30 March 2007

The Dumpster Diver

Author: Janet S. Wong
Illustrator: David Roberts

This is a really fun story about a quirky guy in a scuba suit and his miniature neighborhood friends who spend their free time burrowing through the neighborhood dumpster. They use what they find to create all kinds of interesting contraptions (think MacGuyver meets School of Rock starring Bill Nye the Science Guy).

This book really resonated with me as a person who:

1) wore a watchband made out of grocery store twisty ties for an entire year,
2) often fashions a make-shift belts out of string I find on the ground, and
3) once handed in a research paper made entirely out of bottle caps and already-chewed gum.

The illustrations do a good job of playing into the theme of reusing found items--for example, text is made to look as if it is written on duct tape. In fact, rumor has it that the illustrator himself was found in a dumpster. Not only that, but word on the street is that Roberts is really the alter-ego of the former superhero Ray Cycle, who used to do shows in CT elementary school assemblies, teaching us to "Re-re-re-re-re-recycle, Re-re-re-re-re-reuse it! Don't, don't, do not trash it! Don't, don't, don't abuse it!"

Can it be true? Has Ray Cycle really returned? Will he shave Al Gore and get him into shape so they can join forces in the fight against Global Warming? Or is it true that our withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty in 2001 broke Ray Cycle's spirit once and for all?

Stay tuned...

29 March 2007

I Love You Like Crazy Cakes

Author: Rose A. Lewis
Illustrator: Jane Dyer

This lovely story about international adoption (along with 50 Cent's immortal lyric, "I love you like a fat kid loves cake") made cake a universally accepted unit of measurement for love. (e.g. "With her latest adoption, Angelina Jolie has proven to have over a million crazy cakes worth of love to give." or "Madonna found herself in a crazy cake's worth of trouble with the international community when she circumvented the law in an attempt to adopt a baby from Malawi.")

However, like roses, different cakes signify different kinds of love... so interpretation can get tricky. According to Lewis's book, "crazy cakes" are used to measure the amount of love between a mother and her adopted baby--but what about other cakes? As a public service, I've included a rudimentary glossary below to help you decipher the messages hidden in those convoluted and calorie-laden love notes. Good luck!

Birthday Cake: Even though you're getting older, I'm still here. I guess that means I love you.

Birthday Cake (with a hidden file inside):
I love you, but not enough to wait for parole, so you can either escape from prison or begin cultivating that special friendship with your cellmate.

Birthday Cake (with a hidden stripper inside): Yes, there is a God.

Bundt Cake: I love you, but I feel like something is missing... for starters: a tolerable personality, a basic understanding of good hygiene, and any legitimate job prospects that don't involve some godawful incarnation of Dungeons and Dragons. Plus, you're just not attractive enough for me. So, I guess I was wrong... I don't love you. Give me back my cake.

Cupcake: I don't love you quite enough to bake you a full-sized cake.

Cupcake (with pink frosting and sprinkles): I luv u, and if u luv me back, tell Ryan at lunch so he can tell Jessica, who will tell me, and then I'll meet u by my locker after 5th period!!! TTYL!!!! ;)

Ice Cream Cake: I love you like a friend... kind of like how I love my DVD collection.

Rice Cake: My love may be bland and unsatisfying, but I guarantee that it will not harm you in any way, shape, or form.

Rice Cake (caramel flavored): I can change, I swear! I don't have to be boring! I can take salsa lessons! I'll start gelling my hair! I can--oh, who am I kidding? I give up. I'm going home to play x-box.

Vegan Sugarless Carrot Cake: I am morally opposed to enjoying life. Yes, that includes love. Don't touch me.

Wedding Cake: I love you with all of my heart. Let's spend the rest of our lives together and eventually stop having sex.

28 March 2007

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

Authors/Illustrators: Everybody and their mother

An all-star cast of picture book artists converge in this book to provide their answers to this age old riddle. Some artists get creative with their illustrations--like the one where the cops interrogate the chicken using techniques that only Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (or Jack Bauer) would approve of. Others are not so creative. I mean, seriously... a picnic? Is that really the best you could come up with? We've been beating our heads against the wall for all these years only to find out that the chicken crossed the road for a freakin' picnic?!

From the Archives: I also tackled this question for my college essay in 1997 (you can read it in the comments section below). For the Dartmouth application, they asked you to come up with your own question and answer it. So, in a show of either incredible guts or great stupidity, I chose the question, "Why Did The Chicken Cross the Road?" for my essay. Luckily for me, the gamble appeared to pay off because they let me in despite my solidly unspectacular transcript. Suckas!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the following essay by the 1997 Minh do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the 2007 Minh. Keep in mind that he was young, because the essay is written with an air of pretension that is unique to high school seniors (and recent college graduates writing cover letters). On the plus side, the 1997 Minh did not have lines shaved into the side of his head... unlike the (mercifully) short-lived 1991 version.

23 March 2007

Out of the Ballpark

Author: Alex Rodriguez
Illustrator: Frank Morrison

A young Alex loves playing baseball but gets jittery and makes a mistake during a big playoff game. Despite his error, the team still makes it to the championship round. To avoid future mistakes, Alex practices obsessively every day. However, come game time, Alex makes another defensive gaffe. Redemption comes in the final inning when Alex hits the game winning home run, delivering a championship to his team. Alex's triumph teaches us the value of hardwork, determination, and the ability to persevere through hard times.

Anyone who follows baseball knows that this is a work of fiction, and Rodriguez admits as much. Yankee faithful can only hope that Rodriguez will find some inspiration in his own words and finally cast off the label of "least clutch player in the modern era." Non-Yankee fans could care less because Rodriguez already makes more money than most small countries and therefore deserves no sympathy.

22 March 2007

Work, Work, Work

Author/Illustrator: Daniel Quinn

If this name sounds oddly familiar, yes, it is that Daniel Quinn. This is the author that became famous during the early 90's for producing a number of thought-provoking novels, the most famous of which is Ishmael. (Admittedly, I never got around to reading it, but a lot of my friends did. I think it has something to do with a giant gorilla that uses his telepathic powers to steer a nuclear submarine that chases a renegade CIA agent posing as a white whale. I could be wrong... but I'm not.)

Here Quinn makes a partially successful leap to the world of picture books. His narrative ability remains as sharp as ever. The message of Work, Work, Work is that sometimes you're so busy working that you miss out on life. Strong stuff and consistent with the themes of his other books. His illustrations though... could use a little work (no pun intended). Quinn's artistic style can best be described as resembling an eight year old using Microsoft Paint for the first time while eating Sour Patch Kids dipped in LSD.

If you think I'm being harsh, I dare you to check the book out for yourself and tell me I'm wrong. But be forewarned: DO NOT, under any circumstances, lick either of the rainbow spaceships on page 17.

21 March 2007


In honour of the first day of Spring, one of my favorite haikus:

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children

-Kobayashi Issa

also, the altered version floating around DC:

The snow is melting
and the White House is flooded

with scandal

-Henry Waxman

20 March 2007

Pirates Don't Change Diapers

Author: Melinda Long
Illustrator: David Shannon

In today's world, pirates are celebrated as icons of freedom, successful pioneers in sustained rebellion, seafaring scallywags who thumb their noses at the conventions of society and dare to wear bandanas with gold-trimmed smoking jackets no matter what the latest fashion trends may dictate.

Thus, it is only natural that pirates would denounce the diaper. What is more symbolic of the bourgeois constraints of the landlubber class than being forced to sit in a satchel of your own feces? No, no, no... in the pirate world, asses fly free in the salty sea air with nary a diaper in sight. (Which explains the odd nautical term, poopdeck.)

On a philosophical level, diapers go against the core ethic of pirate culture. In the pirate world, shit happens and then you cast your sails for the next adventure. With the diaper on the other hand, shit happens and then you have to sit around in it for a while and contemplate it's essence. This makes the pirate feel all too human, because he has to come face to face (hopefully not literally) with the by-products of his existence and the guilt that comes with it. But the great appeal of being a pirate is that there are no ramifications for one's actions. There are no mistakes. There are no consequences. There is no guilt because, to the pirate, there is no past. As the old buccaneer saying goes, "The days are like the waves, only concern thyself with the one you are on, and the ones that lay ahead."

Obligatory Juvenile Pirate Joke: Why don't pirates change diapers? Because they hate the smell of diarrrrrrrrrhea!

18 March 2007

Igor: The Bird Who Couldn't Sing

Author/Illustrator: Satoshi Kitamura

This is a story that will strike a chord with all those shower-only singers out there, those poor souls who have songs in their hearts and lumps in their throats. Simply put, Igor is a crappy singer that wants nothing more in the world than to sing. Unfortunately, wave after wave of negative reinforcement causes Igor to promise to never sing again.

But don't cry for him yet, Argentina! As luck would have it, the advent of reality television has created a niche market for someone of his, umm... unique talents. Unable to stifle the songbird within, Igor auditions for American Idol and, following in the legendary footsteps of William Hung, becomes a national sensation. He makes television history when his fabulously off-key rendition of Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go causes Simon Cowell's head to explode, unleashing a swarm of demons in tight black t-shirts that play tiddlywinks with the last shreds of Paula Abdul's sanity. Shortly thereafter, looking to capitalize on his fame, MTV signs Igor to host his own show called Crappaoke Central.

Sadly, his 15 minutes of fame eventually run out and the show is cancelled after only 2 episodes. He briefly resurfaces a few years later in VH-1's I Love the Aughts, but for the most part he becomes a footnote in the annals of pop culture history. Regardless, he did get to share his song with the world, and that was all he ever wanted. So follow Igor's inspiring example! Get out of that shower and share your song with the world! (But put some clothes on first. I said share your song... the rest of you should be kept to yourself.)

16 March 2007

Dylan Hears a Who

Dylan sings Dr. Seuss (you used to be able to listen to it here).

Be sure to be on the lookout for more collaborations between picture books and musicians. AOL Time Warner has already started bringing artists into the studio to record songs for a 5 CD Set: Picture This! Rockin' the Library. It will be released in January of next year and available for $29.99 if you call in and order immediately. The collection will feature such greats as:

Led Zeppelin: Where the Wild Things Are
Pink Floyd: Goodnight Moon
Boyz2Men: Guess How Much I Love You
Radiohead: Where the Sidewalk Ends
Salt N Pepa: In the Night Kitchen
Enya: The Giving Tree

Question: What else would you like to see in this collection? Let me know, and I'll be sure to pass your suggestions on to Ted Turner next time I see him.

15 March 2007

Library Lion

Author: Michelle Knudson
Illustrator: Kevin Hawkes

A big bear hug of a lion wanders into the library and after some initial commotion, the head librarian proclaims that he can stay... as long as he follows the rules. Indeed, the lion does stay and becomes a fixture in the library. (By the way, this book has some of the most endearing illustrations ever... and i'm not just saying that because i'm biased towards libraries and want to be the library lion when I grow up.)

The lion's moral fiber is tested when the librarian gets hurt and the lion is forced to choose between following the rules or doing what is necessary to get help. This crisis teaches the lion and the stickler librarian that sometimes you have to break the rules to do the right thing.

Which is a good lesson to learn, but the key word here is sometimes. Yes, sometimes rules need to be broken, but rule-breaking should not be a general guiding principal... and it definitely shouldn't be the cornerstone of your domestic and foreign policy. The Library Lion would never condone stomping all over the Constitution, impugning our civil liberties, or disregarding the Geneva Conventions in the name of freedom. (How much longer until 2008?!)

14 March 2007

365 Penguins

Author: Jean-Luc Fromental
Illustrator: Joelle Jolivet

On January 1st, a mysterious package arrives in the mail. There is a penguin in it. Every morning for the rest of the year, another package arrives until the house is overrun by the bizarre flightless birds. Fromental skillfully mixes mathematical lessons into the narrative without sacrificing the playfulness of the story (he even throws in a message about environmental stewardship without sounding too preachy). All this while the poor family tries to figure out what to do with the overwhelming penguin invasion.

All ends well when their neighbor, Morgan Freeman, comes to the rescue. Using the soothing power of his gravel and honey voice, Freeman narrates the penguins out of the house and into cinematic immortality as the stars of March of the Penguins. Following the surprising success of this film, Freeman begins to train his newfound penguin army in preparation to overthrow the majestic baritone of James Earl Jones, his chief rival in the field of narration. If the penguin brigade is able to execute what they hope will be a bloodless coup, Freeman plans to rule the world of documentary film with an iron fist of eloquence and grace. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Freeman, Jones has amassed his own private military force, comprised mostly of Star Wars fanatics dressed as Storm Troopers. Eventually, the two sides will meet on the battlefield in what will be widely known as The Voiceover Wars.

Note: The documentary The Voiceover Wars will be narrated by Al Gore and his mesmerizing monotone. It will not win an Academy Award and will effectively end Gore's wild Hollywood ride.

Note on Note: Ironically, the documentary Gore's Wild Hollywood Ride (directed by Ken Burns) will be narrated by Morgan Freeman and will win an Academy Award.

13 March 2007

Mr. Pusskins

Author/Illustrator: Sam Lloyd

Grumpy Mr. Pusskins the cat lives in a comfortable house and has a loving owner that takes great care of him. Of course, this is not enough for the fickle feline because he is bored and longs for the excitement of the unknown. So he runs away to see if he can find what he's looking for out there. In the end, life is lived, tears are shed, and lessons are learned. Namely the lesson that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence (or for you city dwellers who don't have much grass around, that the snow is always less yellow on the other side of the street).

Note: This book was later adapted into the screenplay for The Last Kiss, starring Zack Braff.

10 March 2007

Mine, Mine, Mine!

Author: Shelly Becker
Illustrator: Hideki Takahashi

Becker's latest biography focuses on the childhood of Ayn Rand, one of the 20th century's most influential (and controversial) thinkers. In this episode from her youth, Rand's mother forces her to share her toys with a cousin who is visiting from out of town. Though she is very young, we can already see evidence of the rational self-interest that would become a key component of her philosophical thought and the foundation for many of her most renowned works. The young Rand initially implements an ingeniously laissez-faire approach to sharing her toys, until the authoritarian mother figure demands a more equal distribution of goods. Will Ayn learn her lesson about sharing, or does this early experience in collectivist thought drive her towards her passionate development of Objectivism?

It is difficult to accurately trace the origins of Rand's intellectual development, but the following quote indicates that perhaps her early experiences did play a formative role in her thinking: "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and possessing the freedom to play with the toys of his choice without fear of sanctions or judgment."


Author/Illustrator: David Wiesner

In this Caldecott award winner (Wiesner's third!), a boy playing at the beach finds a camera that's been washed ashore. After developing the film, he discovers that the pictures reveal a surreal world hiding deep beneath the ocean's surface. The illustrations have a vibrant cinematic quality, and the fact that there are no words makes the book extremely friendly to the vocabulary-challenged. However, the book does force you to ask... what is this thing called "film"? And if the camera were adrift in the ocean, wouldn't that damage the memory card and erase all the picture files? If not, what is the ideal number of megapixels for capturing a portrait of a mermaid on the ocean floor under poor lighting conditions?

But i repeat... film? Come again?

08 March 2007

Mike Mulligan And His Steam Shovel

Author/Illustrator: Virginia Lee Burton

Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel Mary Anne are the toast of the town until the arrival of gasoline, electric, and diesel shovels render them obsolete. Unable to find work, Mike and Mary Anne move to a small town in search of employment.

Children, repeat after me: Karma's a bitch. As you may recall, the steam engine is what put folk hero John Henry out of commission. The legendary steel-drivin' man died after defeating the steam engine in a race. While Henry won the battle, his death meant that the steam engine won the war. Actually, the steam engine didn't win the war, because the industrial revolution is a heartlessly efficient devourer of souls and steam engines like Mary Anne eventually get replaced, joining John Henry in the dustbin of history.

Mary Anne's descent may be a case of poetic justice, but hers is a struggle that we can all relate to. Everyone strives to prove that they are special... but no matter how hot you are, something new will eventually come along to make you yesterday's news. Just ask Jennifer Lopez.

So kids, take note: Everyone eventually gets trampled by the steady march of time. You're young and cute now, but once that new baby comes along... well, you better start learning your multiplication tables or excel in a sport because you can't get by on your cuteness anymore. Welcome to the real world, punk. Now stop crying and get a job.

07 March 2007

The Three Questions

Author/Illustrator: Jon J. Muth

An adaptation of a short story by Leo Tolstoy, this story follows Nikolai, a young boy trying to answer three of life's biggest questions: When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? Young Nikolai has to climb a mountain, chase a turtle, and rescue some pandas before finding the answers. Sound like too much work for enlightenment? I thought so. Luckily you don't have to go through all that, because the answers are actually quite simple:

When is the best time to do things? After eating a hot dog.

Who is the most important one? The one who has those incriminating pictures of you from that regrettable night in college.

What is the right thing to do? Admit to the waitress that you are actually 27 and not 12, so technically you shouldn't be able to order from the Kid's Menu even though it's so much cheaper and all you want is a grilled cheese sandwich that doesn't cost $7.50.

I understand if you read the book anyways because you want Tolstoy's take on it... but I guarantee you, I'm not that far off! Tolstoy loved hot dogs and he lived for grilled cheese sandwiches. This is obvious to anyone who has seen the original manuscript of War and Peace, 75 percent of which is translucent due to grease stains.

Sibling Suggestion: My sister had a good suggestion: Collect people's answers to the Big 3 Questions! So (all 5 of you that read this blog), if you've got the time (and I know you do, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this), go to the comments section below and fill us in on your particular take on the meaning of life. Whoever has the best answers gets free backstage passes to Nirvana!

06 March 2007

Owen & Mzee: Zoology Is Listening

Given the success of Owen & Mzee, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the zoological world rushed to cash in, as evidenced by these adorable playmates from the Taman Safari Zoo in Indonesia. I can just hear the zoologists thinking: "If the world can fall in love with a fat hippo and an ugly tortoise, imagine what they would do for something that's actually cute... like baby orangutans and baby tigers! Wait, why stop there?! How about TWO baby orangutans and TWO baby tigers?! Cha-ching!" Expect more interesting zoological nursery combinations to emerge in the next few months: Baby penguins riding on top of baby elephants, baby rattlesnakes playing four-square with infant dung beetles... the possibilities are endless.

Reality Check: Mixing baby orangutans and tiger cubs is obviously very cute and sounds harmless enough, but anyone who has seen The Jungle Book knows that this will not end well.

05 March 2007

Ms. Rubinstein's Beauty

Author/Illustrator: Pep Montserrat

A heartwarming story about that old wive's tale: Inner Beauty. This is a story of hope that reminds us that no matter how much of a freak you may be and no matter how hopeless things may seem, there is someone out there just as freakish waiting to find you and love you for who you are. Which, coincidentally, is the basis for the new ad campaign for Match.com. (It's okay to look.)

03 March 2007

Frog and Toad Are Friends

Author/Illustrator: Arnold Lobel

Frog and Toad are friends who (judging by their clothing) both teach in the Philosophy Department at the University of Vermont. Despite the historical animosity between the frog and toad communities (see below), these two are the best of friends. Their relationship is occasionally tested, as in "Frog and Toad Battle for Tenure", but in the end their friendship survives.

A Brief History of the Frog and Toad Divide: Frogs and toads are actually the same species. It wasn't until a presumptuous taxonomer decided to create a distinction between the two that there was even a conception of separate identities. The artificial classification of "frog" vs. "toad" created a cultural schism that gave birth to a climate of social unrest and tore communities apart. Frogs and toads began to self-segregate, tadpoles were no longer allowed to intermingle on the playground, and frog/toad marriages were completely taboo. This social separation led to a reproductive exclusivity that caused frogs and toads to drift apart on a biological level, meaning that, ironically, they did eventually develop into genetically distinct species.

Beyond the biological issues, the sectarian conflict is continually fueled by personal grudges and petty feuds. For example, early on, the toad community was jealous that frogs occupied such a privileged space in fairy tale lore (The Frog Prince legend virtually guarantees that frogs top the annual list of "animals most likely to be kissed by humans", with mountain goats coming in a distant second.) In the early 30s, the toads launched a successful publicity campaign that convinced humans (especially the impressionable French) that frog legs were a culinary delicacy. This was not a good time to be a frog. Toads were immune to this dangerous trend, mostly because of their physical appearance (if you can tell the difference between a toad and a pile of poop, you've got me beat).

While there have been numerous attempts at forging a peace, diplomatic efforts have always fallen short in the face of overwhelming social prejudice and centuries of historical precedent. That is why the friendship as documented in Frog and Toad Are Friends is so noteworthy and groundbreaking (the book was originally banned in many public schools due to its controversial content). Hopefully, their friendship will serve as an example to future generations and pave the way towards a world where frogs and toads can live together in peace.

Historical Note: In "The Letter" from Frog and Toad Are Friends, we find the first documented mention of the term "snail mail". Frog gives a snail a letter to deliver to his friend Toad. However, because it takes so long, the two are forced to sit on the front porch and patiently wait for the letter to arrive. Lucky for us, in the age of the internet, this would not be a problem. Today, Frog and Toad would be able to sit in the same room with their laptops and email eachother instantaneously while also watching clips of funny cats on the internet.

The Wolves in the Walls

Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Dave McKean

Gaiman descends from his throne as the Supreme Lord of Comic Book and Fantasy Nerds to give us this dark and clever moral tale. McKean's illustrations look like a collage made from scraps pulled off the editing room floor of The Exorcist (including the infamous pea soup scene). They are wonderfully creepy and capture the mood perfectly.

The moral of the story is simple: There is nothing to fear but fear itself... especially if fear has sharp fangs and comes crashing through the walls with bloodthirsty eyes. We all love cute cuddly bunnies and warm fuzzy feelings, but it is refreshing to read the rare picture book with an edge to it. Even if it means I might need to plug in my night-light before going to sleep.

Happy Birthday!

The Cat in the Hat is 50 years old!

In the News: To honor of this momentous occasion, Susan and Frederick Mallory of St. Clair County Alabama (headquarters of the southern chapter of the Dr. Seuss Fanclub) have officially changed their names to "Thing One" and "Thing Two" for the rest of the year. Thing One Mallory also announced that they are expecting their first child, Barbaloots Mallory, who is due to arrive in 6 months.