how design can be improved (covers with more or less color, etc.) but also a series of "assignments" to spur creativity. There are chapters on typography, content and form, considerations of pattern, light, and image cropping, and a nice introduction to concept. Essentially, Kidd is inviting kids to think beyond design as something to look at and instead think about how it comes to exist in the first place.
Go is an obvious choice for classrooms involved in yearbook or campus newspaper and website design, but it will be of great use to anyone over twelve interested in a creative field. Kudos to the author (and publisher) for bringing this adult subject to a younger audience that will find much to learn from the bright and inviting layout.
Finally, photo collector Josh Sapan shares some very cool, and often unexpected, oversized panoramic group photographs in The Big Picture. This black-and-white collection has a bit for everyone: the Army-Navy game from 1916, the Miss America Pageant in 1926, and a beautiful double-page spread of the Yale crew team from 1910. The National American Women Suffrage Association in St. Louis is suitably serious in 1919 and the crowd welcoming Henry Flagler on the first train to Key West in 1912 is appropriately huge. But what really stays with you as you browse the pages (and read very brief essays by the likes of Anna Quindlen, Mark Halperin, and Yogi Berra) is how much of our country's history is captured in these group shots. Far less stiff than posed studio portraits, these are Americans at work and play, dressed in the clothes they were most themselves in, engaged in the activities that dominated their waking hours. Here is our American history, endlessly fascinating and so worthy of our attention.
COOL READ: Enchanted Lion Books has published another charmer from French illustrator Blexbolex that carries a deep and unexpected story. Ballad is designed as one of those short, "chunky" hardcover books (not unlike a board book in size) that initially tells a short story about walking home from school. In spare words on each page, the reader makes the journey from school to home, but with each succeeding chapter (only a few pages long), the journey becomes more perilous and intense. Bandits, magic spells, a witch, a curse, soldiers, war! Your standard walk home becomes a trip that sees the whole nation in peril and if the stranger does not save the day (a cavern! a dragon! a duel!), then all will be lost.
Ballad is exactly what the title suggests -- a classic storytelling saga that builds on simple components to construct a stirring tale. The artwork is colorful and expressive, the lettering precise and elegant and the entire adventure both a witty delight for children and teens. Would-be graphic designers will also find something to enjoy here, as Ballad's design is truly exceptional.