Sunday, October 30, 2011

Books We Love: “Nursery Rhyme Comics”

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.

Here’s the twist: the stories are “illustrated” by cartoonists. Some of the cartoonists play it straight: the recognizable text is set to wonderful cartoons, such as in “Hickory, Dickory, Dock,” by Stephanie Yue. Here, it’s the little mouse who “strikes one” with a large mallet to the tower bell. He then parachutes to safety, ninja style, then blithely takes a nap.

Some of the cartoonists riff on the classic verses, adding their own humorous asides. For example, in “Jack Be Nimble,” cartoonist James Sturm has his Jack add his own comments as the verse unfolds. As the narrator reads, “Jack jump over the candlestick,” the young Jack, annoyed, shouts, “What?! You must think I’m pretty stupid!”

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.”

And then there are the artists in the middle, who create something new through visuals alone, such as Dave Roman, who sees “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” as a scenario where the Clone Master 3000 creates a string of identical, cloned little boys, each with a different number on their sweater. “One” and “Two” buckle the Professor’s shoe. “Three” and “Four” knock at the door. And so on. “Pat-a-Cake” by Gene Luen Yang is presented as a scenario of aliens cooking aboard their spaceship. “Old King Cole” is a lion in the jungle as imagined by JP Coovert.

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.

My favorite? Oh, I’m not really supposed to play favorites … who am I kidding? My favorite was the clever reworking of “Hush, Little Baby” by Mo Oh. The verse is presented as a conversation (or more accurately a conflict) between a father and his difficult-to-please, clever, adorable daughter. Dad says, “Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird!” And the cynical little girl just can’t leave it alone as she frets, “And if that mockingbird won’t sing?” In short, it’s a sublime reinterpretation that compels you to reconsider the material … and I dare you not to smile.

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

A Disney Halloween Treat: “Ichabod and Mr. Toad”

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.

Introduced as the most fabulous character in all of English literature (not overselling it, are we, Basil?), Mr. Toad is a replete, fun-loving, speed demon who merrily races around the country side in a canary yellow cart pulled by his friend, Cyril the horse. (So THAT’S what they mean by “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”) Mr. Toad is everybody’s favorite wild child, full of mirth and as irresponsible as the day is long. His destructive hi-jinks have put at risk his stately mansion, Toad Hall, the showplace of the shire. His friends Rattie and Molie commiserate with the responsible MacBadger who tries to pull Mr. Toad back from the brink of financial disaster. Before Mr. Toad can seriously consider reforming, he is tantalized by the latest invention: the speedy motorcar. He won’t rest until he can possess one.

Mr. Toad finds himself in serious legal trouble when he’s accused in court of trying to sell a stolen car and winds up in jail. His pals help him escape and clear his name, and he goes after his accusers who have stolen Toad Hall out from under him. You’ll enjoy the scenes with the unscrupulous Weasel Gang whose characters were later borrowed by the creators of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Cinephiles will appreciate the funny stunt where four weasels simultaneously club each other, a moment that eventually found its way into the work of John Woo and Quentin Tarrantino. Suffice to say, all turns out well for Mr. Toad, but the new, reformed Toad doesn’t stay static for long. But we really didn’t want him to reform, did we?

Bing Crosby then takes over the narration, speaking up for “the colonies.” Ichabod Crane was a lanky, eagle-beaked, itinerate schoolteacher who finds his way to the town of Sleepy Hollow, New York, seeking more than just a job teaching school. He’s manipulative and ambitious in his way, and wouldn’t mind making a comfortable marriage for himself. Bing Crosby also lends his voice to Ichabod, so when Ichabod sings, the ladies of Sleepy Hollow swoon like 1940’s bobby-soxers. Ichabod didn’t figure on falling head-over-heels for the flirtatious Katrina Von Tassel, who just happens to be the daughter of the wealthiest man in town. Local he-man Brom Bones considers Katrina to be his claimed territory, but Ichabod gives Brom a run for his money. It’s made fairly obvious that Katrina enjoys playing one man off another, and is most likely using Ichabod to make Brom jealous. And it works. If I were to fault this tale, it would be that none of the lead characters—Ichabod, Katrina, or Brom—is particularly likable, but they are faithful to the satirical, stinging prose of Washington Irving who deflates every stuffed-shirt in Sleepy Hollow.

Fed up with Ichabod, Brom Bones (also voiced by Crosby) sings the frightening tale of the Headless Horseman at the Van Tassel Halloween ball. Ichabod has a harrowing ride home, imagining the Horseman around every bend, eventually sharing a laugh with his horse at his own silliness. And then, the Headless Horseman appears, flaming Jack-O-Lantern in hand! The Horseman chases Ichabod to the safety of a covered bridge, where he tosses his “severed” head at him. As in the Irving story, it’s left a mystery as to whether Ichabod safely fled or was “spirited away” by the Horseman; though Disney heavily weighs it toward the former, showing Ichabod with a plump wife and a table-full of eagle-beaked children. And any idea that Katrina was left broken-hearted is dispelled when we see her enthusiastically kiss Brom Bones on their wedding day.

All told, Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a fun, lively, sometimes scary feature that’s just right for kids but will appeal to parents as well. I personally prefer Mr. Toad to Ichabod, as the attempts to freshen up the Ichabod story with pop references—like the girls who swoon at Ichabod/Bing’s singing—actually make the piece seem a bit dated. And I could do without an unnecessary scene at the Halloween ball where Brom tries to trick Ichabod into swapping his dance partner Katrina for a short, overweight gal, but chalk it up to 1940’s sexism. I’d describe Mr. Toad as the more timeless, universal piece. But both are delightful, perfect for the transition from Halloween to the winter holiday season. You can see Ichabod and Mr. Toad in its entirety (in chapters) on YouTube.

Have you seen Ichabod and Mr. Toad? Share your thoughts here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

That Bunny Is a Bully!

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.

When Sarah’s wings are almost ruined after an accident, Angela offers to help. Again, Sarah is obnoxious to her. Sarah doesn’t want the wings anymore and prefers to sulk. Angela wears the wings herself as part of her own Halloween costume and wins a prize that she graciously offers to share with Sarah. Sarah is shocked, confused, then shamed into assessing her own bad behavior and chooses to change for the better. Sarah acknowledges the simple truth that Angela is the real princess. This is a Halloween story with year ’round appeal.

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.

Children over the age of six are old enough to understand what it means to be a bully and can choose to be better people (or children). That’s where the sweetness of this book lies: in the hoped-for effect it can have on kids. If it gets kids to thinking about their own part in the culture of bullying, not to mention in self-defeating habits like sulking, then it has done a service to the next generation. It would be great if our high schools didn’t have to enforce the idea of being “bully-free zones,” and perhaps books like Sarah O’Hara – Gift of the Fairy Wings can help raise the next crop of teens as people who see things a bit differently.

And author Penny Holguin puts her money where her mouth is. Her goal is to donate 1000 books to organizations for distribution by Christmas, so for each book she sells, she’s donating one. Find out more at the 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

Why Can’t We Be Friends? Disney’s “Saludos Amigos”

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.

A voiceover narration attempts to illuminate the Disney team’s creative process from inspiration to sketch to finished animated product. All but one of the shorts features the immensely popular characters Donald Duck or Goofy. Donald visits Lake Titicaca and meets some locals, including a small boy who controls his llama with his flute. This inspires the requisite jitterbug and pop culture jokes. Likewise, the sequence where cowboy Goofy is transformed into an Argentinean gaucho is peppered with jokes that had whiskers on them in 1943.

In the short Pedro, a tiny “little boy” airplane from Chile makes a hazardous mail run because his “parents” are incapacitated. The film has little to do with Latin culture and the Chilean backdrop seems grafted onto the story. Annoyed at this, cartoonist René Ríos Boettiger (Pepo) was inspired to start one of the most famous Latin American comic magazines, Condorito, in part because of his disappointment with Pedro as the image that the outside world had of Chile.

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.

The film introduced the animated parrot Joe Carioca voiced by José Oliveria (Zezinho). He star-trips Donald Duck and promises to show him “the land of the samba” in what is the best segment of the film. Donald drinks and gets a little tipsy. The artist dips his brush in the liquor and paints musicians and instruments in appropriately hot colors as Donald dances. Flamingoes dance and orchids sing back-up as a bunch of bananas morphs into a bunch of toucan beaks. What the Disney team attempted to do for classical music in Fantasia, they succeeded in doing for Brazilian music in Saludos Amigos, and the modern music video was born.

Joe Carioca was popular enough to come back (with his pal Donald) in the film, The Three Caballeros, which we will examine here soon. Ultimately, Saludos Amigos is outdated as travelogue and not terribly scintillating as animation. We see the artists’ inspirations and their sketches, but it all seems a bit self-congratulatory for what is ultimately the least compelling Disney feature to date. A more complicated and involving narrative could have been a better route to creating a film worth seeing year in, year out. There simply wasn’t an engaging story here, and the product suffers for it. But oh, that music.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Books We Love: “The Day the Cow Sneezed”

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

Web Series We Love: “Recess Stories”

Series Review
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.

Two episodes are about the trials and tribulations that go with playground “hard time” better known as getting a timeout “on the wall.” We never see the teachers who put the kids on the wall, but we hear about them. Hilariously. I was half expecting someone to bust out a harmonica. One little girl moans that she hasn’t been put on the wall since second grade. The humiliation of it all!

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.

Creative team Kenton Jakub and Shelley Latham of Maine-based 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.