19 July 2011

On My Reading Radar: Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey

We are BIG Traction Man fans in this house, so when I saw this listed as a great summer read over at The Guardian, I got pretty excited. And for the record--absolutely NO need to be under 5 to enjoy it. Traction Man is the thinking person's Action Man (also known as GI Joe in this country.) And with his faithful side-kick Scrubbing Brush, he will be prepared for anything. I could not find a US release date for this title, but considering the success of the previous titles in this series, Traction Man is Here and Traction Man meets Turbo Dog, it can't be long before he arrives on our shores.

You can read my previous rhapsodizing about Traction Man here.

18 July 2011

Picture Book Review: Arlington: the Story of Our Nation's Cemetery

I first visited Arlington National Cemetery on a family vacation back in the 80's. My father, a Navy man with a passion for military history, was particularly keen to take my brother and I there. He wanted to show us the grave of Audie Murphy. I was pretty impressed with the place, but what impressed me most was the behavior of my dad. A life-long smoker, he had such reverence for Arlington that he wouldn't throw his cigarette butts on the ground. He carefully stubbed each one on the bottom of his shoe and placed it in his pocket. That image has stuck with me ever since, and whenever I think of Arlington National Cemetery I think of hallowed ground.

Author and illustrator Chris Demarest has written Arlington: The Story of Our Nation's Cemetery with similar reverence. It is clear that it is a special place to him. It is also a place with a "complicated, sometimes troubled history." And when you consider that it was originally chosen as a burial location during the Civil War out of spite, 'complicated' seems the nicest way to put it. The book starts with a history of the property; it once belonged to a gentleman named George Washington Peake who built upon it Arlington House, which would eventually be inhabited by Robert E. Lee, Peake's son-in-law. The history lesson develops into an explanation of the many monuments in the cemetery and the meaning of the routines which take place there. The most well-known is the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown, but in reading the book one discovers that even the maintenance of the gravestones (and there are more than 300,000) is done with solemn purpose.

Demarest's illustrations capture the symmetry and precision of Arlington. And although graves feature heavily, images of tidy rows of headstones bring a regimented peace to the pictures. Arlington's dual role as a tourist attraction and a functioning cemetery is most evident in the story which Demarest retells of President Kennedy. The young president visited the cemetery in the spring of 1963 and commented on how he enjoyed spending time there, little realising that he would be buried there himself in seven month's time. It is a poignant moment in a book which expertly merges the larger framework of American history with the smaller picture of personal narratives.

Young researchers and tourists alike will find much of interest in this book. Back matter includes a timeline, bibliography, list of websites, notable individuals buried at the cemetery, and notable monuments. There is also a brief mention of Freedman's Village, a collection of houses built for Peake's slaves when the Union Army seized the property and Arlington House--more complicated history. Yet despite the routine and protocol which is part of Arlington's function, Demarest shows that it is ultimately a place of stories, because through remembrance, recognition, and visitation, it is a place of lives--specifically lives in service to one's country. He concludes with an author's note which reveals a personal connection between himself and the cemetery. His father is buried there. Like Demarest, I have my own tie to the cemetery, and it is more than just a striking memory from a past vacation. My father was a bugler at Arlington National Cemetery between November 1, 1962 and November 8, 1963. He, too, is part of the story celebrated in this outstanding and dignified book.

15 July 2011

From Page to Screen: The Invention of Hugo Cabret

It seems ages ago that I first heard talk of Martin Scorcese adapting Brian Selznik's Caldecot winning book for the big screen. And now, come Thanksgiving, it seems that we will finally get to see it. My first question, after watching the trailer, is--what happened to the rest of the title? The invention has fallen by the wayside. It's seemingly arbitrary changes like this which always make me suspect of film adaptations of beloved books (and The Invention of Hugo Cabret is much beloved by me--it was my Book of the Year for 2007.) And truthfully, there is still a part of me which feels that a film could never live up to the book, because the real magic of the book was the unique experience of reading it. Even in 3D I don't know that there will be much unique about this film-watching experience. To be truly unique, I think the film should be silent, but that's just me. Have a look at the trailer and judge for yourself.

12 July 2011

Books for the All-Star Break: This is the Game by Diane Shore and Jessica Alexander

There is no shortage of nostalgic baseball picture books available; just run a search for different versions of Take Me Out to the Ballgame to prove the point. This is the Game, written by Diane Shore and Jessica Alexander and illustrated by Owen Smith, is a nice addition to the genre. It reads like a cumulative tale, not so much about the history of baseball, but about the excitement which builds from moment to moment during the course of an inning, a game, a season. The book covers familiar feel-good territory: back alley games of stick ball, Cracker Jack, trading cards, listening breathlessly around a radio. It works, because the rhyming text reads effortlessly, with no clumsy rhymes to get in the way of the love of the game, or the enjoyment of the reading. A handful of historic moments get a mention, but predominately the book is about the small moments in a fan's enjoyment that bring such joy. I also liked that the book ended with the words, "Play Ball!"because to me, as a fan, those words are full of fun and promise. Which is what This is the Game is ultimately building towards. A perfect read while we wait for the All-Star break to pass and the rest of the season to commence.

You can have a look inside the book here:

01 July 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a sucker is born every minute

I make it a general policy not to purposely offend readers. I even try to avoid implying that my opinion is correct and anyone who thinks otherwise is an out and out moron. But I have to confess that I am about to let loose with a full blown rant, and if you happen to disagree with me.......sorry, but I'm right.

Yesterday I read this article in Publisher's Weekly about a new series of board books that will "introduce to the youngest reader....." And let's stop right there. I hate that phrase, because to me, 'introducing to the youngest reader' really translates to 'selling to kids who aren't yet ready to read the real version of this book.' Plus, I am an admitted board book snob. I think babies should have their own books, written with their needs in mind. I don't like board book versions of established picture books, because I feel it is a disservice to both formats and a lazy way to make a buck. The board book version of The Snowy Day, for instance, irks greatly. So imagine how I feel about these:

You know, I could cope with the zombies. But this is an out and out abomination. Let's start with the titles: Little Miss Austen and Little Master Shakespeare. These authors aren't Muppet babies, you know, but the greatest writers in English literature. Show a little respect! There's interpretation, there's parody, there's watered down, and then there is out and out offensive. This begs the question "For the love of God, why?!" The creative director behind the series (and yes, there will be more) says, “We knew there was nothing like it available for the age group, and that the books would be a great introduction to perennial classics both for very small children and parents who might never have read the classics before.”

First of all, there is nothing like it for the age group because it's a stupid idea and unnecessary. Babies are not going to get a classic vibe from the books. There won't be some sort of subconscious love for masterpieces when they are older because they gnawed on the corner of Romeo and Juliet. Nor are they guaranteed a place at Harvard. Better for the parent to read the original out loud while the baby is in utero if that's the plan.

Secondly, the thought that the books might serve as an introduction to the parents is enough to make me throw my hands up in despair. Might as well let the alien invasion begin, because humanity is doomed.

Which leads me to my third gripe. This isn't about what the babies will like, unless there is a mirror attached to the back or a button to push. Let's be honest--babies could care less about Elizabeth and Darcy, and that double suicide at the end of Romeo and Juliet might be a bit much for "the youngest reader". This is about sucking parents into thinking they are doing something healthy and edifying for their babies. Of course reading to babies is healthy and edifying. So why should I care, if the babies don't? To each their own, right? But pre-sales have already passed expectations, and judging by the comments at the end of the article, people do think the books are absolutely adorable (even though I'm right and they are wrong.) Which means that I, as a librarian who likes to think of herself as open-minded and not (gulp!) judgemental, will have to buy these books. As a Janeite that galls me. As a librarian it challenges me. As a lover of the classics it makes me die a little bit inside.

To the babies, I have just this to say: accept no substitutes! Demand your concept books and save the classics for when you are old enough to appreciate them. And to the parents, this: don't kid yourself. You are not introducing your child to anything remotely resembling a masterpiece. All you are doing is perpetrating the delusion that anything can be made accessible to anyone with the right amount of tweaking and modification. It's a lie! Some things should be left as they are to be discovered when the time is right.

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