29 June 2007
Author: Alec Sillifant
Illustrator: Mike Spoor
After decades of silence, Sillifant finally takes it upon himself to pick up the torch and continue the story that began with George Orwell's Animal Farm. When we left the Animal Farm last, it was under the corrupt rule of Napoleon the pig's Stalin-esque regime. The pigs in power had begun to wear clothes and had become virtually indistinguishable from their authoritarian human counterparts. Having departed from their socialist roots, the farms adopts the philosophy of "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
Farmer Ham is a direct descendent of Napoleon the Pig. Having inherited the farm from his lineage of revolutionary ancestors, he now rules his domain with an iron fist and is known for his ruthless tactics. Indeed, an underground newspaper gave him the name Farmer Ham because of his willingness to brutally eliminate any opposition, even cannibalistically disposing of those within his closest inner circle. Ironically, he liked the name and (after destroying the newspaper and imprisoning its employees), he proudly adopted it as his own and referred to himself as Farmer Ham from that day forward. It was the perfect name... the kind of perverse moniker that inspires the fear necessary to maintain order and give revolutionaries reason to pause.
The original Animal Farm was a thinly veiled story about the Soviet Union that warned against the dangers of totalitarian government and the inevitable cycle of corruption that comes hand in hand with power. ("When it comes to revolutionaries, trust only the sad ones. The enthusiastic ones are the oppressors of tommorrow." -William Vollman) This newest installment reminds us that no power is absolute--that there will always be challengers to the throne and that power is a luxury that must be maintained with meticulous precision. To illustrate this point, Sillifant presents Farmer Ham's totalitarian regime with a familiar nuisance: anarchists.
Represented by a gaggle of unruly crows, Farmer Ham's government is challenged by a band of rowdy nihilists who refuse to bow down to his authority. This dangerous here is obvious, as a few successful rebels can infect an otherwise submissive populace, and the next thing you know, you have a revolution on your hands. Farmer Ham knows that he must act quickly and decisively to quell the uprising. To do so, he recruits and trains an elite force of brutes known as the Scarecrow, a shadowy arm of law enforcement that has imperial permission to use whatever tactics they deem necessary. With the terrifying Scarecrow patrolling the fields, the dangerous anarchist element is quickly scattered to the winds.
So Farmer Ham's reign of terror lives another day... but how long can he maintain his stranglehold on the farm before he is toppled from his lofty perch? Today it's anarchist crows, tomorrow it may be socialist moles sprouting up from the ground, or capitalist pigs preaching their free market mumbo jumbo... no, it is only a matter of time before someone rises up against the oppressive Farmer Ham and decides that it's time to bring home the bacon.
And on his farm he had a coup, ee ii, ee ii, oooooooooo...
27 June 2007
Author/Illustrator: Steve Breen
This is the first picture book for Breen, the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist. With the story of Stick, a headstrong young frog who likes to do things on his own, Breen displays an impressive sense of humor and comic timing. One day, when Stick shoots his tongue out to catch a dragonfly, he gets carried away (literally) and embarks on a wild airborne adventure. Through a series of surprising developments, Stick excitedly explores the wild world... but will he ever make it back home?
Stick is merely the latest in a long and celebrated line of frog explorers. Indeed, nature's first true explorers were the frog's distant ancesters, those intrepid souls who first ventured out of the primordial ooze: the early amphibians. Frogs are direct descendants of those brave few who left the comforts of their homes to explore the unknown lands above the surface of the water. It's almost as if wanderlust is genetically encoded in frog DNA.
Young Stick also owes much to the most persistent explorer in frog history... an adventurer whose exploits are so well-known that he is known simply as: Frogger. Before Frogger, the frog population had to be content with life around the dank world of the pond. But Frogger yearned for more, he want to stretch the boundaries of his world and boldly go where no frog had gone before.
While people still wonder why the chicken crossed the road, no one questions the Frogger's motives. Frogger did not set out to conquer the world, he set out to conquer himself. Despite frequent setbacks and increasingly dangerous traffic, he refused to quit until he crossed every street that he came across. His indomitable spirit would not be denied... he would either succeed or get flattened in the process.
Left: An 18th Century Tapestry depicting The Wondrous Adventures of Frogger: Explorer Extraordinaire.
Other notable amphibious explorers:
Mr. Toad: Not content with life at Toad Hall, our hero follows Dante's lead and explores the depths of Hell. This harrowing journey is well documented in his memoirs: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
Kermit: Perhaps the most famous frog in history, Kermit was the ultimate explorer, blazing trails and opening doors at a prolific clip. He first burst onto the scene as the first frog in space ("One small hop for frogs, one giant leap for frogkind.").
Returning to a hero's welcome, Kermit leveraged his newfound fame into a legendary career in film and television. After conquering the entertainment world and winning every award possible, Kermit begins to feel that familiar itch to touch the void of the unknown... it was not in his nature to be content. So he set out to explore what he believed to be the frog's final frontier: Politics.
Stealing a page from the GOP playbook (which turned the celebrity of Reagan, Schwarzenegger, and possibly Fred Thompson into political gold), the Green Party convinces Kermit to make a run for the presidency. Kermit immediately accepts the challenge. In the first in a series of shrewd moves, Kermit selects his longtime advisor Fozzy Bear to be his running mate (Fozzy's down-to-earth charm and folksy humor polls extremely well down South).
Despite a spirited campaign, Kermit's bid for the highest office in the land eventually falls short (though, being a third party candidate in America, they never really stood much of a chance anyways). While he may have lost the election, Kermit once again wins our hearts when he ends his concession speech with a tearful rendition of "It's Not Easy Being Green."
Who knows, perhaps young Stick will go down in history as the next great frog explorer. But if so, it should be noted that he did not do it alone... he was standing on the shoulders of giants.
26 June 2007
28 February 2007
Author/Illustrator: H.A. Rey
The celebrated story of an abducted monkey and his failed quest for freedom. George, our tragic hero, is kidnapped by a strange Man in a Yellow Hat who, on a whim, decides to take the unsuspecting George back to America. But our hero isn't going to go without a fight. Furious, George attempts a series of daring escapes. First, he jumps off of the ship where he is held captive and tries to swim through shark-infested waters back to his home. Unfortunately, he is recaptured by sailors, who most likely collect a healthy reward for returning him to the diabolical man in yellow.
Once in America, George continues to risk life and limb in order to escape. First, when the man in yellow lets his guard down, George secretly calls the fire department for help. This backfires, as it lands him in jail. After cleverly escaping from prison, George attempts an aerial escape by grabbing a bunch of balloons and taking to the air. Unfortunately, his flight to Africa doesn't get very far, as the balloons (and his dreams of returning home) deflate and George once again finds himself in the nefarious clutches of his flamboyantly dressed captor. In the end, George is placed behind bars at the local zoo, where he can only bide his time and plan his next daringly curious escape.
There are those who argue that the Man in the Yellow Hat was a kind man because he and George eventually become friends. Even if a friendship does grow between George and his captor, anyone who has studied criminal psychology (or watched way too many episodes of Law & Order) recognizes this as a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome. Those taken captive often develop positive relationships with their captors... this does not negate the crime. We can only hope that the Man in the Yellow Hat is brought to justice along with other famed criminals such as the One Armed Man and the Captain with the Hook.
Liner Notes: It was an interesting choice to have Jack Johnson do the musical score for Curious George The Movie... interesting but oddly appropriate. Because, if you've read one Curious George book, you've read them all. Likewise, if you've heard one Jack Johnson album, you've heard 'em all.
22 June 2007
Author: Anna Rozen
Illustrator: Francois Avril
A young entrepreneur (who looks like the illegitimate son of the Monopoly guy and Mr. Peanut), opens up a business selling noises... but you could have figured that much out without even opening the book. The story gets much more complicated once you actually dive in. The merchant's ingenious idea takes the world by storm and soon the small shop becomes a booming multinational business.
Once people realize how lucrative the sound industry is, everyone is quick to jump on the bandwagon. Eventually all noises are for sale and no sounds are free any more. If you walk down the street past a construction site, you have to drop $3.95 for the pleasure of listening to the robust staccato of the jackhammer. The sound of someone yapping on their cellphone? 99 cents. The Sound of Music? Priceless.
To avoid unexpected roaming fees, people start walking around with earplugs... which works until an insidious little company out of Hoboken patents the Sound of Silence. That will now cost you 10 cents a minute.
Meanwhile, the merchant grows more and more powerful by the second. As wealthy as he is, ultimately he cannot resist the siren song of the most lucrative industry of all. He eventually signs a contract with the Pentagon and joins the military-industrial complex.
The U.S. government commissions the merchant to develop a frightening new weapon. This new technology utilizes the current medical technique for getting rid of kidney stones--using intense pulses of sonic waves to pulverize the painful little suckers (a procedure called Extracorporeal Shockwave Lithotripsy, which already sounds like a videogame weapon). Taking this to scale, the merchant develops an ultra-powerful sonic ray that (using a GPS satellite system) can obliterate your internal organs from space.
This starts an international arms race and soon the entire world is thrust into a new Cold War. (Canada finally becomes a major international player due to their possession of the ultimate in sonic terror: Celine Dion.) Inevitably, terrorists invade and take over the Pentagon, threatening to level New York City unless their demands are met. What they didn't count on is that one of the old bald security guards is loose in the building. And he is none other than: John McClane.
Thus begins the final installment of the Bruce Willis action series: DIE HARD DYNASTY.
20 June 2007
Author/Illustrator: Dr. Seuss
This is Seuss's classic warning against the devastating effect of unchecked industrialism on the environment. What people often miss is that the book also sends a strong word of caution to budding environmentalists. Yes, The Lorax warns against overdevelopment and big business. But it also warns against the folly of misguided idealism in the environmentalist movement.
Our tragic hero, the Lorax, speaks for the trees... unfortunately, he does so with a "voice that was sharpish and bossy." Despite his noble intentions, his efforts are ineffective because of his methods. A good message can do more harm than good if it is delivered the wrong way. Specifically, beware of the "holier-than-thou" attitude which is off-putting to even the most sympathetic among us.
Is this still relevant decades after the publication of The Lorax? Painfully YES, as it is officially Canvassing Season in Washington D.C. Seriously, I can barely walk down one city block without being approached by 5 or 6 people in matching t-shirts and clipboards saying, "Do you have a minute to stop global warming?" or "Do you care about the environment?!"
Do I have a minute to stop global warming? Yes, but I only have 30 minutes to run out and grab lunch!
Do I care about the environment?! Of course I do, but I know you are going to ask me to make a financial contribution and unfortunately I am bleeding debt from every orifice. I can't save the environment by giving you money I don't have. So when I tell you that I'm sorry and can't afford it right now, you can keep your guilt trip to yourself... and don't you dare follow me down the street unless you want me to leave my carbon footprint on your ass.
Don't get me wrong, I admire the cause and their youthful idealism... but there has to be a better way to raise money and awareness. The inconvenient truth is that harrassing people in the street on their lunch break is going to turn more people off than on. The Lorax learned this lesson too late to save the Truffula Trees... don't make the same mistake he did!
19 June 2007
03 March 2007
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.
17 June 2007
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Dave McKean
A boy is mesmerized by his friend's goldfish and (in perhaps the ultimate impulse buy) decides to purchase the fish by trading his father for them. This seems like a good idea at the time because the goldfish are freakin' cool--they swim around in circles, they blow bubbles, and... did I mention that they swim in circles?!
To the boy's credit, fathers are traditionally undervalued by most major financial institutions. It was definitely a buyer's market for fathers, so you can't fault the boy for settling on two awesome goldfish.
Unfortunately, like most financial bubbles (i.e. internet and housing), the Goldfish bubble bursts, leaving our young protagonist in dire financial straits. The goldfish begin to rapidly depreciate, their value diminishing with every inane little circle that they swim.
Meanwhile, the father's value is steadily on the rise. Our disgraced hero frantically tries to recoup expenses and get his father back, but he finds that his father has since been traded for increasingly more valuable objects. At one point he was even traded for an electric guitar--talk about an impressive return on investment!
By the end of the day, stock in Fatherhood is poised to break above a double-bottom base buy point of 178.79, which would be a record one day jump according to the NYSE. The book ends with a dramatic race against time--can our hero get his father back before the escrow agent finalizes the deal or will it be too late?
Gaiman's tale (coupled once again with McKean's insane illustrations) makes for a surprisingly touching story. Like any responsible financial advisor, Gaiman reminds us that despite the inevitable highs and lows, some commodities are always valuable. While some stocks may seem more appealing in the short run, Fatherhood manages to withstand the violent fluctuations of the market. It is one of those commodities that is easily overlooked, but is always much more precious than we realize.
In short: Happy Father's Day!
15 June 2007
In an unprecedented coup, children's book author/illustrator Maxwell Eaton III has agreed to an interview with Bottom Shelf Books. His willingness must have something to do with the fact that he and I share the same birthday (October 13th! Same day, different year).
To prepare, the Bottom Shelf Interns worked tirelessly around the clock compiling a series of pointed, pointy, and pointless questions. So without further ado, we are proud to present a 7 question foray into The Mind of Maxwell, author of The Adventures of Max and Pinky.
5 Picture Book Related Questions
BSB: In your books, Pinky has an obsession with Marshmallows--is Pinky's addiction to marshmallows reflective of your own personal affinity for the smushy treat? (If so, how often do you go to the dentist?)
ME-III: I'm a sucker for most anything containing sugar but, like Pinky, have not learned moderation. And as far as marshmallows go, I'm eating them on the recommendation of my doctor who says that I'm not getting enough modified corn starch and tetrasodium pyrophosphate. Mmmm.
BSB: Which character in your books do you relate to the most?
c. Chicken Number 3 who makes a cameo appearance on Page 8 of Best Buds
d. None of the Above
e. This is a stupid question and I have lost all respect for you because you asked it. This interview is over!
ME-III: I admire Chicken Number 3's boldness. He won't accept "Move your feet, lose your seat." This isn't school bus rules! He spent the better part of an afternoon making the perfect nest. Little bit of straw, some alfalfa lining, touch of clover, maybe some stray feathers. He leaves for five seconds and somebody has moved right in! Being a chicken, his memory, sight, and problem solving skills aren't quite as sharp as they could be, but I'll be darned (that's right, darned) if he isn't going to pursue this matter to the best of his ability. That's the real message on that page. That, and Pinky is silly. One page, two messages. You just doubled your money.
BSB: What's up next for Max and Pinky?
ME-III: What's up next for Max and Pinky? What isn't up next for Max and Pinky! This fall they will be starring in their newest adventure SUPERHEROES. The only thing these two love more than marshmallows and one-man puppet shows is throwing on the ol' capes and saving stuff from stuff. A little snow monster battling, some whale saving, and an asteroid interception here and there to ease into the day. But we'll see what happens when Max let's all of these powers go to his head and it becomes Pinky's turn to save the day (A real teaser!).
Then we've got THE MYSTERY which will be out in the Fall of 2008. There's something going on around the farm and Max and Pinky are determined to get to the bottom of it! Also, watch out for a book outside the realm of the pig and the bald kid called LITTLE BOOGERS. I'll let you use your imagination.
BSB: Which duo would win in a tag-team wrestling match? Max and Pinky or Charlie Brown and Snoopy?
ME-III: There's an image for the kids. Look, I don't want to go into too much detail, but I think it all comes down to youthful vigor vs. tried and true experience. How long have Charlie Brown and Snoopy been around, over 50 years? They're the oldest eight-year-olds on the block, and I think they've learned a thing or two in that time. They've got that edge. But you just can't rule out Max and Pinky. A couple of characters with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Place your bets!
BSB: If the world were about to be overrun by an army of heartless aliens with eyes that shoot red-hot lasers, and it was up to you to convince them that humanity had redeeming qualities worth preserving by showing them one picture book that truly demonstrated our worth as a species... what would that book be?
ME-III: It's funny, because this actually happened to me once… I'd rather not talk about it…
2 Non-Picture Book Related Questions
BSB: What would you rather win: an Oscar, an Emmy, or Jeopardy?
ME-III: Probably an Oscar. Because with those pointy lightening bolt wings an Emmy has lawsuit written all over it. And as far as Jeopardy goes, it isn't about the money. Children's book authors don't have a lot to worry about in that department. Let's just say I'm considering buying new shoes this year.
BSB: If you could choose, what would you want to be reincarnated as?
ME-III: I would definitely come back as a wolf. It would be great to be celebrated on so many fine pieces of air-brushed velvet art at carnivals all over the country! Just think of it!
You heard it here first, folks! Many thanks to Maxwell "The Velvet Wolf" Eaton III for being the first author to visit the Bottom Shelf. (Note: The Velvet Wolf is a nickname I just came up with, but I'm hoping it sticks because it is badass. If it does, I want full credit... in the form of a 35% share of the profits from all Max and Pinky merchandise.)
Stay tuned for next week's Author Interview when we use a Ouija board to interview the spirit of Dr. Seuss. (Assuming he's still not too busy turning over in his grave because of that horrid Cat in the Hat movie.)
And if any other authors (living or dead) are interested in a BSB interview, email email@example.com and we'll do our best to shoot some goofy questions your way.
13 June 2007
Author/Illustrator: David Wisniewski
This is the ancient story of the Rabbi Loew who builds the Golem out of the earth to protect the Jewish people against persecution. A beautiful interpretation, almost as impressive as the rabbi's magic is Wisniewski's supernatural ability to bring the story to life through his illustration. His masterful paper-cutting technique has a mystical quality to it and truly takes on a life of its own. On one particular page, the lightning appears to actually sizzle on the page. Seriously, it's no wonder he won the Caldecott.
Note: The Golem is the Jewish incarnation of a mythical construct that appears frequently in religious and folk traditions all over the world. The figure of the Golem even finds room for itself in modern pop-culture mythology. Some notable examples:
Frankenstein's Monster: Built out of spare body parts by Dr. Frankenstein. A transplant mishap leads to disaster.
Andre the Giant: Built by director Rob Reiner entirely out of twinkies and body hair to play the loveable Fezzick in The Princess Bride.
Pamela Anderson: Constructed out of Maybelline and silicone to fulfill the fantasies of trashy rockstars (and teenage boys) the world over.
12 June 2007
Author/Illustrator: Christoph Niemann
This story starts out with a happy little cloud with dreams of being a police officer. With the help of his friend the police helicopter (as they say, it's not what you know, it's who you know), the cloud secures a position with the police force. The cloud's dream has come true! Oh happy day!
Unfortunately, while a dream deferred may shrivel up like a raisin in the sun, a dream realized often deflates and withers away like a balloon in an outhouse. In a series of regrettable events, the cloud realizes that he is not suited for police work and eventually has to leave the force.
His dreams shattered, he roams the skies, sobbing uncontrollably... when he happens to pass over a burning house. As luck would have it, his tears put out the fire. Huzzah! The story ends with the cloud finding his true calling. He joins the fire department and lives happily ever after.
Or does he?
Yes, he is the new hotshot in the fire department... but at what cost? The problem is that his greatest assets are his tears. His level of productivity is directly proportional to his misery. In order to remain useful to the fire department, he must sacrifice his happiness and live in a perpetual state of sadness. Whenever a call comes into the department, the other firefighters tell him sad stories about condensation, make fun of his weight (calling him cruel names like Tubby Cumulus)... anything to produce the tearful precipitation that they need to put out the fire.
This type of existence is borderline unbearable and the Cloud finds himself in the unenviable position of having to choose between:
a) living a useful life as a productive member of society but being stuck in a viscious cycle of unending sadness, or
b) floating through life without a care in the world, but being practically worthless to society.
This is a difficult decision, but one that many people face (most painfully on Monday mornings). Do we chose to continue the office job that pays the bills even though work life seems highly detrimental to our mental well-being? Or do we say, "Screw the office!" tear down the cubicle walls, and take to the open air--free (and poor) as a bird?
Being a dutiful employee, the Cloud will probably decide to stick with the job as long as he can... that is until the psychological distress overwhelms him and he goes on a rampage, flinging lightning bolts and hail all over an unsuspecting city. His friend the police helicopter tries his best to calm him down, but to no avail. All of his old colleagues at the police force do their best to catch the rampaging storm cloud, but before they can reign him in he just... evaporates into thin air.
Just like that, he is gone and the city is safe again... but for how long? It is only a matter of time until the disgruntled cloud returns and pelts us with the salty tears of his rage, reminding us that a good-paying job is not worth the price of your soul.
11 June 2007
Author: Woody Guthrie
Illustrator: Marla Frazee
With Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman has seized the mantle as the most prominent Hobo Historian of our times and ushered in another Hobo Renaissance. While he does (when he's not selling Macs) briefly touch upon the idea of hobo reincarnation in his discussion of the hobo king, Joey Stink-Eye Smiles, New Baby Train further elucidates this mostly unknown component of hobo mythology.
Featuring illustrations by Marla "The Baby Master" Frazee, New Baby Train is based on a song written by Woody Guthrie, the legendary folksinger who spent his life on the road and recording songs about hobo life. (Ironically, Guthrie is hailed in the mainstream media as the Hobo Bard, but in the hobo community he was known merely as "that skinny guitar-playin' ninny who never shuts his yap.")
According to hobo mythology, once you die, you are reincarnated as a baby and taken by train to a new family. This is cosmologically convenient because hobo life is extremely intense and everyone eventually needs a rest... and what better way to rest than to become a baby? What is a baby but the ultimate freeloader, and what is childhood other than the ultimate layover?
So, hop on the New Baby Train and you are guaranteed at least a decade of free room and board. As a baby hobo, you get ample time to rejuvenate and regain your travelin' legs until the day comes when you put all your belongings in a sack and once again teeter off towards the next horizon.
Enlightenment Note: In Sanskrit, the Buddhist conception of the cycle of life and rebirth is called samsara, which loosely translates into hobo as "cradle-hopping". In Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to step out of this perpetual cycle of life and enter into Nirvana. Hoboism has a similar exit strategy. Once the soul is ready, you can choose not to ride the New Baby Train. All you have to do is upgrade your ticket to the Big Rock Candy Mountain Express. So, it's your choice: A glorious life of freedom on the road... or a land where hens lay soft-boiled eggs. Seems like an easy enough decision to me... assuming they have salt and pepper on Big Rock Candy Mountain.
I've Been Had Note: While working with infants at a family literacy program, I used to hum Guthrie's Hobo's Lullaby to help the restless ones fall asleep. At the time, I thought it was a matter of choice, that it was a neat song and one of the few lullabies that I could hum while still feeling somewhat hip (which is tough when you are covered in baby drool). Little did I know that the baby was really a reincarnated hobo who was using his hobo magic to telepathically request the song. I probably should have suspected something when the baby pulled out a flask of whisky at snack time... or by the fact that his facial hair was greasier and thicker than mine (not that that's saying much, since it takes me 5 weeks to grow a 5 o'clock shadow).
Oh well. I'm not the first to be duped by the wily ways of a reincarnated hobo baby. And I certainly won't be the last.
08 June 2007
Author: Judi Barrett
Illustrator: Ron Barrett
From the same warped minds that brought you Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, comes this cantankerous manifesto about the ridiculousness of animals wearing clothes. My favorite example is the moose getting thwarted by a pair of suspenders.
Animals wearing clothing is always a strange proposition, especially in the world of cartoons. This was at the heart of one of the most confounding questions of childhood--what is known as The Goofy and Pluto Paradox.
I'm sure you are all familiar with this: Goofy and Pluto are both dogs. Goofy, however, always wears clothes and walks and talks like a human, while Pluto is a more traditional dog who can only bark and saunters around in his birthday suit. Yet they both exist in the same world... how can this be? As a child, you are expected to suspend disbelief and take for granted that within the same world, one dog could be an autonomous being, while the other is a mouse's pet. Though I must admit that I don't ever remember Goofy and Pluto appearing in the same cartoon. The animators at Disney must have known that the idea of Goofy taking Pluto out for a walk was too much to ask, even of children.
When exploring the "Magical World of Disney," you find a common thread that begins to explain the difference between the more human animals from the less human. That common thread is clothing. Disney has built a strange mythology in which clothes act as the catylyst that unleashes the anthropomorphic potential in animals. (Apparently, instead of eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, all you have to do is buy a pair of slacks from Banana Republic.) In the Magic Kingdom, it really is the clothes that make the man. I mean, there is no way Pluto would walk around barking on all fours if they allowed him to put on a sweater vest and some Dockers.
A Few More Examples:
Chip N' Dale: In the early days, these two are a couple of mischievous chipmunks who have human characteristics, but are still very much animals. They don't talk, they just chatter in a way that seems vaguely human. They also do not wear any clothes.
It isn't until they start wearing clothes that they become Chip N' Dale: Rescue Rangers! Sporting fancy new duds, these mischievous chipmunks become fully humanoid and start their own detective agency.
And there is no way that they would solve crime without clothes... like Adam & Eve after putting on that first fig leaf, they are too much too self-conscious now. Once they've put on their first article of clothing, there's no turning back. They would be ashamed to go au natural, so they will be forced to wear clothes forever. (Somewhere, the snakes that run the fashion industry are laughing and rolling around in their piles of money.)
(Note: Further evidence can be found in the dehumanizing quality of Chippendales, an organization dedicated to men taking their clothes off and turning them into objects. )
Donald Duck: The humanizing power of clothing can also explain the trials of the tragicomic Donald Duck. Perhaps his debilitating speech impediment and inability to control his emotions can be attributed to the fact that he only wears a sailor top and no pants (though, to be fair, he's not the first sailor to be caught without any pants on). Maybe he cannot fully master the human art of conversation until he becomes fully-clothed. (It should be noted that Mickey wears a shorts but no shirt. So he technically not fully clothed either. But this is a much more conventional practice among humans. So there is no conflict there.)
Which bring up another question: How come Donald Duck never wore pants... but he would wear a bathing suit? What gives?! Where is the logic in that?! Rumors are that Finland, apparently fed up with Donald's antics, banned the Duck in 1977, citing indecent exposure. So... nudity is fine, but partial nudity is indecent. Apparently, Finnish laws are as confounding as the laws that govern the Magic Kingdom.
Plagiarism Disclaimer: It seems inevitable that a discussion about Donald Duck's lack of pants takes place in a Kevin Smith movie. It has to have been a side conversation in Clerks or Clerks II, but I don't know for sure. If you know of any such conversation, I'd appreciate the reference... and a copy of the DVD sent to my home.
A Quick For Your Consideration Note:
Consider the relationships of these four characters...
Does this sound vaguely familiar to you? Now check out the relationships between the characters below:
Uncanny, isn't it? Bizarro Jerry, meet Bizarro Mickey.
07 June 2007
Author: John Lithgow
Illustrator: Igor Oleynikov
This book is based on Lithgow's commencement speech at Harvard's 2005 graduation. The book is alright, and Oleynikov's illustrations are wonderfully dramatic, but a graduation speech? It's bad enough that the last words you hear before crossing the artificial threshold into adulthood will be from a man most famous for playing a deranged alien space captain whose greatest weapon was his receding hairline... but then to have him tell you a patronizing story about a mouse who enrolls in college? Can you spell a-n-t-i-c-l-i-m-a-c-t-i-c?
For a second, I thought... it's kind of refreshing. Maybe it's better than some smarmy politician or boring academic giving you recycled platitudes about "one journey coming to an end and the doors to another exciting adventure about to open". Maybe a whimsical tale about a determined mouse is just what these kids needed, one final reminder of their youthful vigor and optimism before they are cast out into the cold harsh winds of reality... but then I found out that Lithgow also sang a song called I'm a Manatee during his speech.
Verdict: John Lithgow is certifiably insane.
After doing some research, turns out that I'm a Manatee is a featured song on his Grammy nominated kid's album Sunny Side of the Street. So in the span of one speech, he managed to promote both his upcoming children's book and his music album, basically turning his commencement address into a university-sponsored infomercial.
Final Verdict: John Lithgow is not certifiably insane, he is merely a shamelessly opportunistic capitalist.
But his timing couldn't be worse. Honestly, trying to sell your wares on the day that families are turning out to collect the receipt for the most expensive purchase of their young lives? (A diploma being one of the few receipts people deem worthy of framing.) Trust me, no one is in the mood to buy anything with the grim specter of student loan payments lurking around the corner.
Not only that, but parents are too busy running around and taking pictures to pay attention, and 95% of the graduates are either too hungover to listen or asleep beneath their rented robes anyways.
So take that, Lithgow!
p.s. Congratulations to the HGSE Class of 2007! May your job search be significantly shorter and less soul-suckingly sucky than mine!
06 June 2007
Author: Peggy Moss
Illustrator: Lea Lyon
Winner of the 2005 Teacher's Choice Award, Moss's book is a quietly powerful tale about silence in the face of bullying. A popular girl turns a blind eye to bullying and teasing until one day she becomes the butt of the joke. This is an adaptation of the powerful poem First They Came by the Pastor Martin Niemoller. Niemoller's poem (an indictment of complacency in the face of rising Nazism) admittedly dealt with more serious issues than junior high bullying... but the basic premise remains the same.
First they made fun of the Nerds, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Nerd.
Then they made fun of the Dorks, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Dork.
Then they made fun of the Geeks, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn't a Geek.
Then they made fun of me, and by that time there was no one left
to speak up for me.
Note: The book is extremely well done... until you get to the appendix. After the story, there is a guide on strategies for dealing with bullying. One section says:
If you are bullied, speak up! Things to say are: "Please stop." "That hurts my feelings." "I haven't done anything to you." Don't be afraid to tell an adult.
Ummm... yeah, right. Follow that advice and there's a good chance that you will either get laughed out of the gym, or pummeled on the playground. While the Say Something approach is well-intentioned, a better strategy (at least for guys) may be to use the Say Anything method:
Lloyd Dobbler's Easy 4 Step Plan for Overcoming Your Dorkdom
1) Take up kickboxing. Tell people its for your own self-satisfaction or to impress the ladies... but really it's just so that while you're getting your ass whooped by jocks, you can at least get one kick in before the ambulance arrives.
2) Wear a trenchcoat. Yes, it's weird and kinda creepy, but do it on the off chance that people will think you're eccentric or mysterious.
3) If you want to get the girl, embarrass yourself with an overly dramatic public demonstration (see picture above). This is NOT optional. Why not? Being a bumbling doofus, you don't have enough going for you to hold anything back. So set your pride aside and put it all out there. It's your only hope.
4) Star in a cheesy but endearing romantic comedy that will ruin the lives of guys everywhere (especially bullies) by warping the romantic expectations of all women who lived in the 80's, thereby sabotaging the relationships of all men (and making Chuck Klosterman's head explode). That's called having the last laugh.
Author/Illustrator: Alexandra Day
Considered a modern classic, this is the story of a mother who goes out to run some errands and leaves her baby in the care of the dog, Carl. While she is out, Carl and the baby have all kinds of forbidden fun, like sliding down laundry chutes, swimming in the fish tank, and eating junk food. Carl then bathes the baby and puts it back to crib and the mom is none the wiser.
Good natured fun? We'll see who's laughing when Child Protective Services comes knocking at the door. I mean, honestly, who leaves their baby's life in the hands of a rottweiller? I don't care how "good" he is, he doesn't have opposable thumbs!
Alternate (Jaded, Pessimistic) Interpretations of Good Dog, Carl
The Cool Uncle Carl Interpretation: Carl is like the fun uncle who doesn't have to shoulder any of the responsibilities of child-rearing, but gets to come in and spoil the child with his free-wheeling and anti-establishment ways. This curries favor with the child while simultaneously undermining the parents' authority. It all starts innocently enough with laundry chute adventures and junk food... but by the time the baby grows to be a teenager, don't be surprised to find Good Ol' Carl buying the kid cigarettes and beer behind the parents' backs.
The Lady and the Tramp Interpretation: Carl misses being the center of attention. Before the baby came along, he was the apple of this family's eye. Now he is merely a supporting cast member, with the baby taking the lead. Desperate to regain the spotlight, Carl decides that he must eliminate the competition. Left alone, he throws the baby down the laundry chute and into the basement, tries to drown it in the fish tank, and even attempts to poison it with obscene amounts of junk food. Fortunately for the family, Carl does not have the fine-tuned skills of a highly trained assassin (again, no thumbs). His attempts are woefully unsuccessful. Knowing that the mother will be home at any minute, he quickly washes the baby, wiping off any fingerprints and destroying all evidence of wrong-doing. The mother doesn't suspect a thing. Perfect. Now all Carl needs is patience as he plots his next move and waits for the family to turn its back... so he can get rid of that damn baby once and for all.
04 June 2007
Author: Mindy Avra Portnoy
Illustrator: Shelly Haas
Portnoy is a rabbi who presents this book as a tool to help parents cope with the awkward situation of discussing the concept of death and the afterlife with their kids. (Apparently, the popular "Grandpa went on vacation" approach is no longer recommended.)
Indeed, death is a tricky question. Just ask Dr. Kevorkian who, just last week, was released after 8 years in prison because of his controversial interpretation of death. Upon his release, he has sworn that he will not break any more laws, but will work to change the law in order to legalize the practice of physician assisted suicide.
What he needs is a good P.R. person. It's hard to win people over when you are known as "Dr. Death." (and it is even harder to shake the name "Dr. Death" when you naturally resemble the Grim Reaper.) If I were to manage his campaign, my first act would be to spread his message by utilizing popular medical television shows. Yes, in this case, the revolution will be televised.
Grey's Anatomy: McDreamy, McSteamy? Meet the newest surgical resident, Dr. McDeathy. Death is much easier to cope with when you have a sensitive doctor with wavy hair and bedroom eyes pulling your plug.
House: He puts the Ass in Assisted Suicide.
ER: Is this show even still on?
Scrubs: Actually, I would make this show a recipient of an assisted suicide... anything to put Zack Braff and the rest of the cast out of their misery. Don't get me wrong, I love the show (and spent a large portion of my unemployment watching every syndicated episode 5 times over). But I can't watch it anymore. It's too painful. You could tell that by Season 4, the actors started to get tired of the show and began going through the motions. Now they just push along, trying to hold onto the magic that made them successful, but quickly turning into grotesque caricatures of themselves. For their own good, it's time to let them go. But there's no need to cry. Even if the show does come to a merciful end, it will never truly leave us. Where Do Sitcoms Go When They Die? They are reborn in syndication and reincarnated as DVD Box Sets.
If only life were that simple. I would love to be reincarnated as the DVD version of myself, complete with Special Bonus Features.
Deleted Scenes: Including the scene where, at 10 years old, I easily defeat Turbo and Nitro to become the youngest person to ever win American Gladiators.
Alternate Endings: Such as the ending where I die saving a shipload of kittens from Antonin Scalia and his bloodthirsty gang of constructionist thugs.
Director's Commentary: "In this post-party scene from The College Years, I really thought it would be effective to have Minh wake up wearing nothing but a full-length floral skirt. I briefly toyed with the idea of him waking up in a haze wearing a purple zoot suit, but decided that the skirt had a more nuanced comedic value."
Of course, I would make sure to destroy all copies of Minh Le Seasons 11-17: The Awkward Years. No one needs to see that again. Once was more than enough.
01 June 2007
The following comment gave me an idea:
What? This book is more like a slasher film in the sense that it gives me nightmares. I don't care how much my mother loves me, the day she shows up at my window with a ladder is the day i have her declared incompetent and put her in the home.
Love You Forever as a slasher film? Brilliant! In the extended film version, once the mother passes away, the son goes off the deep end. Unable to live in a world without his mother, he leaves his family, moves to the countryside, and opens up a roadside motel. The son's name? Norman Bates. The deranged Bates mans the front desk with a smile, but in private he wears his mother's clothes and softly sings to himself,
"I'll love you forever,
I'll like you for always,
as long as I'm living
my baby you'll be."
The more I think about it, the more I think this movie must be made. Love You Forever naturally lends itself to a merger with Hitchcock's Psycho. Is it inevitable that Munsch's young boy raised by a bizarre mother turns into cross-dressing murderer? No. Would it surprise you if he did? Double No.
The director of this film would naturally be Todd Solondz, who specializes in dysfunctional families and giving people the creeps. (If you don't know what I mean, watch Happiness... possibly the most unsettling movie I've ever seen.)
Note: While I recognize the creepiness of Love You Forever, I still stand by my original assertion that it is a tear jerker. As is Psycho (he loved his mother so much!)... so if you go to see Love You Forever: The Movie, you better bring a box of tissues with you.
Sundance, here we come!
Author: Roald Dahl
One of my childhood favorites is coming to the big screen and in spectacular fashion. Wes Anderson (director of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums) is teaming up with the stop-animation guru Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) to bring Fantastic Mr. Fox to a theater near you. As if that wasn't enough, George Clooney and Kate Blanchett have already signed on as the voices for Mr. and Mrs. Fox. Fantastic indeed! It'll be interesting to see Roald Dahl filtered through Anderson's quirky lens. Question is... how will Mr. Fox look in a beret?
Side Note: Anderson has a history of resurrecting the stagnant careers of veteran actors, rescuing them from the twilight of Hollywood obscurity. In Rushmore, Anderson allows Bill Murray to reinvent himself by playing a petty but endearing middle-aged man who battles a high school student for the affections of a moderately attractive elementary school teacher. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson breathes life back into Gene Hackman's career, giving him the role of a deeply flawed patriarch seeking redemption.
Who will be the next fading star to be graced by Anderson's rejuvenating touch? I'm hoping that it is Chevy Chase, who has been in a steady downward spiral since Caddyshack (not counting his brief resurgence in Three Amigos!). I foresee him displaying a subtle grace as the conflicted farmer who reluctantly matches wits with the clever Mr. Fox by day, but spends his nights reading Samuel Beckett by candlelight and listening to Elliot Smith b-sides.
I'm not rooting for Chevy Chase because I'm a particularly huge fan. I'm rooting for Chevy Chase because I'm afraid that if he doesn't land the part, he will sink into a deep depression and botox himself into oblivion... or worse, host National Bingo Night on ABC.
B-I-N-G-Oh dear lord, is that really the best idea for a show you could come up with?