29 April 2007
Author/Illustrator: Tim Myers
This lusciously illustrated re-imagining of a Japanese folktale is about an impatient tanuki (a.k.a. mischievous demon racoon dog). This young rascal tries to perform shape-shifting magic before learning the proper technique... a decision with disasterous results. Ahhh... the impetuouness of youth. The foolish tanuki goes to a local village and, as a prank, turns himself into a teapot. Unfortunately, because he has not properly learned the art of shape-shifting, he gets partially stuck... and ends up as a teapot with raccoon legs that gets chased and caught by superstitious monks.
While it is true that one should be wary of a Furry Legged Teapot, the demon that you should truly be afraid of is the Furry Bellied Rice Cooker. This particular demon preys on the poor souls who are lazy and forget to wash their dishes... usually singling out college students and single men for their moldy torment.
While visiting my sister in college, I was once ambushed by one of those furry demons... damn thing hit me like a Piston Honda jab to the face. To exorcise the vicious demon, I had to use an ancient ritual involving incense, boiling water, and lemon-scented Joy dish soap. Unfortunately, the exorcism was incomplete because (much to my girlfriend's chagrin), the demon continues to haunt me, reappearing every few months. So, if you know what's good for you, keep a close eye on your rice cooker... it cannot be trusted. In fact, it may be plotting against you right now as we speak.
Moral of the story: Do your dishes before your dishes do you.
27 April 2007
Author: Henry Allard
Illustrator: James Marshall
Miss Nelson is an idealistic, good-hearted teacher who has lost control of her classroom. The kids are running wild and do not respect her blonde-haired authority. One day Miss Nelson goes missing and is replaced by a mean substitute teacher, Viola Swamp. With her black hair, white make-up, and black dress, she obviously means trouble.
After a few days of the Miss Swamp's authoritarian teaching style, the kids are pining for the good ol' days of kind Miss Nelson. Little do they know, Viola Swamp is Miss Nelson disguising herself in order to teach the kids a lesson.
This is a fun book for teachers, because everyone who has spent time in the classroom has been tempted to pull a Viola Swamp Swap. But beware... it doesn't always work out as planned. For some reason, when I tried coming into school with a black dress and make-up, I failed to strike fear into the hearts of my students. Maybe I chose the wrong length heel?
Note: The transformation from good to bad by switching to black hair and black clothing is a common narrative device. The most recent instance of this is Spiderman 3. Peter Parker, loveable All-American boy, gets infected by an evil alien substance and his dark side begins to emerge. How do we know this? Easy. Peter Parker's every day appearance begins to change... he starts wearing all black, his hair starts to grow long and cascade down his forehead... before we know it, Peter Parker he has gone Emo on us. Bad news.
By the way, I never thought that I'd be psyched to see a blockbuster action flick where Toby Maguire and Topher Grace duke it out. Seriously? I think that fight happened in my junior high and no one even stopped to watch. I mean, look at them:
Daaaaaamn! There hasn't been a clash of the titans like this since the 1993 Bethesda Math-lympics! You know something's off when even I feel like I'd have a decent shot at beating up both of the characters in a fight scene. What this proves once again is that comics are an industry of nerds, by nerds, and for nerds... to give them hope that they too can be a badass superhero and get the girl. And seeing as how I'm going to shell out $10 to watch their movie, I guess the Nerd Empire is winning this round and flexing its scrawny muscle. I (being a dork and not a nerd) am deeply disturbed by this. As you should be. Unless you're a nerd, in which case, give me your lunch money.
26 April 2007
Author/Illustrator: Hazel Hutchins
Having trouble teaching your kids about time? This book introduces kids to the concept of time through the lens of bodily functions and other fun daily events (hiccups, hugs, jumping rope, etc.). Hutchins' playful book may come in handy because time is such an abstract concept--it's hard enough for adults to grasp, let alone kids.
Case in point: Just last night, the House approved a $124 billion war spending bill. It's about damn time. No, seriously, the bill is actually about time. The current proposal includes a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, currently set at T minus 1,420,340,243 hiccups. Meanwhile, the White House has been accusing Congress of political grandstanding. The president has been anxiously waiting for Congress to stop farting around (a fart = 1 to 5 minutes) and get the budget proposal to his desk so he can veto it in the time it takes him to burp (6 seconds).
People on both sides of the aisle are understandably concerned about the implications of such a timetable. Will it send the wrong message to the troops? (As if extending their tours of duty in a suspect war is sending them the right message?) Or, more importantly, will it "embolden the terrorists" and allow them to merely bide their time and hold their breath until time is up? Because, as everyone knows, holding your breath is a time-tested technique for getting rid of the hiccups... but then again, so is drinking a glass of water upside-down and eating a heaping spoon of peanut butter. I've also heard that eating uncooked pasta is supposed to do the trick. Come to think of it... is it just me, or do all hiccup cures sound like the cruel inventions of older siblings trying to make us look ridiculous?
Anyway, moral of the story: Seconds are hiccups... the hiccups of God. In which case, the epic flood (you know, the one with Noah and all the animals) was actually God drinking a glass of water upside-down in an attempt to get rid of the hiccups. But that didn't work, so God said, "Let there be peanut butter." And it was so. But by that point, God had grown accustomed to the hiccups and kinda liked 'em. So God (ever the resourceful one) said, "Let there be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches." And God saw that it was good. Especially with a glass of milk.
What were we talking about again?
25 April 2007
Author/Illustrator: Chris Raschka
This book celebrates the power of friendship to not only transcend cultural and personality differences, but also language itself... because apparently these boys can't talk. Years of watching television and playing video games has robbed them of the ability to communicate with other live human beings using anything beyond a monosyllabic version of the English language:
Despite the sparse dialogue, the book is surprisingly effective. Raschka uses a deft touch to infuse the minimalist conversation with real human emotion... and makes a valid point about the difficulties of male interaction. It is true that guys often have trouble communicating (unless we're talking about games or drinking... or drinking games). But that doesn't mean we don't feel, damnit! (That being said, it is never okay to ask a guy to watch Legends of the Fall. We have to draw the line somewhere. Yo? Yes!)
Note: This book also proves that you don't necessarily have to know how to write to author an award-winning children's book... a fact that has inspired thousands to reach for fame and fortune through writing children's books. (Want to be a writer but hate writing? Come on down!) Unfortunately, it's not that easy. True, a picture is worth a thousand words... but that doesn't mean they can't be a thousand crappy words.
24 April 2007
23 April 2007
Author/Illustrator: Jarrett J. Krosoczka
This is the story about the humble origins and early days of the legendary band, Punk Farm. Practicing in secret, Sheep, Cow, Goat, Chicken, and Pig wait until the farmer goes to bed to hold their barn-burnin' concerts. They rock. Their first underground hit is a punk rendition of Old MacDonald Had a Farm. It rocks. EE-I-EE-I-OOOOOOOO!!!
Krosoczka's chronicle ends just as Punk Farm is on the cusp of hitting it big. What follows is the stuff of rock legend. Their debut album, the eponymously titled Punk Farm, was an underground sensation. Seemingly overnight, Punk Farm was shooting up the charts. It was hailed as the first truly revolutionary album of the century by SPIN magazine and they were the darlings of self-important rock critics everywhere.
Unfortunately, as with most upstart bands, their meteoric rise began to corrode the original spirit of the band. The beauty of Punk Farm's music was its primal nature. Punk Farm mattered because they spoke to a nation of disillusioned souls and gave a voice to their anxieties. Each angry guitar chord screamed out against barnyard oppression. The relentless drums underscored the desperate futility of life on the farm. Punk Farm was simple, real... Punk Farm was important. Success changed all that. In a revealing interview with Rolling Stone, Sheep angrily claimed that Punk Farm "was being spoiled by the fattening embrace of success. We've lost touch with the raw emotion and spirit that made us great. Our music is being stifled by the uncontrollable arc of our suffocatingly decadent lives."
These words would prove prophetic. The rigors of life on the road and the pressures of producing a worthy follow-up album proved to be too much for the band to endure. Punk Farm split in the middle of recording their sophomore album: The Farmer in the Dell. Punk Farm was no more. As quickly as they had come, they were gone, leaving behind one album for the ages and legions of distraught fans.
Today, many hardcore followers (who staunchly insist that punk and popular success are antithetical) maintain that Punk Farm's demise was for the best because it ensured that they would never suffer the embarrassment of mainstreaming (a process that punk aficionados sneeringly refer to as Green Dayification).
10 years later, VH-1 Behind the Music released an episode charting the brief but iconic career of Punk Farm. The show, in its typically dramatic fashion, finally answered some burning questions about the band's legendary implosion. So, what really happened to the members of Punk Farm?
Pig: Tired of playing second fiddle to Sheep, Pig was the first to leave Punk Farm. Looking to break free from the stifling music world, Pig heads to Hollywood and leverages his musical fame into a major role in the dystopian nightmare, Babe: Pig in the City. Unfortunately, this marked the highpoint of his acting career. Despite critical acclaim, his Hollywood life never quite gets off the ground. He was last seen starring opposite Louie Anderson in a made-for-TV movie called This Little Piggy.
Goat: After nearly choking on a Coke can at a raucous party, Goat suddenly gets religion--near death experiences will do that to you. He sees the sinful nature of his debaucherous lifestyle and leaves Punk Farm to join the moderately successful Christian Rock group, Away In a Manger.
Chicken: No one ever notices the keyboard player. This was the sad case with Chicken, who was always in the background. Concealed by the obscurity of her instrument, one day she just disappears. Poof! She was last seen crossing the road leading away from the farm, but no one knows where she went. After a few days, the band filed a missing persons report and the police come to investigate. Unfortunately, clues are hard to come by and no one can tell the authorities why Chicken crossed the road. Pig, the most confrontational member of the group (and always looking to stick it to the man), suggests that, "Maybe Chicken crossed the road to get to the other side. You ever think of that?" The police were not amused by this snarky remark and Pig had to spend the night in the pen. To this day, Chicken's fate remains shrouded in mystery and has become the point of much speculation by amateur detectives and conspiracy theorists alike.
Cow: Always the gentle soul of the group, Cow's sensitive nature never recovered from the disappointment of Punk Farm's downfall. She had a nervous breakdown and was put out to pasture on a quiet farm in Connecticut. She can still be found grazing absentmindedly in the countryside, staring blankly at the quaint New England landscape. But if you could listen to her heart, you would find that it still pulses with the irrepressible drumbeat of Punk Rock. Unlike the others, for Cow, it was always about the music.
Sheep: The temperamental and hypnotic front man for Punk Farm captured the nation's imagination with the raw power of his voice and his reckless disregard for life... however, as is so often the case, the brightest stars burn the fastest. After the demise of the band, Sheep went into a self-imposed seclusion to work on a collection of autobiographical poetry. 3 months later, he is found in a field in New Mexico, having OD'ed on grass. The punk community mourns this great loss and his book of poetry, Fleece as White as Snow, is posthumously published by HarperCollins. It makes the New York Times bestseller list. Rock On.
20 April 2007
Author/Illustrator: Erich Rohmann
"My friend Rabbit means well. But whatever he does, wherever he goes, trouble follows." Through boldy drawn illustrations and a parade of colorful characters, Rohmann's book shows us the importance of having patience with our friends, even though they may sometimes get us into sticky situations with their zany antics... that's what makes them unique!
For an example of this in real life, one need look no further than the moral lighthouse that is our President. Bush has a friend very much like Rabbit... whatever he does, wherever he goes, trouble follows... and his name is Alberto Gonzales. Despite his continued troubles, Bush steadfastly sticks up for his friend, repeatedly telling the press that he still has the utmost confidence in Gonzales. This despite the fact that our attorney general's greatest strength appears to be his ability to not remember--as anyone who watched the hearings yesterday knows, he apparently cannot recall a damn thing. While the President's continued friendship may be personally reassuring, Gonzales is continuing to feel the heat--but don't feel bad Alberto... you are not the first to taste the bitter sting of presidential friendship.
The Fate of Other Presidential Superfriends:
Donald Rumsfeld: Publicly disgraced, he is now retired and spends his days with his hooka and bongo drum, working on his surrealist poetry.
Lewis "Scooter" Libby: Also tried to use the "I don't remember" legal defense to protect his friends. Now the fall guy is scooting his way to a jail cell near you. He can only hope that his buddies return the favor by giving him a Get Out of Jail Free card.
Paul Wolfowitz: Again, Whatever he does, wherever he goes, trouble follows...
Texas Rangers: Perpetually sucky.
Kenneth Lay: Ummm... they were never really friends anyway. Now he's dead.
So I guess the secondary moral of the story is that sometimes friendship isn't all it's cracked up to be. Run, Rabbit! Run!
19 April 2007
Author/Illustrator: John Rocco
This is a charming and sumptuously illustrated retelling of the Boy Who Cried Wolf story. (I usually don't like to use "sumptuous" as an adjective, but in this case, I couldn't help myself. If I got to choose one artist to re-illustrate the inside of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, it would be Rocco. He could make a mud covered rock look delicious.) As in The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, the world gets to hear the wolf's side of the story and the misunderstood wolf continues his radical public relations makeover. This time, the wolf has entered into the twilight of his life and has become a wise Zen-like gardener who teaches the annoying little boy a valuable life lesson. At last, the wolf community is able to test its acting chops instead of being perpetually typecast as the evil toothy villian from the woods (that role is now being adequately filled by the dynamic duo of Christopher Walken and Steve Buscemi).
While the wolf in children's literature is enjoying a modern day renaissance, wolves as a group still struggle to cultivate a lasting positive image. It doesn't help that the highest ranking wolf in government, Paul Wolfowitz, is doing his best to sully their good name. Wolfowitz has once again found himself in hot water when it was revealed that he played an inappropriate role in getting his girlfriend a raise of over $60,000. (Dude, couldn't you just get her some flowers?) This revelation is doing terrible things to the wolf community's public image--you know you've gone too far when you've offended the World Bank's code of ethics. Add to that Wolf Blitzer and the ridiculously sensationalistic Situation Room (CNN's ode to Entertainment Tonight), and you can see why the wolf community is furious with its human counterparts.
Note: Look for another twist on the boy who cried wolf story in the upcoming book: The Wolf Who Cried AHHHHHHH!!!: Wolf Blitzer and the Rise of the Alarmist Media.
18 April 2007
Author/Illustrator: David Melling
It's bedtime and the king blows a kiss to his son... unfortunately, the kiss misses and escapes out the window! The king, being too important to chase after it himself (plus, he's already in his jammies), sends his bravest knight to go and retrieve the royal kiss. God forbid that some poor villager inadvertently enjoys the bittersweet joy of a kiss from the monarchy. (This was actually a common medical nuisance during medieval times. Which is why the "kissing disease" is called "mononucleosis", loosely translated as "originating from the monarchy".)
Unfortunately, the knight cannot chase down the wayward kiss and it eventually finds itself in the pocket of the unsuspecting Hollywood actor, Richard Gere. Then, in an embarrassing display of awkwardness, Gere gives the kiss to Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty at an AIDS benefit concert. Bad idea. This public display of affection causes a royal pain in the ass for all involved and people in Mumbai actually set fire to effigies of Gere.
Which is a ridiculous thing to do. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of reasons to burn Richard Gere in effigy. For starters,
1. He is sometimes called the world's most famous Buddhist.
2. He just kinda sucks.
3. Dr. T and the Women.
I could keep going. Point is, the fact that he kissed a woman in public in a botched publicity stunt is very low on that list. What is even more ridiculous is that people are burning effigies of Ms. Shetty. Are you kidding me?! Wasn't being kissed by an aging Richard Gere punishment enough?
Breaking News: Gere has since fled the scene and, rumor has it, is making his way to Tibet. It is only a matter of time until he strikes again. Someone must warn the Dalai Lama!
16 April 2007
Author: bell hooks
Illustrator: Chris Raschka
In wake of the fallout from his well-publicized faux pas, radio host Don Imus will attempt to regain his public credibility by joining other "misunderstood" celebrities on a book tour called Books not Bigots: Reading for Reconciliation. Each falling star will spend a month touring elementary schools across the nation reading books that celebrate diversity and preach tolerance. The tour will be coordinated by the Reverend Al Sharpton and the celebrity readers will be supervised by the Reverend Al Sharpton's hair.
Imus will kick off the tour by reading the story of positive self-image and acceptance: Happy to be Nappy. The book was written by bell hooks, the influential intellectual who is an outspoken critic of racism, classism, sexism, and the capitalism of letters. Despite Happy to be Nappy's uplifting message, the tour will not help Imus's image, as he repeatedly scares the bejeezus out of little children at each stop. Love him or leave him, he is one scary-looking dude (no offense to all the scary-looking dudes out there).
Here is the Books not Bigots upcoming schedule of featured authors:
Happy to be Nappy
Author: bell hooks
Illustrator: Chris Raschka
Joe "Foot in mouth" Biden
Do's and Don'ts
Author/Illustrator: Todd Parr
Rosie "Ching-chong, Ching-chong" O'Donnell
American Born Chinese
Author/Illustrator: Gene Luen Yang
Michael "$&@?@!!" Richards
The Color of Us
Author/Illustrator: Karen Katz
Tim "I hate gay people." Hardaway
We're Different, We're the Same
Author: Bobby Kates
Illustrator: Joe Mathieu
Future celebrities seeking redemption are yet to be announced... but trust us, there will be more. As long as there are people talking, there will be people saying stupid things and regretting it. Who's next? My money is on former U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan. It can't be healthy to be that calm for that long... if anyone is due to go off on an expletive laced rant, it's him.
(Just do it, Mr. Annan... it'll feel so good. We'll start you off easy. Complete this sentence: Looking at John Bolton's moustache made me want to ________. There, doesn't that feel better? Now try this one: Whenever I hear President ________ speak, I want to ________ his condescending ________ and then slap that ________-eating grin off his ________ face.)
14 April 2007
Author: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
In memory of the recently departed Kurt Vonnegut, here is an excerpt from Slaughterhouse-Five (abridged for the sake of out-of-context clarity) that, I think, would make a wonderfully poignant children's book.
For some context, one of the characters--Billy Pilgrim--turns on the tv and watches a movie about American bombers in World War II. However, because of his unusual circumstance (you have to read the book to understand), he sees the movie unfold backwards--starting at the end and ending at the beginning. Now, a guy watching a TV movie wouldn't necessarily make for a great kid's book... but what he saw would:
"The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again."
Paired with the right illustrator (i.e. Bryan Collier of Martin's Big Words or the Marla Frazee from New Baby Train), this would make for a beautiful and powerful picture book... and a fitting testament to Vonnegut's vehement opposition to war.
12 April 2007
Author: Michaela Muntean
Illustrator: Pascal Lemaitre
This is one of the "funnest" books I've read in a while. If you are so bold as to disregard the title and open the book, you'll find that it is not yet finished. Instead you will find a busy and disgruntled pig. He is in the process of putting the book together and he makes it clear that you are in his way. He has writer's block, and its name is YOU. But don't listen to the pig! Do, DO open this book! (haha... doodoo.) You won't regret it!
This is the kind of book that I would classify as "postmodern"... if I knew what "postmodern" meant. The word is thrown around a lot (particularly in college, particularly in coffee shops, and usually by particularly particular people), yet few seemed to really know what they meant when they used it. (Those who did actually know what postmodern meant would usually keep it to themselves--preferring to sit in dimly-lit corners, carefully sipping their earl grey tea, and quietly pretending that they didn't put gel in their hair to make it look like they just woke up.)
Luckily, having worked in a college coffee shop, I have figured it out! Using the cumulative data from hundreds of coffee shop conversations that I have either been a part of or overheard, I have been able to piece together that postmodern means "especially cool if you are stoned." (i.e. "Don't you think that the pervasive use of mirrors as a symbolic element in Borges' short fiction is reflective of the postmodern nature of his labyrinthine narrative technique?" or "Dude, eating curly fries at 4:20 is soooo postmodern. Hey apron-man, can I get a refill on this apple pie?")
11 April 2007
Author/Illustrator: Maurice Sendak
In the Night Kitchen, a story about a boy's surreal dreams of being baked into a cake by the fat man from Laurel & Hardy (in triplicate), first caused a storm of controversy because the illustrations featured a fully naked boy. Despite all the brewhaha, Night Kitchen was named a Caldecott Honoree, and eventually assumed its rightful place among the pantheon of picture book classics. (Seriously, a lot of time has passed since In the Night Kitchen was published in 1970, but you would be hard pressed to find better illustrations.)
Sendak's ability to triumph over controversy brings to mind another situation in our recent political history. The year was 1997. A fierce political battle was being waged over one of the most coveted positions in government. The flames of controversy rose to new heights with the circulation of the following underground campaign flyer:
Okay, so it wasn't exactly Watergate... but there were rumors that I was almost suspended for "distributing child pornography". Excuse me?! It's my ass and i'll do what I want with it! (This is logic that has occassionally gotten me into trouble. But that's the risk you take when you put your ass on the line.) For the record, democracy prevailed and I won the election. However, I was never asked to put the aforementioned ass on any actual line... turns out, there is not much ass-on-lining needed when your main job is to type up minutes and take attendance.
Note: Apparently, the success of my campaign started a popular trend:
All I can say is: "You're welcome, America."
10 April 2007
Author/Illustrator: Mordecai Gerstein
Gerstein's beautifully illustrated story about a daredevil tightrope walker shows us the power of art to transcend tragedy. In the wake of 9/11, Gerstein presents us with a light-hearted memory that pays fitting tribute to the memory of the towers.
There is another man that the New York Times has dubbed "The Man Who Walked Between The Towers.": presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. Pundits wonder how much longer he can use the political capital of being America's Mayor during 9/11 without appearing to exploit an American tragedy. Talk about walking a political tightrope. At a recent campaign stop in South Carolina, Giuliani never actually uttered the words "nine-eleven", but he did use the phrase "terrorists around the world are planning to come here and kill us" nine hundred and eleven times during a 15 minute speech... a coincidence that did not escape the media's discerning eye.
Can a presidential campaign be fueled almost exclusively on fear? If so, can other things be fueled by fear? Forget about biodiesel! Put that vegetable oil back into the deep fryer! I'm running my Honda Civic on the Washington Times and Bride of Chucky!
Catch-22: As with all Energy Independence plans, there is a catch. While technically oil-independent, if we become a fear-dependent country, we run the risk of:
a) becoming dependent on the ever-present threat of terrorism. This can provide incredible momentum in the short run, but over the long haul it is unsustainable and eventually everything will grind to a screeching halt. (see exhibit A: the Bush Admnistration)
b) subjecting ourselves to more and more crappy horror movies every winter. I mean, did you see the previews for Dead Silence? The ghost of an evil ventriloquist?! How much money did they waste on that? It's worth it to walk or ride a bike just so we don't have to deal with an eternity of that crap.
(Awesome) Solution to Crappy Movies: With the aid of a time machine, we send a lone warrior back in time (preferably an attractive woman in a tight 70's style futuristic leather suit). She will have only her cunning and good looks to protect her. Her weapon of choice: a Powerbook loaded with iMovie. Her mission is simple: Preemptively take the worst horror movies of the year and combine them with the worst romantic comedies of the year. This way, instead of wasting people's time with an evil ventriloquest (Dead Silence) and a trite romance between two aging hipsters (Music and Lyrics), audiences would be treated to a crowd-pleasing movie where Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore get attacked by an of army bloodthirsty puppets while Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called To Say I Love You" plays in the background. I would gladly waste $10 to see that.
The Future Is Already Here Note: I suspect that our time-traveling savior may have already sprung into action. Last year, Miramax began production of a mediocre romantic comedy starring Luke "Warm" Wilson and Kate Beckinsdale. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino had begun filming the sequel to the ultra-gory hit, Hostel. Mysteriously, both projects were inexplicably cancelled and all records have since vanished. And now, coming to a theater near you, is the movie Vacancy, featuring Wilson and Beckinsdale getting sidetracked while on vacation and being forced to stay in a deadly roadside motel.
Bless you, bodacious video-editing babe from the future! Humanity owes you one!
Pass the popcorn.
09 April 2007
Author/Illustrator: Dr. Seuss
Many point to Bruno Bettelheim's award winning book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, as the moment that Freudian psychoanalysis officially came in contact with the realm of children's literature. While it is true that Bettleheim may have been one of the first academics to tackle the subject, it was the seminal work of Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) that introduced children to Freud for the first time. Case in point: his playful exploration of the Oedipal complex: Hop on Pop.
Hop on Pop was published in 1963, a full 13 years before Bettelheim's Enchantment, and decades before Freud was widely dismissed by the psychological community as a coked-up sex fiend. Pop can be read as a thinly veiled introduction to the disturbing psychosexual theory that the father is the enemy who is preventing us from realizing some deeply ingrained sexual need for our mothers. Gross! Luckily, Seuss didn't get too caught up in the raging Sigmundsteria of the times, otherwise he may have been tempted to go all-out Oedipal and written his book as Hop on Pop then Marry Mommy, which probably would have tarnished his otherwise untouchable legacy.
Upon closer inspection, Freud and other psychological influences can be found sprinkled throughout Seuss's work. The Cat in the Hat is nothing more than a hyperkinetic romp through the subconscious with the Id, Ego, and Superego. The entire plot of Green Eggs and Ham is driven by Freud's theories of the repression and sublimation of base impulses. (What else could "Sam I Am" be, other than an anal-retentive individual's guilt-ridden projection of the repressed self and its latent desires?) And Horton Hears a Who? Horton hears a psychiatrist diagnosing him with schizophrenia, that's who he hears. In fact, if you read too closely, Seussville runs the risk of becoming an inescapable labyrinth of Freudian slips and slides... so maybe we're better off reading with eyes wide shut.
06 April 2007
Author/Illustrator: Wanda Gag
A lonely couple decides that they want to get a cat. The husband heads off into the countryside and comes upon a hill that is covered with millions, Trillions, BILLIONS of cats! Unable to pick a favorite among the throng of adorable kitties, the couple asks them, "Who is the prettiest?" Bad idea. In a storm of unspeakable violence, the cats proceed to kill eachother off as they attempt to prove their superiority. After the fight, there is only one lone unassuming kitten left. This particular little kitten survived because she was too modest to promote herself, thereby managing to stay above (or below) the fray and escaping the deadly competition.
This story sheds light on a particularly relevant problem in today's information saturated world--the rise of the internet has created a million cat conundrum for every citizen with access to a computer. As we set off on our search for information, how are we to choose between the infinite sources of data? With so many options at our disposal, how can we possibly know who's voice deserves our attention? Are the overwhelming number of alternatives dooming us to a life of paralysis through indecision? Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar? Is there anything we can do?!
The answer is simple: Advertising. That is where Gag's book gets it wrong... marketing and self-promotion are actually the simplest way to make sense of this crazy world. In a world of infinite choices, it is up to marketing to manufacture a hierarchy and tell us who to pay attention to. Who has the best commercials? Who has the catchiest jingle? Who's video travels the information superhighway the fastest? We don't have to find the best option, the best option will find us! In today's world, that quiet little kitty wouldn't have stood a chance. She would never get noticed--for all intents and purposes, she would not exist. Sure, this system isn't exactly fair, and it does makes your soul cry just a little... but we might as well face the facts: Advertising is the new religion, self-promotion our saving grace.
For those of you who are skeptical about the connection between advertising and religion, I present you with Exhibit A: Jesus. Regardless of your religious affiliation, there is no denying that Jesus is, by far, the most successful spokesperson in history--followed at a safe distance by Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald, and the late Anna Nicole Smith (the former spokeswoman for both TrimSpa and Giant Boobs... may they rest in peace).
Not only that, but (from a purely marketing standpoint) the image of Jesus on the Cross is easily the most powerful and successful example of "image branding" that the world has ever seen. As the first truly transcendent logo, this image virtually gave birth to modern advertising. Without Jesus on the Cross, there would be no Nike Swoosh, no Macintosh Apple, no IKEA Furgenzihooven. The Christian God is the Michael Jordan of advertising. And Christianity is the Nike of religions.
As a point of contrast, consider Buddhism. The name brand recognition of Buddhism is so tenuous that lightweights such as Cypress Hill and legions of Phish fans were able to use the Buddha as a symbol for marijuana. Have you ever seen a religion so brazenly disrespected? Do you think Jesus would tolerate being the spokesperson for heroin? Can you imagine Mohammed on a trippy dorm poster celebrating crystal meth? Or a Vishnu shaped hooka*? No, Buddhism desperately needs to work on its marketing strategy. In the hallowed halls of divine advertising, if Christianity is Nike... then Buddhism is the New Balance of religions.
*I actually can see this happening. If someone does make a Vishnu shaped hooka, I want my cut of the blasphemous profits.
05 April 2007
Author/Illustrator: Todd Parr
We are all different and we all have our insecurities about those differences. For example, I am a man (formerly boy) with somewhat feminine (alright, downright girly) hands. One of the challenges as you make your way down the windy road of life is to come to terms with yourself and overcome those insecurities. As I have. (But don't joke about my hands when I'm drunk unless you want a feminine fist to the face. Don't say I didn't warn you.)
This book of saccharine feel-good platitudes is a good natured attempt to help children embrace their differences and realize that those little quirks are what makes us special. Which is a great thing to teach kids--in theory, Parr should be commended. However, as with all artificial sweeteners, too much can kill you... and this book is definitely overkill. The final straw comes at the end with a direct message from the author: "It's Okay to be different. You are Special and Important just because of being Who You Are. Love, Todd." Isn't that just precious? Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go throw up.
That being said, against all odds, and despite its nauseating optimism and electrifyingly offensive color scheme (when did I turn into such a jaded old grump?), this book does get an official Bottom Shelf Salute! How is this possible? Simple. Parr manages to save his book from the wrath of my paper shredder with one glorious page that features the single greatest affirmation of all time: "It's okay to eat macaroni and cheese in the bathtub."
Can I get an AMEN! Time to pop some EZ-Mac into the microwave, fix myself a bubble bath, and fire up the loofa... Paradise awaits!
Customer Service Note: During a recent party (at approximately 3:32 am), a friend and I were having some trouble preparing our late night mac & cheese fix. So we called the Kraft hotline to ask, "Where is the butter?! Can you tell us where the butter is?!"
They were not the least bit helpful. Apparently it's not okay to be that different that early in the morning.
04 April 2007
Author/Illustrator: Ezra Jack Keats
In this brutal offering from one of the giants of children's literature, our young protagonist Peter is appalled to find out that all his possessions are being painted pink to be given to his newborn sister. The nerve! Peter initially resists his parents' attempt to co-opt all his belongings, particularly his favorite chair. But eventually, like all doe-eyed optimists, Peter is forced to swallow the bitter pill of reality. He concedes defeat--our hero has fallen. Peter offers up his chair as a conciliatory symbol of his newfound understanding: It's her world now, I'm merely a bit player.
While these tough luck lessons are painfully necessary for children, they are perhaps even more valuable for adults. In Peter's case it was a new baby. In John Kerry's case, it was a new democratic nominee for president. Like Peter, Kerry came to his senses, realizing that his time had passed and (thankfully) decided not to make another run at the presidency. Now the only question is... who gets the democratic chair? Does Kerry follow Peter's example and paint the democratic nomination pink for the apparent front-runner Hillary? Does he paint it purple for bridge-building phenom Obama? Or maybe he fits his chair with a booster seat and some crayons for the adorable Dennis Kucinich?
Meanwhile, across the street, neighborhood outcast Ralphy Nader is busy building his own chair out of driftwood and moral fiber. It is not a sturdy chair, and it will give you splinters if you sit on it, but dagnabit, someone has to provide an alternative to the mass-production, cookie cutter furniture industry! It's not easy being green. Keep fighting the good fight, Ralphy... you crazy beautiful pirate, you.
03 April 2007
Author: Emily Jenkins
Illustrator: Sergio Ruzzier
In this affirming yarn about unconditional love, a mother asserts her love for her child by saying stuff like:
Love you when you whine;
Love you when you don't say 'please';
Love you when you say scream 'lollipop, lollipop, lollipop' forty-five minutes in line at the bank...
and it continues along those lines the whole way through: Love you when you (insert annoying behavior here).
This is book is being lauded as a more realistic, pull-no-punches portrayal of parenting--in contrast to the normally sugar-coated picture books about the perfect and peaceful love between a parent and child. However, if the author really wanted to create a realistic portrayal of the challenge of parenting, she would have called the book, Love You Despite the Fact That You Whine and Sometimes Annoy the Crap Out of Me... But Don't Push Your Luck.
Hollywood Note: If this book sounds familiar, it's because it is a derivative of the climactic scene in When Harry Met Sally, when Billy Crystal says:
"I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts... blah, blah, blah, blah, blah... I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."
Again, a more realistic scene would have gone like this:
"I hate that you are a fussy bitch that makes stupid faces when we fight. That being said, I am willing to overlook all that if you'll agree to sleep with me on a semi-consistent basis. Sound good? If so, let's get this thing done quickly so we can file a joint tax return."
Now that's what I call romance.
(To read more about how Hollywood has ruined love for us all, see Chuck Klosterman's essay "This is Emo" from Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.)
02 April 2007
Author: Mary Quattlebaum
Illustrator: Leonid Gore
In this charming bit of Virginia folklore, Colonel Lightfoot, a vain country gentleman (otherwise known as a "foppish dandy"), must evict a vagrant who is squatting on his land... which proves difficult because this particular vagrant happens to be the Devil himself. The Devil, knowing that Lightfoot is extremely proud of his dancing ability, challenges the Colonel to a dance contest. Stakes are high: winner gets to stay on the land.
While this may seem rather quaint and silly today, at the time, dance-offs were a socially acceptable form of negotiation. Keep in mind that in the early days of colonial America, property law was still in its infancy and contract litigation had yet to develop into the art form that we see today. Without a standard legal protocol for this kind of conflict resolution, people had to rely on the only reliable tool they had: Dance.
Even in the not-to-distant past, dance-offs were still commonplace as a method of resolving property disputes. The turning point came in the mid-fifties when a brutal New York turf war between two rival gangs forced the government to step in and outlaw any form of confrontational gyration. (The violent showdown was definitively captured in the classic documentary West Side Story.) This shocking example of inner-city violence ignited a media storm that caused a nationwide fear of dance. Inevitably, the widespread panic infiltrated America's heartland, as small towns started to ban dances of all kinds. This mass hysteria was met with some resistance, as small youth-led revolutions arose to oppose this latest wave of puritanical hysteria. The most notable case was the Illinois "Dance Dance Revolution" led by the anti-establishment icon Kevin Bacon. (For more information see his stirring biography: Footloose.)
Despite the small pockets of grassroots resistance, dancing remains illegal as a method of settling property disputes (otherwise Donald Trump would never have been able to build his ridiculous empire... unless he made a deal with the devil, which I'm sure he did anyway). However, dancing is still used as a negotiating tool, but almost exclusively in the realm of sexual negotiation. Typically, the two parties involved will take to the dance floor to grind out a mutual understanding for a potential emotional/sexual contract... usually set to the hypnotic beat of a devilishly bad song about "bringing sexy back" or "my humps" (aka lovely lady lumps). I guess that's what you call progress?