08 April 2010

BSB Flashback: Hop on Pop

9 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.

28 March 2010

White House Reading

Last week, President Obama was spotted at Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City, where he picked up a few books for Sasha and Malia. The two books he chose (based on recommendations) were “Journey to the River Sea” by Eva Ibbotson and “The Secret of Zoom” by Lynn Dornell. While I haven't read the books (too many words, not enough pictures), a quick look reveals a rather thoughtful selection.

From Amazon's Journey to the River Sea Review:
Sent in 1910 to live with distant relatives who own a rubber plantation along the Amazon River, English orphan Maia is excited. She believes she is in for brightly colored macaws, enormous butterflies, and "curtains of sweetly scented orchids trailing from the trees." Her British classmates warn her of man-eating alligators and wild, murderous Indians. Unfortunately, no one cautions Maia about her nasty, xenophobic cousins, who douse the house in bug spray and forbid her from venturing beyond their coiffed compound.
From The Secret of Zoom website:
Christina lives in a stone mansion on the edge of a forest surrounded by barbed wire, an electrified fence, and signs that read TRESPASSERS WILL BE BOILED. Deep within the forest is the laboratory where her mother was blown to bits when Christina was just a baby. Christina’s father, the head scientist at Loompski Labs, knows how dangerous the world can be. So he keeps his daughter safe at home and forbids her to talk to the very interesting orphans down the road.
Both books feature a young girl who finds herself in unfamiliar surroundings and who must deal with a restriction on her freedom... which must resonate with the Obama girls as they cope with their new home in the Washington DC fishbowl and deal with living under the constant surveillance of the Secret Service.

The Obamas seem to have done a pretty good job of shielding their children from the intense scrutiny of the press (man-eating alligators?) and other intrusive forces, but I'm sure they are still concerned about their daughters' adjustment to life in the White House. Perhaps the Obamas have decided to turn to the world of children's literature for additional perspective. And even if the books weren't chosen for that reason, it was a fortuitous selection that should make for some interesting reading in the Obama household.

Note: I'll have to read the books to provide any more insight or parallels, but I'm willing to bet that the brightly colored macaw is a stand-in for John Boehner.

16 March 2010

Fun For Its Own Sake

My good friend Alexander Nazaryan just posted an interview with Donald Pease, the author of a new Seuss biography. My favorite revelation:

After World War II, Hollywood wanted Geisel. He was hired to write a script for Rebel Without A Cause. But in 1953, his wife Helen began to develop a debilitating disease, Guillain-BarrĂ© syndrome, and the helplessness he experienced led to another deep reevaluation of what he was doing. He wanted to enter into an art form in which unconditioned laughter emerges out of the sheer fun of making fun, and he associates this form with children’s books. In creating propaganda, he was creating enemies. Now he wanted to get the war mentality out of his psyche and out of America’s consciousness by creating children’s books.
First of all, interesting to see the reasoning behind Geisel's decision to go into children' books... second of all, Rebel Without a Cause?!

I'd love to see the Seussian treatment of Rebel... though I guess if there was ever a rebel without a cause, it was the Cat in the Hat.

07 March 2010

White Noise

Author/Illustrator: David A. Carter

While none of the publishers seem to acknowledge the connection, it can’t be a coincidence that White Noise, David A. Carter’s brilliant new pop-up book, just happened to be published on the 25th anniversary of Don DeLillo’s postmodern classic by the same name. (Okay, it's probably a coincidence, but I’m plowing ahead anyways.)

You would have thought that adapting Don DeLillo's anxiety ridden novel for a picture book audience would be an impossible task... but if you’re familiar with Carter’s work, you’ll know that he eats impossible for breakfast. And once again, Carter delivers the impossible.

Carter has established himself as the grandmaster of the medium and his latest offering is a breathtakingly whimsical feat of the imagination, each page bursting with visual and sonic surprises (yes, I said sonic. The pages are cleverly constructed in a way so that they snap, crackle, and pop). Once again, Carter has pushed the boundaries of the pop-up book, elevating it from novelty act to work of art… and in this case, a metaphysical statement that effectively captures the nuanced anxiety of DeLillo's masterwork.

There are many themes running through DeLillo's novel, the most pervasive of which is the fear of death. All the characters in the novel are obsessed (if not consumed) with the unavoidable fact of their mortality. With this sense of impending doom invading even the most mundane activities, the characters are left with the lingering sense that the daily tedium of their lives (especially the solipsistic posturing of academia) is nothing more than a pleasant diversion from the gradual deterioration of our physical selves.

This concept brilliantly is captured in Carter’s book because (as all librarians know) the pop-up book is an essentially tragic instrument. The minute you open the book, you have begun to destroy it. With each pull and tug of the intricately constructed pages, the book inches closer and closer to its ultimate demise.

And yet, its very existence is an act of defiance. Knowing full well that it is not long for this world, the pop-up book is a bold statement that even if life is short, it is more than just an exercise in futility. Life may be just "a tangle of bits and pieces and tinkling white noise", but it can be darned beautiful while it lasts.

Whether it's 25 years... or 25 minutes.

08 February 2010

EEEEEEE!!! Books!!!

An interesting article about some of the backroom brawling over e-books, by my good buddy David Gelles who writes for the Financial Times:

It was the day after Apple unveiled its iPad and Macmillan’s John Sargent was heading for the Amazon.com headquarters in Seattle on a hastily arranged visit. The chief executive of the venerable publisher arrived with an ultimatum for the world’s largest bookseller – either let Macmillan charge more for its electronic books or wait a painful six months after it made new titles available through other outlets, including on the iPad.

Amazon balked. By the time Mr Sargent returned to New York that evening, it had begun removing all Macmillan titles – both e-books and physical books – from its website. If Macmillan wanted to play hardball, it seemed Amazon was game.

Jazz ABZ: An Education (C for Coltrane)

Here is the next stop on our alphabetical journey through our Jazz ABZs*: C for Coltrane.

This is the first track that made me really appreciate jazz... and to this day, it's my standby when I feel the need to chill out and write.

Track 3: I'm Old Fashioned**

*a personal project to go through Marsalis's Jazz ABZs and find a representative song (or just a song that I like) performed by each artist, with the goal of creating a decent playlist to accompany the book... and to flesh out my knowledge of jazz. It's also just another opportunity to admire the art of Paul Rogers, which is always a good thing.
**written by Jerome Kerns

05 February 2010

Waiting for Winter

Author/Illustrator: Sebastian Meschenmoser

There's not much to be said about this beautiful book that isn't already covered by Elizabeth Bird (as is usually the case), so make sure to read her review. The story is a simple one about forest friends who put off hibernation to stay up and wait for their first snowfall. While waiting, they hypothesize about the nature of snow based on the limited information at their disposal. It's a cute story to be sure and it captures the essential wonder that can come with discovery of the world around us.

I would go into more detail, but the interplay between the illustrations and the pacing of the text is so pitch perfect, it'd be hard to do it justice without spoiling the book. I've only seen two books from him, but Meschenmoser is already one of my favorite illustrators, so if you haven't seen any of his stuff yet, get thee to a library/bookstore! (and check out 7-Imp's feature on him to see some more of his amazing artwork).

Something I will say about the book is that it does a great job of allowing the child to play the role of, for lack of a better phrase, the arbiter of reason. As the furry friends throw out one misguided theory after another, the young reader is pushed from amusement into bemusement, which is a more complex form of humor. They'll be able to shake their heads and, with a wry smile, think something along the lines of "Silly animals, one day they'll realize how wrong they were... when they're older and wiser like me."

This is a rare space for a child to occupy because for the majority of their day they are the inexperienced ones fumbling to make sense of the world. It's a subtle form of role playing which is key for socioemotional development. (Just watch a kid parenting a doll or playing house and you'll see that pretending to be an adult is more than just putting on oversized clothes, they're trying on oversized emotions and roles that preview and help prepare them for the world that awaits.) Waiting for Winter gives the child this kind of temporary "promotion" in the hierarchy of reason... which is quite an achievement for a picture book that is also darned funny.

And speaking of winter, DC is about to get hit by another record snow today. Woohoo!

Note: An always welcome shoutout from the illustrious Fuse #8 at the School Library Journal:
If I have any objection to lodge against Minh of the blog Bottom Shelf Books it is that he appears to have a life of some sort. How else to explain why he chooses to post only once in a while about the picture book genre. Had I my way he would have a miserable existence where only constant blog postings provided him enough comfort and relief to get through a day. Then I could get daily posts out of the man. Ha ha! Instead, I will have to content myself with pieces like this truly lovely take on Sebastian Meschenmoser's Waiting for Winter. I reviewed it myself last year after finding it to be just the greatest little book in creation. Even if you don't believe either of us, believe The New York Times. Minh makes some excellent points about it that completely escaped my notice.

03 February 2010

Jazz ABZ: An Education (B for Basie)

Here is the next stop on our alphabetical journey through our Jazz ABZs*: B for Basie.

Track 2: One O'Clock Jump

Bonus Track: How Long Blues**

*a personal project to go through Marsalis's Jazz ABZs and find a representative song (or just a song that I like) performed by each artist, with the goal of creating a decent playlist to accompany the book... and to flesh out my knowledge of jazz. It's also just another opportunity to admire the art of Paul Rogers, which is always a good thing.
**written by Leroy Carr

Jazz ABZ Playlist so far:
  1. West End Blues (Louis Armstrong)
  2. One O'Clock Jump (Count Basie)

Jazz ABZ: An Education (A for Armstrong)

When I first saw Jazz ABZ by Wynton Marsalis (with contributions from Phil Schaap and amazing artwork from Paul Rogers), I thought it would have been great to have an accompanying cd or playlist to go with it, to give the reader a sample of each artist's music.

Well, it's been almost three years now and no one has provided me with that playlist yet (How rude!). I guess I'm going to do it myself. The timing is right because I'm trying to expand my minimal knowledge of jazz. So, as a personal exercise, I'm going to start posting a song (either a signature song or one that I just happen to like) performed by each of the artists in the book until I work my way all the way through. (Along the way, if anyone has other songs to recommend, feel free to pass it along.)

I guess the beginning is as good a place to start as any:

Track 1: West End Blues*

Bonus: Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans**

*written by King Oliver
**written by Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter

27 January 2010

Color Me Impressed

A friend recently pointed me to this NPR link on colors and this amazing graphic showing how our choices of crayon colors has increased exponentially in the last century:

Crayola options from 1903 to 2010. (Courtesy of Stephen Von Worley)

With these technological advances in color identification now enabling us to break down the spectrum of possible colors down to such discrete variations, I think it's time the children's book community caught up and utilized Crayola's full compliment of colors. So look for new editions of your favorite childhood classics to be released in the near future. Now you and your children will be able to fully enjoy revitalized classics such as:

Goodnight Moon (Margaret Wise Big Foot Feet and Clement Hurd)

and my new personal favorite:

The Bittersweet Shimmer Balloon (A. LaMorisse)

By taking advantage of our technicolor age, your reading experience is no longer confined to the clumsy brushstrokes of an antiquated rainbow... finally, you can enjoy the surreal beauty of the full color spectrum and all its bizarre glory!

Now where did I put my copy of Fuzzy Gargoyle Gas Ducklings?

24 January 2010

Dusting off the paintbrushes...

Trying to rediscover my painting chops, which I've neglected for the past 10 years or so... and what better way jumpstart the process than with portraits of orangutans?