Sunday, October 30, 2011
Book Review by Maggie Hames
This book is touted as, “50 Timeless Rhymes from 50 Celebrated Cartoonists!” But when it comes to the old nursery rhymes, do kids today need them? Is “Baa-Baa, Black Sheep” essential reading (or listening)? This may not be strictly logical, but I’m voting an energetic yes. Why shouldn’t our kids be part of the long line of children who’ve enjoyed these pieces through the years? We were part of it, and now they’re part of it. And figuring out the meaning of the dated language is part of their sentimental education, just as it was part of ours.
In a similar vein, the nursery rhyme, “There Was a Crooked Man” interpreted by the divine Roz Chast, begins, “There was a crooked man who walked a crooked mile.” We see a young boy and his mom (in what looks like New York’s Central Park) wonder, “Mommy? Who is that man?” She answers, “Don’t look. You’ll go cross-eyed.”
Which is better—the straight interpretation or the riff? I’m not avoiding the question. The answer is both. Both work, because these nursery rhymes are safely in the hands of the best in the business. So fifty nursery rhymes are given fifty distinctly different interpretations. And all of them are the best.
Face it. This children’s book is for the parents. It’s made for us to read to them, if for no other reason than some of the illustrated text would be difficult for young readers to suss out. So the cartoonists have packed in layers of interest and fun for us. Kids who are old enough to appreciate the jokes will probably feel they’re too old for nursery rhymes. A lot of your favorite cartoonists from The New Yorker are here and it’s great fun to see their take on this historic project.
Remember, parents, this book is for you. But don’t forget to share it with your kids.
What do you think? We’d love to know.
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Disney's Eleventh Animated Feature - 1949
We’ve made a point of covering the classic Disney features in the order of their production, but in honor of Halloween, we’re allowing Disney’s 1949 feature, Ichabod and Mr. Toad to jump the line. Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the last of a series of “package films” that combined shorts until the 1970’s. Ichabod and Mr. Toad would make a terrific choice for a children’s Halloween party, even for under-fives, as the Ichabod story is scary but not too; ultimately, it’s funnier than it is frightening. And Mr. Toad is a hilarious and adventurous tale that incorporates Christmas, but transcends season and speaks to all of us, all year ’round.
Released in 1949, Disney chose two huge (and hugely different) stars to narrate the stories. Bing Crosby relates the American tale of Ichabod Crane from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Basil Rathbone narrates the English story of Mr. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.
Have you seen Ichabod and Mr. Toad? Share your thoughts here.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Book Review: Sarah O’Hara – Gift of the Fairy Wings written by Penny Holguin
There’s something I don’t find myself saying every day: that bunny is a bully! But “little girl” bunny Sarah in Penny Holguin’s Sarah O’Hara – Gift of the Fairy Wings is a bully and then some. On her sixth birthday, Sarah receives a pair of green fairy wings. According to her bunny mom, Sarah wanted these wings to complete her fairy princess Halloween costume, and (at first) Sarah is thrilled to have them. But the reader immediately gets clues that Sarah is a bit thoughtless. She takes the wings to school and when another bunny girl, Angela, asks to try on the wings, Sarah answers, “No Angela, you’re not a princess. Princesses don’t wear shabby clothes.” Ouch. The other bunny kids laugh and Angela bursts into tears.
This isn’t a story I’d classify as sweet or adorable. The subject matter is too important and the characters are all too real. I can imagine this book as a script for a short film acted by real kids. The bullying, the sulking, the selfishness, and the thoughtlessness of the Sarah character are all too recognizable. The forgiveness and innate graciousness of the Angela character are almost too good to be true, but it is in the fullness of Angela’s spirit and in her downright classiness that Sarah learns her lesson. You don’t have to twist yourself into a pretzel to find the useful metaphor here. The message is clear and intact.
Sarah O’Hara website.
We’re giving away a personally autographed copy of Sarah O’Hara – Gift of the Fairy Wings. Just leave a comment below with a way to reach you (email preferred) or simply visit our Facebook Fan Page to qualify for our drawing. The deadline is 5pm E.S.T., October 31, 2011, better known as Halloween. Our Giveaway Rules apply.
Saturday, October 15, 2011
Disney's Sixth Animated Feature - 1942
The year was 1941, before our entry into WWII, and the Department of State commissioned a goodwill tour of South America for Walt Disney and his creative team. Already popular in Latin America, Disney seemed a good choice to counteract the Nazi ties forming with several Latin American governments.
The resulting film was 1942s Saludos Amigos, or Hello, Friends. It was the first Disney “package film” made up of a series of shorts. The film includes documentary footage of modern Latin American cities with skyscrapers and fashionably dressed residents that contributed to a changing impression of Latin America. Film historian Alfred Charles Richard, Jr. commented that Saludos Amigos “did more to cement a community of interest between peoples of the Americas in a few months than the State Department had in fifty years.” We also get to see Walt Disney himself, cigarette in hand, con-fabbing with Latin American artists. You’d never suspect that back in the U.S., Disney was struggling with labor unrest, including a strike that was underway at the time the goodwill journey began.
The film does feature some wonderful music, including the song “Aquarela do Brasil,” written by Ary Barroso and performed by Aloysio De Oliveira and an instrumental version of “Tico-Tico no Fubá,” written by Zequinha de Abreu. “Aquarela do Brasil” did not achieve much success when it was released in 1939, but after appearing in this film, it became an international hit. It was the first Brazilian song to be played over a million times on American radio.
Monday, October 10, 2011
Book Review by Jack Silbert
For a long stretch of time there, it seemed like every album I bought—and I buy a lot of albums—had some connection to Irwin Chusid. His name appeared in reissue liner notes for Esquivel (whose 50s/60s “space-age bachelor pad music” helped spawn a 90s revival), the Shaggs (“outsider” late-60s girl group), Raymond Scott (whose 1937 composition “Powerhouse” was utilized in countless Warner Brothers cartoons), and many others. I quickly accepted Chusid—a longtime d.j. on New Jersey’s legendary WFMU—as an ambassador and caretaker of quirky cool from bygone eras.
So it was no surprise when I learned of 1940s/50s album-cover illustrator Jim Flora via a 2004 book authored by Chusid. Flora’s style is deceptively simple: cartoon-y, two-dimensional, with jagged angles and circus-like colors, very evocative of its moment in time. A sense of joy and a sense of humor practically leap off the page.
I feel at this point in the review—I promise, a review is coming—that I must once again make an admission in the interest of full disclosure: Irwin Chusid lives just a few doors down from me. However, I can again assert a total lack of bias. I have had only one conversation with the man, albeit while purchasing from him a print of a Flora Mambo for Cats LP cover for a feline-obsessed friend.
When I learned that Flora had written and illustrated a 1957 children’s book, and that it was being reissued, I knew I had to own it. The silliness inherent in the title—The Day the Cow Sneezed—sealed the deal for me.
And a lovely reissue it is, from the Enchanted Lion publishing house. Here’s a book you can judge by its cover. (A handsome hardcover, at that.) The fun patterns in the zany lettering convey a mad energy. Spot illustrations of a smiling cat, topsy-turvy mouse, above-it-all bird, and of course, a sneezing cow, basically tell the tale of the book: motion, not-too-dangerous danger, and most importantly, whimsy. Also on the cover, we see that Flora is listed as James, not Jim. Well, la-dee-da!
Within, we learn that Chusid is credited as “solicitor and overseer.”(La-dee-da part deux.) Flora’s artwork is reproduced quite crisply on quality paper stock. Color-wise, two decisions struck me immediately: one almost certainly a financial choice (by the original 1957 publishers, Harcourt, Brace & World), and the other I’m not quite sure. Decision 1: Every other two-page spread is black-and-white. While this likely saved some printing bucks, it doesn’t really hurt the book. The eye gets to rest a little on these pages, and the brain can concentrate on fun little details in the art that might be missed in a splash of color. Decision 2 is an interesting color palette: black lines surrounded mostly by pink, light red, and blue-green. Now, I don’t know enough about Flora’s oeuvre to definitively say if he placed this limitation on himself, or if it was placed on him by Harcourt or Brace or maybe even World. But it totally works. The colors jump at you off white backgrounds. Meanwhile, he repeating, pleasing palette eases the transitions from the black-and-white spreads.
Story-wise, the book is pretty straightforward. A cow sneezes, and chain-reaction hilarity ensues. I’m not sure if this was intentional either, but we’re kind of “tricked” by a sizeable block of text on the first page, setting up the plot. But after that, even though there is fun writing throughout—with occasional big-type onomatopoeia—overall it’s the art doing the heavy lifting. As hinted at on the cover, there is a nonstop sense of motion (think Family Circus’s dotted paths, but much more madcap), tracking the “destruction” from page to page, from farm to mountain to city and all points in-between. With many modes of transport, we pass, run over, and/or pick up various people, buildings, trees, and countless critters. And like that smiling cat on the cover, amidst much shock and awe, there’s often one animal wearing a calm grin, taking it all in. It’s as if to say, don’t worry, kids—we’re just having fun here.
I won’t give any spoilers, but suffice to say, Thing 1 and Thing 2 do not show up. Also, the boy whose inattention led to a sneezy cow gets his comeuppance a bit more matter-of-factly than a kid-glove-handled modern character might.
Tempted to say that I’m fawning over Flora. But I’ll try to resist.
Jack Silbert is a writer of children's books, restaurant reviews, witty essays, and the like. He lives in Hoboken, N.J.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
You, your tweens, and “pre-tweens” will love the fictional web series, Recess Stories. Each two-to-four minute episode takes place on a school playground during (appropriately enough) recess. The team behind Recess Stories succeeded in creating, “a cross between Peanuts and Seinfeld.” All twelve episodes are available for free streaming and downloads, can be watched online, or your phone, or on t.v.
The stories are by definition, short and sweet; they’re also disarmingly real and documentary-like in their unpretentious look. There’s drama but no tears. In one episode, a girl announces, “I’m not going to be here tomorrow, but my twin is.” The twin’s a princess, and shows up on the playground in her purple princess cape. She looks just like recurring character Petal, and shows everyone how to play princess tag.
There’s drama with a sense of fair play in the episode, “The Girl Who Stole Everything Pink,” where, as the title suggests, a girl is falsely accused of theft, but quickly vindicated, apologies humbly offered. In the pilot episode, “Kangaroo Club,” a few of the boys think the girls’ club is “stupid,” but another wants to join.
Beeswax Productions shot the 12-episode series during the summer of 2010. Beeswax worked with a rotating cast of 41 kids aged seven to thirteen and a crew of six local teenagers. They applied the same working philosophy that Shelley uses with her play productions: create the conditions and the opportunity for everybody to be amazing. The results? Well, amazing. I think serious students of filmmaking owe it to themselves to take a look. Recess Stories is one of the only live-action web-series for kids. Inspired to create? Hope so. The world needs more series like Recess Stories.
Beeswax shot season two this past summer and promise new episodes soon. Not soon enough for me! When’s Recess already?
Have you seen Recess Stories? Share your thoughts here.