30 May 2007

The Saggy Baggy Elephant



Author: Kathyrn Jackson
Illustrator: Gustaf Tenggren

Written in 1947 as part of the Big Little Golden Book series, the Saggy Baggy Elephant is the harrowing tale of an elephant who cannot escape the social pressures to keep a slim and trim figure.

Our story begins with a happy little elephant dancing through the jungle. Happy until an obnoxious parrot begins to make fun of the elephant for its sagging skin. Suddenly the elephant becomes extremely self-conscious about its appearance and considers a series of drastic measures to try to improve itself.

Despite the fact that the television age was still in its infancy in 1947, literary critics maintain that the Saggy Baggy Elephant was written as a prophetic warning about the effect of television (the parrot symbolizing the squawk box/tv) on our self-image and predicted the resulting rise of the plastic surgery industry (and in the case of some disturbing reality television shows, the apocalyptic combination of the two). In 2002, a letter to the editor of Jack & Jill Magazine (signed mysteriously as only K.J.) was published in the March edition of the magazine. Below is a revealing excerpt from the cryptic and rambling letter.

"Even in the early days, I could see the dangerous influence of this little box that would soon be the centerpiece of everyone's living room. Say what you will about the flaws of a patriarchical society, but is it any better to replace the father figure with the television as the most revered and most listened-to family member? Television is a vehicle for the vast marketing machine, a machine that is only successful if it convinces us that was are in need of something. This can come in the form of a new car, a new toy, or even a new body. People make the mistake of assuming that commercials are the only things trying to sell us something. This is naive. Every image that comes on that screen is constructed to make you want. Every second is designed to entice you to consume. Each attractive person that saunters across the screen is another straw on the camel's back, weighing him/her down with the burden of unrealistic expectations. The sad truth behind the Saggy Baggy Elephant is that with television's satanic voice incessantly chirping in our ears, presenting us with skewed visions of physical norms, it is only natural that the we develop acute neuroses about our bodies."

(Note: If the author of the letter is indeed Kathyrn Jackson, it should be noted that she wasn't exactly Rita Hayworth... so the preceeding rant may just be a case of sour grapes.)

But back to our story about our saggy baggy pal. The elephant, newly aware of its short comings, is presented with a series of remedies, each of which has dangerous side effects. This is the part where Jackson truly earns her keep as the modern day Nostradamus of picture books:

1) A hungry tiger offers to bite off a few pounds for the elephant--a blunt symbolic representation of the modern medical procedure known as liposuction.

2) The elephant tries soaking itself in water to shrink its skin--a reference to the disturbingly popular botox revolution.

3) Finally, the elephant foresakes all of these quick-fix remedies and hides in a dark cave--which eerily predicts next year's Hide All Ugly People In A Dark Cave Initiative that will be passed by a near unanimous bipartisan vote in Congress (Senator Joe Lieberman will abstain for obviously self-serving reasons... let's just say you won't find him in People Magazine's Sexiest Men Alive issue any time soon).

25 May 2007

When Chocolate Milk Moved In



Author: Ken Harvey
Illustrator: Mary Sue Hermes

Using the refrigerator as the setting for a contrived parable about racial tolerance, When Chocolate Milk Moved In tackles the difficult issue of residential integration. The main characters in this story are two gallons of milk, Mr. and Mrs. Gallon. A new neighbor arrives and Frank is wary because the new neighbor is... chocolate milk.

"Truthfully, he was a little bit shocked by what he saw. Mr. Chocolate looked different. He was darker. Frank had been around milk his entire life and had never seen dark milk. he didn't know what to think."

Racial tensions eventually boil over when a confrontation between white and chocolate milk threatens the peace of the refrigerator. In the end, however, Frank Gallon and Mr. Chocolate overcome their differences and learn to live side by side (or shelf by shelf).

When Chocolate Milk Moved In is the first in a series called Life in the Fridge (which would later inspire the classic TV drama Homicide: Life on the Street). In a later Fridge installment, in order to preserve the peace and prevent future instances of racially motivated violence , the fridge neighborhood action committee organizes a Community Forum on Fridge Relations. Featured panelists are:

· Martin Luther King Crab Jr.
· Ces├ír Salad (of the United Farm Vegetable Organizing Committee)
· The Dalai Lamb Kabob
· Malcolm Xtra Crisp Lettuce

The Forum is a success until the spicy and bold Don Imustard opens his wide mouth and refers to Brocolli as a "nappy headed side dish". He is immediately cast out of the fridge and spends the rest of his days in exile on the middle shelf of the cupboard next to a box of stale saltines.

Note: This book preaching racial tolerance was written by Ken Harvey, a former linebacker for the Washington Redskins. This is notable for two reasons:

1) The Washington Redskins demonstrate a sustained disdain for race relations by stubbornly refusing to change their name despite its racially insensitive and demeaning use of Native Americans as a mascot.

2) The Life in the Fridge series was written by a former football player and it wasn't William "The Refrigerator" Perry.

22 May 2007

Shrek!



Author/Illustrator: William Steig

"His mother was ugly and his father was ugly, but Shrek was uglier than the two of them put together."

This timeless opening line ranks right up there with "Call me Ishmael" and "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." on the short list of greatest first sentences of all time. And so was born the juggernaut that is the Shrek multimedia empire.

With Shrek The Third in theaters everywhere, I thought it'd be interesting to look back at the original Shrek story which was written by the incomparable William Steig. Before it was given the brilliant Pixar treatment and turned into a rollicking pop-culture adventure through fairytale land, Shrek! was a charming but quaint little story about an ugly ogre.

The original Shrek was one of the first truly successful anti-heroes of children's literature. Children delighted in the devilish Shrek as he takes a casually destructive stroll over traditional fairytale convention. What makes Steig's tale so appealing is that he resists the urge to provide us with a tidy moral and does not feel the need to redeem Shrek from his badness. We like Shrek precisely because he does bad things and in the process he makes the good guys look silly. (To quote the great Dark Helmet, "Evil will always triumph because good is dumb.")

The Disney/Pixar film takes this story and pumps it full of steroids... and then filters it through old issues of US Weekly and Rolling Stone. While the original Shrek! was appealing in its simplicity and irreverence, the Shrek movies are wildly successful because of they are complex and layered with a neverending supply of pop-culture references that appeal to adults as well as children. Comparing the two is like comparing a chili cheese dog with a Thanksgiving dinner. Or more accurately, it's like comparing Tecmo Super Bowl to Madden 2007 (for the record, I'd go with Tecmo Super Bowl 9 times out of 10).

Scorecard: Since the book and the movie are so vastly different, it can be hard to figure out where to lay your allegiance. Not that you have to--it's okay to like both. But in case you did want to make a comparison, here is a quick scorecard to get you started:

• In the book, there is a cameo appearance by talking donkey. In the movie, you have Eddie Murphy's purposefully and endlessly annoying jackass. (Book 1, Movie 0)

Shrek 2 has Puss 'N Boots. (Book 1, Movie 1)

Shrek 2 has a passing reference to Justin Timberlake. (Book 2, Movie -539)

In the book, Shrek breaths fire and shoots lasers from his eyes. In the movie, he has a Scottish accent. (Book 27, Movie -539)

The first movie has the politically incorrect (and hilarious) "Do You Know the Muffin Man" torture scene. (Book 27, Movie 5)

• Mike Myers (the voice of Shrek) also starred in The Cat in the Hat movie. (Book 27, Movie -453,234,497,328)

That should be enough to get you started. Obviously, I haven't seen Shrek the Third yet (I'm apprehensive to say the least), but it could drastically alter the standings. However, the fact that Justin Timberlake has an actual role in this movie automatically knocks it back another 3,072 points.

21 May 2007

jellybeans



Author/Illustrator: Sylvia Van Ommen

George (a rabbit) and Oscar (cat) arrange to meet up in the park to share jellybeans. Their afternoon snack soon leads to a disarming discussion of the existence of heaven, as both characters express their anxieties about the great beyond. The key to Van Ommen's story is that she doesn't pretend to have any answers. Rather, she allows George and Oscar the luxury of their existential anxieties... which is much more refreshing than sweeping their worries under the rug with sugar-coated message. Jellybeans is ultimately optimistic, but does not dare to discount or dismiss the validity of uncertainty (and reasonable doses of quiet despair).

Possible sequels to jellybeans:

gummy bears:
George and Oscar share an packet of gummy bears while discussing Purgatory. The story ends with a discussion of Pope Benedict's recent decision to reconsider the doctrine of "limbus infantum", which says that unbaptized babies go into Limbo.

peanut m&m's: While considering the concept of hell, George and Oscar decide that if they do happen to end up in a fiery afterlife, they would both bring m&m's because they melt in your mouth, not in your hand.

now & laters: George and Oscar are joined by their buddy Sid the Squirrel for a meditation session and a lesson on reincarnation.

brussel sprouts: The two friends meet up in the park only to realize that they both forgot to bring candy. This disappointing turn of events forces them to grapple with the possibility that there may not be an afterlife. Maybe religious doctrine has it all wrong. Maybe you die and you're dead, and that's all she wrote. The two friends are rudely interrupted when Christopher Hitchens pops out from behind a tree and drunkenly shouts, "Aha!" and then kicks Oscar in the head for good measure.

18 May 2007

The Big Bad Wolf and Me



Author/Illustrator: Delphine Perret

This is a charming tale about a big bad wolf who has lost his mojo. Perret's wolf is in the midst of an existential crisis because his life has lost meaning. What will he do now that he is a Big Bad Wolf that isn't so big or bad anymore?

Perret's tale is also the latest chapter in the continuing saga involving our favorite much-maligned wolf... Paul Wolfowitz. With his recent resignation, he is not only handing over his job, he is relinquishing the last of his mojo.

This was the man who used to strike fear in the hearts and minds of the world with the sharp and terrible teeth of his neo-conservative policies. This is the architect of the Iraq War! Now he just got bullied into resigning by a bunch of Europeans. Mojo meter: Running on Empty.

So what does a mojo-less wolf do? He goes into hiding. In Perret's story, it is up to a young boy to befriend the humiliated wolf, nurture him and help him regain his swagger. In Wolfowitz's case, the young boy will probably come in the form of some high powered D.C. lobbying firm or think tank. They will inevitably pay him embarrassing amounts of money and give him time to lick his wounds and recover from his latest political defeat.

Perret's Big Bad Wolf does eventually get his swagger back... the question is, will Wolfowitz? And if he does resurface, what new and terrible tricks will he have learned? Who will be his first victim? And will he still have those Howdy Doody ears?

Note: This latest scandal brought a critical issue to the forefront. I'm not talking about the need to clamp down on corruption within international politics, or even the declining credibility of the United States on the world stage... the key issue here is that we, as a society, really need to come up with better words than boyfriend and girlfriend. I mean, we're talking about grown men and women here... over the hill people who are (hopefully) engaged in a mature (and in this case, lucrative) relationship... doesn't boyfriend and girlfriend sound a little immature and trite? It is especially unfortunate for Ms. Riza, who is constantly referred to in the press as "Wolfowitz's girlfriend". This is unfortunate on two levels:

1) The term "Wolfowitz's girlfriend" undermines any of her professional achievements by labeling her purely based on her personal relationship with Wolfowitz. Defining her, not by her own merits, but by her relationship to her male partner is not only an affront to feminist ideology, but sounds more appropriate for the junior high school yard.

2) The term "Wolfowitz's girlfriend" implies that she was dating a loser.

So my challenge to you is to come up with better terminology for boyfriend and girlfriend. Any suggestions?

17 May 2007

Stanley Mows the Lawn



Author/Illustrator: Craig Frazier

This is a wholly unexceptional book. I'm not even going to mention what happens... because I already forgot. That's how unexceptional it was. I found out later that it is critically acclaimed for its "bold" artwork. It even won some awards. Usually, this would make me reconsider my original assessment. But not in this case. My original assessment was that book sucks and I'm sticking to it.

What was notable was that the author's biography mentioned that Frazier was the "designer of the Adobe Typeface Critter." Now that is interesting. No one ever really thinks about the face behind the font. For instance, who was the genius that invented the universally accepted Times New Roman? What tortured soul that came up with Showcard Gothic? And most importantly, what the heck is up with Wingdings?!

15 May 2007

Chrysanthemum



Author/Illustrator: Kevin Henkes

A little girl mouse named Chrysanthemum is proud of her unique name until she starts school and the cold harsh reality of social pressure causes her to second guess her name's uncommon beauty. Henkes (as always) displays a deft touch in portraying the psychological distress that a school yard can cause in a young child. He also, through subtle details in his illustrations (a book title here, a raised eyebrow there), captures the piqued anxiety that comes with parenting. No responsible parent wants to cause their child any undue harm.

Case in point: According to data collected by the Social Security Administration, the name "Katrina" has dropped 100 spots in the list of most popular names. Obviously, people are wary of having their child associated with such a devastating storm. Experienced Social Security officials knew this coming, as this is not the first case of a name being sidetracked by a disaster. Some other notable examples are:

Hurricane Gloria: After the hurricane viciously attacked the Atlantic Coast, the musical career of Gloria Estefan took a sharp nosedive. Fans simply could not stomach the cruel irony of brutal natural devastation and feel good snyth-pop carrying the same name.

Chernobyl: Decades after the tragic implosion of the duo Sonny & Cher, the mutant-like Cher attempted to release a concept album called Cher-Noble to pay tribute to the victims of the cataclysmic nuclear explosion. In a rare moment of clarity, studio execs decided that it was in poor taste and vetoed it. In a more typical moment of sheer madness, they decided to unleash the album anyways a year later as simply, Cher.

Mt. Vesuvius: Have you ever met anyone named Vesuvius? Me neither.

The Fall of Paris: Given the horrifically ridiculous life trajectory of Paris Hilton, the name has been virtually retired for humans. It has, however, experienced a resurgence among the names of small toy-sized dogs. According to the National Kennel Club, 73% of all dogs carried around in purses are named "Paris". The other 27% is evenly split between "Cooper," "Schmoopykins" and "Rat-faced Uggo."

14 May 2007

Little Pea



Author: Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Illustrator: Jen Corace

Peas have long been demonized as the bland villians of childhood dinners... which is understandable, since they are gross little green balls of paste. With Little Pea, author Rosenthal turns the tables on us with the story a cute little ball of energy that likes likes to hang out with his friends, roll down hills, play games with his dad--but then every night, he gets grossed out because he has to eat... candy. Aha! The tables have officially turned, my friends! Rosenthal presents an interesting premise with some clever plot twists while Corace's keen sense of style infuses the characters (which are just little green circles) with surprising energy and personality.

"Kids Take" note: Kids, take note! Are you tired of being told to "eat your peas"? Well, here's your chance! When you're at the library or the bookstore, ask your parental figure to read Little Pea to you. Then, memorize the following statement and recite it the next time you have disgusting peas for dinner:

"If everyone could please put down their forks for a minute, I have something to say. While I appreciate your hard work in providing nourishing food for me and the rest of the family, I must abstain from eating my peas tonight and, most likely, for the rest of my life. While reading Little Pea was a great moment that strengthened our adult/child relationship, I'm afraid that it has irrevocably altered the way that I view my food. Rosenthal's effective anthropomorphization of the tiny vegetables has made it impossible for me to swallow a spoonful of peas without imagining that I am devouring entire communities of pea families and their friends. My conscience, albeit in its formative stages, will not permit this. In fact, you should rejoice in the fact that I am not eating my peas. After presenting these lovely legumes as friendly little self-realized entities, if I were to enjoy eating them, it would reveal a sadistic nature that would be cause for alarm and perhaps call for years of expensive psychological counseling. In conclusion, I conscientiously object to finishing my peas and, being the forward-thinking parental figures that I know you to be, I trust that you will understand and respect this latest phase of my intellectual and psycho-social development. Good Night and Good Luck."

If that doesn't work, try throwing up on the couch. Either way, you can kiss those peas goodbye!

A Day After Mother's Day Poem



The Lanyard
Billy Collins (2 Time U.S. Poet Laureate)

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

11 May 2007

Love You Forever



Author/Illustrator: Robert Munsch

In honour of the upcoming Mother's Day, I present you with a picture book classic that is guaranteed to make you choke up. Yes, it's kind of cheesy, the illustrations aren't that spectacular, and the plot is very predictable, but none of that matters. You know what Munsch is trying to do from the get-go, but you are powerless to stop him.

It's exactly like watching a horror movie where you know that it is getting "all-too-quiet" as the characters venture deeper and deeper into the basement of the sinister old house. You know the director has something nasty in store for you, but no matter how much you prepare yourself for the inevitable bloodbath, you still end up jumping when the serial killer leaps out with a knife and slashes away to a soundtrack of screeching violins.

Same thing here. You know that Munsch is going straight for your emotional jugular with his nostalgia-tipped dagger, but there's nothing you can do about it. Like it or not, Munsch is going to reach right into your chest, pull out your still-beating heart, and squeeze out some tears.

If, somehow, you don't feel anything, then congratulations! You have a heart of pure stone and should pursue a career that will take advantage of your lack of a soul... like guillotine operator or investment banker.

Happy Mother's Day!

10 May 2007

It Looked Like Spilt Milk



Author/Illustrator: Charles G. Shaw

Tana Hoban pioneered the starkly simplistic style of illustration in (super) early literacy books with White on Black and Black on White. These books feature crisp silhouettes of easily recognizable objects which (because of their simplicity) are effective in triggering the early stages of object recognition in young children.

Shaw's book uses the same basic concept, but takes it one step beyond. He makes it slightly more challenging by making the silhouettes look like splatters of milk that happen to take the shape of everyday objects (or Rorschach inkblots).

This approach is a tad more complex than Hoban's, so there is the slightest risk of frustrated children. But then you get to say, "Hey, there's no use crying over spilt milk!" Ba dum ching!

They won't get what's so funny, so be careful not to laugh too much at your own joke. The child might think that you are laughing at their educational struggles and may give up on learning to read altogether. Then you'll both have a very legitimate reason to cry over spilt milk.

A Handy Tip from My First Post-College Bachelor Pad: If you happen to spill milk on a carpet in your living room, do not rub it into the carpet with your foot.

I know what you're thinking: "But it seems to make so much sense in that a) the spill miraculously disappears and b) I didn't have to get off the couch to get a napkin!" I understand the temptation, but trust me... use that technique and things will turn sour quickly. You might not be crying over spilt milk, but you will be crying over your inability to keep a girlfriend because you live in a freakin' pigsty.

09 May 2007

Moo, Baa, La La La!



Author/Illustrator: Sandra Boynton

A cow says Moo.
A sheep says Baa.
Three singing pigs say La La La!
"No, no!" you say, "That isn't right. Pigs say Oink all day and night."

This book takes a whimsical stab at our society's deep-seated need for predictability and conformity. Boynton is a master of whimsical animals... and if you look closely on the cover, you'll see that the animals are sheepishly venturing "outside the box." (Pun intended--except that one of the animals actually is a sheep so it's not really a pun but an accurate description.)

At the beginning of this story, everything on the farm is going according to plan until the three musically talented piggies challenge our preconceived notions of what a pig can do by singing La La La! How does the public react to this act of creative expression? They get all huffy and assert that, No! Pigs don't sing, they Oink! In other words, the public doesn't handle unpredictability well. And with a presidential election looming just over the horizon, this attitude has broad political implications. In today's poll-obsessed political environment, if the pig community's political base wants the pigs to say "oink", it better acquiesce if it wants any hope of getting out of the barnyard primaries. If they don't "oink", someone else will.

This creates a warped democracy where candidates are not allowed to speak their own mind if it is not in line with their party. This only fuels the polarization of American bipartisan politics because candidates are forced to pander to party faithful or they won't even get a shot at the presidency. Obviously, this affects all politicians, whether they be pig, donkey, elephant, or emu.

This season's most notable victim of this is John McCain. Back in 2001, he was the media darling, a renegade, straight-shooting, tell-it-like-it-is candidate with wide-spread appeal. The media loves a rebel... but party loyalists, not so much. McCain failed to gain the republican nomination. Having learned his lesson, this time around he reigned in the straight talk a little in order to compromise and fall in with the party line. In essence, he traded the Straight Talk Express for the Pucker-up Pushcart and in the process lost his glamourous appeal. He may capture the Republican nomination... but he can no longer capture our imaginations.

Though, after last week's Republican primary debate, it has become increasingly obvious that no republican candidate is doing much capturing of any imaginations. Which is why there is such a clamor for Fred Thompson to throw his hat into the ring. What Thompson has, that none of the other candidates have, is that Reagan-esque movie star cachet. This of course is in large part because he plays the tough district attorney on Law & Order.

I, however, am not so easily fooled. I would never vote for a candidate just because he plays a dignified role in a network TV drama. That being said... if Thompson were to guarantee that the entire cabinet would filled with the cast of Law & Order, I'd have to give it some serious thought. In fact, I will give him my vote right now if he promises to build his administration around my favorite Law & Order ensemble cast:


President
Fred Thompson






Vice President
Adam Schiff (a.k.a. Steven Hill)





Secretary of State
Jack McCoy (a.k.a. Sam Waterston)






Secretary of Defense
Rey Curtis (a.k.a. Benjamin Bratt)




Attorney General
Jamie Ross (a.k.a. Carey Lowell)
Note: Will face a Congressional Hearing when it is discovered that she is married to Richard Gere. Disgraced, she immediately steps down from her post.



Director of Homeland Security
Lennie Brisco (a.k.a. Jerry Orbach)
Note: Sadly, Orbach passed away 3 years ago. Luckily, he is convinced to return from the grave and serve as a zombie, replacing the current zombie director, Michael Chertoff.



Secretary of Agriculture
Mike Logan (a.k.a. Christopher Noth)
Note: Relegated to the least glamorous cabinet post due to his role in Sex and the City.


Not only is this an administration stocked with fake integrity and carefully scripted attitude, but demographically, it's pretty realistic. 5 White Males, 1 Latino Male, and 1 White Female... Karl Rove would be hard pressed to plan it any better. However, to maximize the political savviness, we'll have to recruit a cast member from Law & Order SVU to round out the administration:


Secretary of Education

Odafin 'Fin' Tutuola (a.k.a. Ice-T)




There! Now that's an administration that captures the imagination and covers most major demographics. (There were no prominent Asian characters on the show, so Secretary Chao can keep her Department of Labor... for now. La La La!)

08 May 2007

The Harry-est Town in America Contest



Author: J.K. Rowling

Amazon.com is keeping tabs on which town pre-orders the most copies of the the last Harry Potter book: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The winning town gets a whopping $5,000 gift certificate (to Amazon.com, of course) donated to a local non-profit organization. As of this morning, Virginia was dominating the competition with 3 out of the top 5 towns. Thus proving, once and for all, that VA is the dorkiest state in the union. Thomas Jefferson would be proud.

Considering that Amazon is going sell millions upon millions of copies of this book... $5,000 is a pretty paltry sum (a.k.a. crappy reward). Then again, cities usually get short changed in these kinds of cheesy promotional stunts. Other past examples of "best-selling book towns":

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Berkeley, California (1975)
Reward: Actor Dennis Hopper agreed to serve as the honorary Director of the Parks & Recreation department for a 12 month appointment. (He made it 3 weeks before running off naked and screaming toward the deserts of New Mexico.)

Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul
Corpus Christi, Texas (1993)
Reward: Your choice of 1) Eternal Salvation or 2) a Big-Ass pickup truck and a case of beer.

The Notebook
Wimpy Creek, Oklahoma (1997)
Reward: Your choice of 1) a year's supply of Kleenex or 2) a punching bag with a picture of Nicholas Sparks on it.

The Origin of the Species
Topeka, Kansas (2004)
Reward: Free matches for the 73rd Annual Anti-Evolution Darwin Book Burn-a-thon.

How to Blow $50,000 in Just 9 Short Months!!!
Cambridge, Massachusetts (every damn year til the end of time)
Reward: A lifetime of crippling student loan debt.

Note: The link to the Harry-est Town in America page was courtesy of Alex "Mayor of Charm City" MacArthur. You may recognize him as Billy Crudup's stunt double in movies such as Big Fish and Almost Famous.

07 May 2007

Max Moves to Moscow



Author/Illustrator: Winifred Riser

Max Moves to Moscow is a revealing story about America's influence on life in post-communist Russia. Max the black lab (democracy) moves from the U.S. to Russia. At first, he encounters an unwelcoming society that is buried under a thick blanket of snow from the harsh communist winter (and the literally cold war). However, due to his persistence and American can-do attitude, Max eventually makes friends with the dogs in the park and teaches them a new ball game (capitalism). This game proves to have a steep learning curve* and the dogs keep losing the balls in the snow.

When the snow eventually melts, suddenly there are balls all over the place, ushering in a period of general chaos as the dogs struggle to deal with their newfound wealth. Yeltsin the Russian Bulldog eventually takes charge of the game and keeps the balls for himself and his friends... while the other dogs wait in long lines for toilet paper. When Yeltsin tires of playing, Putin the Russian Greyhound takes over and immediately tightens the rules and institutes a ruthlessly efficient authoritarian style to the game. More dogs get to play, but they aren't even sure if it's the same game anymore... or if they still want to play. Problem is, no one dares to stop or even call timeout. When Putin says play, you play--his bite is definitely worse than his bark. The last dog that tried to get out of the game mysteriously died from uranium poisoning.

*Grammar note: I used the term "steep learning curve" because that's what people say. But, as is so often the case, people are wrong. This from a website called Word Pirates:

"Many people refer to things that are difficult to learn as having a "steep learning curve." However, if a learnign curve is steep, this means that for smaller increments of time, larger gains in learnign are accomplished - a smaller run leads to relatively more rise int eh curve, so this would mean that the item was actually easier to learn. One would have to say "difficult learning curve' or "long learning curve."

Good point. But jeez, pirates... ever hear of spellcheck? Maybe they don't have it installed aboard their ships. If they even have ships. Wait, I bet they're not even real pirates! My guess is that they're goofballs with fake eyepatches that try to incorporate "arrrr" into every sentence. But don't underestimate these faux-buccaneers. They are more dangerous than they first appear... they will bore you to death with their riveting discussions about semantics and grammarrrrrrr. Personally, I'd rather walk the plank.

04 May 2007

Once Upon a Potty (Girl and Boy versions)



Author/Illustrator: Alona Frankel

The determined Frankel is single-minded in her mission, which is to destigmatize the process of moving your bowels. Her book promotes the use of mature terminology to remove the aura of impurity surrounding bodily functions. While I agree in theory, I failed this test miserably. This may be a useful book for teaching your child to use the potty, but reading about her child having "a bottom for sitting and a little hole in it for making Poo Poo," still made me cringe. I guess I'm not evolved or mature enough yet... and you know what? I'm fine with that. I don't need poop to be mature... I'm content to have poop be immature, obscene, and dressed like Santa. That's your cue, Mr. Hankey!

HIIII-DEE-HO!!!



Is this for real? An action figure?! And I thought Tickle Me Elmo was a "crappy" toy! Ba dum ching!

(I know, I know. I'm not particularly proud of that joke, but I couldn't resist. Like I said, the maturity level is not quite there yet.)




Author's Note:
If the name "Alona Frankel" sounds fake to you, that's because it probably is. According to unnamed sources at HarperFestival Publishing, Alona Frankel is actually the pseudonym for Ivana Tinkel, who is the wife of the world renowned cardiologist, Dr. Willy Poopsalot.

(Again, I apologize. I'm going to mature over the weekend. I swear.)

(poop.)

03 May 2007

Do You Want Be My Friend?



Author/Illustrator: Eric Carle

Hmmm... Carle might want to take this one back. In this story, a little mouse goes around asking various animals "Do you want to be my friend?" To which all the animals answer: "No." The mouse suffers one rejection after another until he finally comes across a fellow mouse. This time, when he asks "Do you want to be my friend?", the mouse answers "Yes!" and the two little mice go running off to play.

You might just think its a cute little story at first, but think again. Imagine the same exact story, but this time instead of animals, the story features little kids. Not so cute anymore, is it? The story carries an underlying message of self-segregation that is a little unsettling. Hopefully, this politically-incorrect theme was unintentional. Given his stellar track record, I am willing to give Carle the benefit of the doubt--for now. But I'm keeping my eye on you, Eric.

Silver Lining Note: On the bright side, with a little controversy, comes... THE TEACHABLE MOMENT!!! This is the perfect opportunity to engage your child in a frank discussion about race relations in modern day America. You can start by asking, How come none of the other animals wanted to be the mouse's friend? or Why did the two mice end up being friends? or Why was the elephant such a big jerk?

Then, have your child read Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, and write a 12 page paper analyzing playground dynamics to create a theoretical framework that outlines the challenges of identity formation in the multicultural climate of today's American society. 11 point font, single spaced, and with full citations (APA format). And make sure they take it seriously, because this assignment counts for 50% of their childhood.

02 May 2007

Tall



Author/Ilustrator: Jez Alborough

In Alborough's latest installment, Bobo the unbearably adorable monkey is tired of being small. In order to rectify his lack of height, he climbs on top of a rock and declares himself "Tall"! Predictably, his newfound status merely feeds his desires... the insatiable Bobo then climbs a lizard, then a lion, then continues to climb on top of progressively larger and larger animals. This little Napoleon is so blinded by his ambition and his delusions of grandeur that he does not pause to consider who he must trample on his way to the top. In the end, he finds himself mounted on the head of a giraffe, towering over the other animals of the forest. Having reached such great heights, he triumpantly screams "Tall"!, his little voice shaking the heavens. Unfortunately for him, the Gods are listening to the self-delusional little monkey and decide to punish his hubris by toppling him from his lofty perch. Fall!

Bobo's story, while tragic, was virtually inevitable... Bobo's self-image neurosis is merely a by-product of current social norms. Poor little monkey never stood a chance. In today's society (where bigger is better, and more is... well, more awesome), we are taught to embrace dissatisfaction as a virtue that drives us towards success. How else can you explain Bill Gates' unparralleled journey to the top? A nerd like him? He must have a bottomless tank of insecurity to fuel his rise to world domination.

And Gates isn't the only successful entity that still feels the bitter sting of insecurity. Even the largest multinational corporations are not immune to these persistent feelings of inadequacy. Take Starbucks. It is everywhere. Seriously, you're probably sitting in one right now and you didn't even realize it. Yet, despite its virtual omnipresence, Starbucks still suffers from self-doubt and inadequacy... as evidenced by the fact that they feel the need to call their small coffee Tall. Honestly, who do you think you're fooling? Like Bobo the monkey, in the end you will realize that you are only fooling yourself... and the millions of people that continue to buy your mediocre coffee.

Bobo the Monkey: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

1) Have a Positive Self-Image: Be happy with the body you were given. Don't try to fool others because you only end up fooling yourself. So, for your own good, to escape the perverse cycle of insecurity, avoid magazines like Cosmo, Men's Health, and Maxim at all costs... they will only mess with your mind. And while you're at it, you might as well steer clear of Guns & Ammo and Better Homes and Gardens too.

2) Beware the False Promise of Success: Achievement is not the magic pill that will cure that aching sense of unfullfillment. Success does not necessarily lead to satisfaction... but then again, neither does sitting on your ass watching TV. There's a fine line between positive upward mobility and ruthlessly blind ambition... just as there is a fine line between contentment and complacency. So what should you do? I don't know... just be careful not to replicate Bobo's fall from grace. Afterall, Monkey See, Monkey Do. Whatever that means.

01 May 2007

Everywhere Babies



Author: Susan Meyers
Illustrator: Marla Frazee

Myers' playful prose coupled with Frazee's awesome baby portraiture combine to remind us that babies are cute. Not exactly mind-blowing stuff. But what could have been just another baby book separates itself from the pack because of the talented Frazee... there's just something about the way she draws babies that just makes them seem not only adorable, but epic.

Unfortunately for Meyers and Frazee, as with all art, once a work is released into the public sphere, you cannot control what people do with it. In this case, Everywhere Babies has become a political prop as groups on both sides of the abortion debate have grabbed a hold of the book to advance their political interests. Pro-life groups use it to drive home the obvious point: babies are awesome. Pro-choice groups use the book to tell a cautionary tale about a world without Roe v. Wade. (There would be babies everywhere... Everywhere Babies!!!)

With the Supreme Court recently upholding the Partial Birth Abortion Ban, expect to see more of Everywhere Babies as both sides gear up for a potential Supreme Court reconsideration of Roe v. Wade.... a bizarre showdown where 5 dudes in robes have the power to determine what women are (or are not) allowed to do with their bodies.

Everywhere Babies has also found its way into federally-funded abstinence-only education. Last week, the Washington Post reported that abstinence education programs are destributing material with misleading information, that makes condom-use seem less effective than it actually is. (For example, while studies show that the chances of unintended pregnancies while using condoms is 2%, government funded programs incorrectly say that it is 1 in 6 or 17%... Everywhere! Babies!!!)

This should not come as a surprise. At this point, misleading people is standard operating procedure. Though, maybe... if you combined the administration's misleading Sex Ed policy with its failing Foreign Policy, you might come up with something a little more productive. Can two wrongs makes a right? Let's give it a shot:

Current Foreign Policy: Use misleading information to get us into war.
Current Sex Ed Policy: Use misleading information to keep us from getting into bed.
New Foreign Policy: Use misleading information to keep us from getting into war and getting screwed.

Current Sex Ed Policy: Condoms and other forms of contraception are not effective forms of birth control. Abstinence only.
Current Foreign Policy: Talk is cheap. Diplomacy is for the weak.
New Sex Ed Policy: Abstain from talking to anyone. If you isolate yourself from the rest of the world, no one will want to have sex with you anyways.

Current Foreign Policy: Pulling out is not a strategy for victory.
Current Sex Ed Policy: The Rhythm Method is a form of natural birth control.
New Foreign Policy: Set a timetable for pulling out of Iraq before things get even more heated and explosive.

It's not perfect, but policy never is. Next, we combine No Child Left Behind with Environmental Policy and see what comes out. (Though it's risky... you might get something like: We'll try to reverse the negative trends of climate change, but if the climate doesn't start showing adequate yearly progress, we will start imposing sanctions by cutting down trees and shutting down forests.)