December 2011

Colleen Mondor


A Bounty of Gift Books for Kids

The idea of a feature on "coffee table books for kids and teens" came to me when I was trying to figure out how to review artist Blexbolex's beautiful, curious and enigmatic People. Comprised of 248 pages of individuals of all shapes and colors with one-word identifiers, "Conductor," "Plumber," "Twins," People veers into the direction of the surreal by including titles the average picture book of proper names would never consider. There is the "Cat Burglar," dressed as 1980s circa Catwoman, the "Demolisher," shown knocking down the wall constructed on the previous page by the "Builder" and "Bystanders" who watch as the "Rescuers" goes out on a limb to save a kitten. A "Nudist" is plump older man, the "Alien" is parked near the "Station Attendant" (perhaps gassing up his visible spaceship), and the "Peasant" toils in the fields as the preening "Duchess" looks on.

It is clear very quickly that Blexbolex has a lot more going on here than a picture book of occupations for preschoolers. As you turn each page and note the juxtapositions the author-illustrator has created, you start to think more and more about what he is saying about how all of us live and more importantly, how we choose to see each other. That is when the book becomes something else -- a mixture of stunningly simple art and philosophy that packs an unexpected wallop. You have a "High Diver" and "Scuba Diver," "Lifeguard" and "Castaway," and then you have the site of a young girl staring out a window who is "Moonstruck" and, with the shape of the crescent moon beside him, the "Emir" looking on. What does any of this mean? Is it all just tongue-in-cheek and sheer whimsy? Or is Blexbolex actually challenging us to look further -- to seek out the similarities between a "Conductor" and "Tyrant," or "Miner" and "Caveman"? Whatever your conclusions from People, it is a read like no other with very broad appeal. It is a book that will be lingered over with bemused expressions as readers discover how Blexbolex sees all of us. Artists, designers, deep-thinkers: this is a book you won't easily set down.

In an interesting example of synchronicity two Caldecott Medal recipients recently came out with illustrated autobiographies about their early years as burgeoning artists. Ed Young was a child in Shanghai as World War II began while Allen Say lived in Japan. They use dramatically different styles in their books, (Say's understated drawings along with period photos while Young creates buoyant colorful collages), but their stories contain similar themes. They came from difficult times and circumstances but they achieved a great deal by pursuing their dreams. These are hopeful stories that manage to provide western readers with glimpses of foreign life during wartime while also showing how some talented artists got started on their careers.

The House Baba Built: An Artist's Childhood in China by Ed Young focuses on the amazing home built by his father in Shanghai. As the house plans show in the final pages, it included a piano room, study, multiple decks and courtyards plus a swimming pool along with all the conventional bedrooms and bathrooms. In spite of the war, Young had a sweet childhood filled with family and friends (many of whom moved in with them due to the conflict). As he writes about the games he and his siblings played and times they enjoyed, his collages show images of Treasure Island, Johnny Weissmuller and the people he cared about. Fans of Wabi Sabi will immediately recognize Young's style in the artwork, which manages to give the impression of three dimensions and impress mood and history through the use of light, dark and sepia tones. Young's way of telling his story is to immerse readers in how life was when he was a boy and each page is more dramatic than the last.

Allen Say uses cleaner sparer lines in Drawing From Memory, a story written chronologically that follows the author up to his departure for America. Drawing From Memory is much more about Say's development as an artist and particularly the mentor who had a major impact on his craft and life. This is not so surprising when you consider how dramatically different Say's childhood was from Young's. While Young grew up surrounded by family, Say ended up, while still supported by his mother, living on his own at age twelve. His determination to be an artist led him to one of Japan's great cartoonists and an opportunity to work and learn that was truly a gift. In many ways, Drawing From Memory is a thank you to mentor Noro Shinpei. With examples of Shinpei's and Say's work, as well as photos and Say's many illustrations, Drawing From Memory nicely blends the graphic novel and picture book formats.

I found both The House That Baba Built and Drawing from Memory to be interesting for the stories alone but the artwork lifts them above standard biographies for children and teens. The fact that both men are so accomplished in their profession broadens the appeal of these books far beyond childhood and I would actually present them more to the twelve-and-up crowd. There is a lot of history in these titles and a lot of talent; artistic teens in particular are going to get a lot of what Young and Say have to share.

A really solid general art title for children is DK Publishing's The Children's Book of Art. This is as straightforward as it gets: one-hundred-forty full color pages that take readers through the history of art from the earliest cave drawings up to Damien Hirst (really!). All the masters are here from Matisse to Picasso to Goya to Jackson Pollock. The book's designers provide timelines, examples of major schools and forms, brief biographies of famous artists and also show how to make art at home like watercolors and oils. Readers will learn about famous paintings that portray night or war as well as sculptures and even Hirst's diamond encrusted skull. This is a book for browsing, for learning from and as a spark for hundreds of ideas. There is no expiration date on The Children's Book of Art; adults will certainly enjoy it as much as the youngest browsers. If you want to dip some little toes in the art world, then this is an obvious first choice.

The title of Douglas Wood's historical picture book, Franklin and Winston: A Christmas That Changed the World, immediately caught my attention (how often do we see books for children about two world leaders spending a holiday together?) but it was the listing of Barry Moser as illustrator that really made it a must read. The opportunity to see Moser's impression of Roosevelt and Churchill was not something I was going to pass up and from the cover alone I expected to be impressed. What I found though was much more than evocative portraits; this is a unique look at World War II and the significant position that diplomacy played in the Allied effort. It is also about how a friendship was born between two of the most powerful men in the world and the courage it took for Churchill in particular to risk his life on an Atlantic crossing so he could save his country.

Although there are many stories on the war for young readers it is rare to find one that does not focus on battlefield heroics or the Holocaust. Wood takes a long look at a particular moment when Roosevelt and Churchill met in Washington to hammer out agreements for the years ahead. This is also when Churchill made one of the most important speeches of his career, to the U.S. Congress, to garner support for the allied cause. The author does an excellent job of conveying the seriousness of the diplomacy involved while also writing about more festive moments and even some hilarity as when Roosevelt caught Churchill just out of the bathtub one morning. The end result is both informative and engaging and with Moser's gorgeous full color plates, a thing of beauty as well. Make Franklin and Winston a choice for any middle-grade reader interested in history and older teens learning about the war will want to spend some time perusing it as well.

For high-schoolers there are two recent titles of first rate design and scholarship that while aimed at adults should not be overlooked. First up, Paula Scher's Maps is light years from the traditional study of cartography (not there's anything wrong with traditional cartography which has actually been an obsession of mine forever) and a real eye-opener as to what cartography even is. In her preface Scher explains that her father was a civil engineer who specialized in photogrammetry, the study of cameras. She grew up in a house where aerial photographic maps were part and parcel of daily life and fell hard for the graphic truth they portrayed, as well as the discrepancies so easily overlooked in the images. She began painting her own maps to "list what I know about a place from memory, from impressions, from media, and from general information overload." She calls them "paintings of distortions," although author Simon Winchester, in his introduction, is perhaps more poetic when he writes that her maps are "an entirely new reality, one that manages to be useless and essential all at once." "Use them," writes Winchester, "glory in their madness." And so you turn the page to see just what Scher has done and find yourself blown away by this thoroughly creative way of seeing the world.

Scher's paintings are traditionally constructed of wall-sized dimensions and so viewing them on the page provides only a small slice of their real impact. But a quick look at "Florida" with its counties and major roads shows what Scher does that is so unexpected. Covering the conventional map are names of towns, cities and parks that spill out into the surrounding Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. But wait -- there is more. This is the Florida 2000 map and so there is also a careful breakdown of votes for Bush and Gore for every county. A similar design can be found on "Tsunami," created in 2006, which depicts southeast Asia and all of its cities with the eye of the 2004 tsunami between Sri Lanka and Sumatra and succeeding lines spreading out from it across Indonesia and Malaysia. Between the lines (literally), Scher provides histories of the countries in the region, facts on the tsunami, population breakdowns, etc. Just as in "Florida" there is what you see layered with what you know, the two combined providing a more thorough understanding of what is truly there.

All of Scher's maps are colorful and dynamic, from those depicting geography to timelines such as "All the News That Fits" which graphically exposes our twenty-four-hour news cycle where dead space is not allowed and quite literally, "the news always expands to fill its given format." "Shock and Awe" echoes this idea with words screaming off the canvas, just as they blare into our ears from the cable news. It gives a whole new perspective to what we consider newsworthy.

As much as we have moved beyond paper maps with our new reliance (and giddy electronic crush) for GPS, Scher shows how much more the old way of mapmaking could tell us. Maps can be more than the left turns and right turns of the GPS ("stripping intelligence and judgment from the journeying decision" Winchester wryly observes), they can tell us also who we are, what we have seen even what we know. It's powerful stuff that, of course, only an artist who understands photogrammetry would ever consider. We are lucky indeed that while Paula Scher's Maps is not what we expect it is certainly what we need: elegant medicine for hungry minds.

Entomologist Piotr Naskrecki explores those creatures and places on our planet that are relatively unchanged in the fossil record in his dynamic and thoughtful Relics: Travels in Nature's Time Machine. Just as Scher turns cartography on its ear with her perspective, Nasrecki's view of zoology and ecology proves to be light years removed from the standard nature title. He is riveted by creatures both great and small (and has a special affection for katydids which turn out to be a lot more beautiful then I ever thought possible), especially those in the more remote and unchanged regions of our planet. Traveling from Africa to Papua New Guinea to South America he visits largely unknown and always unheralded destinations and reports on what he sees and hears, why they matter and, most importantly, why we should care that they be allowed to continue their timeless existences.

Naskrecki is a photographer as well as scientist and his photos, just like Scher's colorful maps, are what will draw teen readers in. Once the pictures have you though, readers will be too curious to ignore the text and the author's sense of humor as well as his undisguised awe at his surroundings, makes him a far more amiable guide than one would expect. Relics should be a book that appeals largely to scientists or students of specialized areas of research and yet that really does not seem to be who Naskrecki is writing for. He candidly shares his frustrations with the weather everywhere he goes, can not hide his absolute glee over the most unappealing of insects (blattodeans will never find so delighted a cheerleader), and reveals a multitude of wryly given facts about such things as a deadly plant that most of us consider a fine addition to our tropical patios. (Cycads he explains are "not dangerous as long you keep them away from your digestive tract.")

Relics is full of discussion on such creatures as spiders, horseshoe crabs, amphibians, ants and too many plants to list. It is text bursting with excitement and reads as the graduate text for those science curious readers who grew up on Steve Irwin and have been searching for someone with a similar but more nuanced enthusiasm for the living world. Naskrecki is a solid scientist, a talented photographer and a writer to emulate -- this is the whole package in a book with a killer cover to boot.

Finally, collective nouns are something I never tire of discovering and their use for groups of animals in particular can truly be a thing of literary beauty. From the Poe-esque precision of a "Murder of Crows" to the starry-eyed vision inspired by a "Galaxy of Starfish", this is one of the most poetic uses of language I can think of. James Lipton's An Exaltation of Larks is pretty much the gold standard for collective nouns but there have been many books written on the subject in recent years that combine both text and illustration in fun ways. Woop Studios, a collective of graphic design artists, recently came out with their over-sized picture book A Zeal of Zebras and it's a title I have reached for again and again (after prying it out of my son's hands). In two-page spreads they work through the alphabet providing full color illustrations and anecdotes for everything from an "Embarrassment of Pandas" to an "Unkindness of Ravens." The text includes contemporary discussions of the animals in question to historical trivia, such as the continued presence of six ravens in the Tower of London, adhering to a tradition that suggests disaster for England if they should ever leave.

A Zeal of Zebras is notable for its design, which manages to be appealing and edgy and thus easily bridging the age gap. There is a lot to learn about illustration from this book and the Woop Studios crew manages to give a modern and edgy look to their illustrations while keeping the pages easily accessible to all readers. Everyone will have their favorites (I'm a bit partial to "Ostentation of Peacocks" myself), but the point is just to enjoy every page for what it is -- smart, cool, and wholly original. This is what happens when people unleash their creativity on the world; it's bold and not to be missed.