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.