Esquivel! Space-age Sound Artist by Susan Wood, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. Charlesbridge, 2016. 9781580896733.
The story of the life of out-there pop composer and conductor Esquivel! (the exclamation point is a part of his stage name) illustrated with images in the style of the ancient Mexican Mixtec codex, with photographic textures as color.
The Cosmo-biography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy Is Enlightening by Chris Raschka. Candlewick Press, 2014. 9780763658069.
The story of the life of the legendary jazz composer and performer Sun Ra illustrated in paintings bursting with color and movement.
As much as writing about music is like dancing about architecture, is a child’s picture book about lesser-known musicians even more so? The stories are fine on their own (probably why they got into books in the first place) but there is no way to convey the power of the artists’ music, much less its impact. Best case scenario, a child will recognize the names from these books when they hear the music. I’m guessing it’s all a part of trying to give a child a cultured (or impressive, or quirky) taste in music. Not matter how interesting his life was, there probably won’t be a picture book biography of Lawrence Welk, he’s just not cool enough. (Though I will admit that Esquivel!’s is pretty close to lounge music, even if it is very experimental.) That said, I think Esquivel! and Sun Ra are good kid-music choices: fun, weird, and enjoyable even outside their cultural contexts.
Dad and the Dinosaur by Gennifer Choldenko, illustrated by Dan Santat. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017. 9780399243530.
I’ve met Santat a few times since Sidekicks was published, and the way his happiness and enthusiasm permeate his art makes every book he illustrates worth reading. The “glowing” quality of this book’s pictures make them look like something between paintings and art created for a tablet. They’re utterly beautiful.
Nicholas is afraid of the dark (and a lot of other things), but he has help being brave — he clutches his toy dinosaur and imagines a ferocious, gigantic companion that can easily deal with everything he fears. But one day, after a soccer game, his dinosaur is gone. Nicholas freaks out. Luckily his dad is there to help.
Charlotte and the Rock by Stephen W. Martin, illustrated by Samantha Cotterill. 2017. 9781101993897.
Charlotte wants a pet, and she doesn’t care what it is. Her parents buy her a big, round rock. They hang out a lot and do almost everything together, but the rock doesn’t love her. And then it hatches because (spoiler alert) it’s not really a rock. (You can probably guess what comes out from the title of this blog post.)
Cotterill’s drawings are very cartoony, and are notable for their use of patterns and textures, particularly on clothing and the surface of the Charlotte’s pet. It’s very fun.
Away With Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions by Joe Berkowitz. Harper Perennial, 2017. 9780062495600.
I picked this book up with the question, “There are pun competitions?” Yes, there are, and enough that Berkowitz doesn’t have to stretch too much to find them.
He starts out at the hip, monthly Brooklyn Punderdome to try out performing in a competition. Hearing laughs at and cheers for the kind of wordplay that usually only earns him the stinkeye gets him addicted, even though he doesn’t win. This starts him on the road to the big annual competition in Austin, the O. Henry Pun Off. How do you get better at competitive punning? By taking an improv class to be less afraid of crashing and burning, among other things. He interviews scientists who study the mechanisms of jokes and puns. (They compare punning with a brain disorder.) He talks to the writers at Bob’s Burgers and Veep who incorporate puns into every television episode. Berkowitz investigates the high-pressure headline punning at the New York Post and visits the set of the pun-based game show @midnight. Along the way he interviews a host of pun champions.
As fun as following these threads was (and Berkowitz is funny even outside the punning), the best part was watching him find his people and become appreciated by a tribe that shares his unironic interest in wordplay.
Skullsworn by Brian Staveley. Tor, 2017. 9780765389879.
First, if you’re a fan of Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades and its sequels, stop reading now. Yes, this book is about the backstory of the most compelling character from those books, Pyrre Lakatur, priestess of Ananshael, the God of Death. Yes, it’s as good as you’re hoping. Skip the minor spoilers ahead, ignore the dust jacket copy, and read it NOW. If you’re anything like me you won’t be able to put it down.
If you’re a fantasy reader who hasn’t given Staveley a chance yet, stop waiting. His world is filled with gods new and old who occasionally walk among men, as well as other creatures and warriors that are equally as deadly. His books are right up at the top of my list with the best by Brandon Sanderson, Richard K. Morgan, Anthony Ryan, and Joe Abercrombie (which they compete with in terms of the amount and beauty of violence they contain)
Pyrre Lakatur is facing her final trial. If she passes, she will become a priestess of the God of Death. If she fails she will be killed by her Witnesses. She must kill seven people in fourteen days who fit the criteria detailed in a song. For a devotee of Ananshael as skilled with knives as she is, this would present little trouble — she has no fear of death, and no hesitation sending people to meet her god. Except for the last person on the list: she’s supposed to give her god one who made her mind and body sing with love. And Pyrre has never been in love.
To find the man she’s felt the most for, she returns to Dombâng, a sweltering town on a river delta full of deadly creatures, where he is in charge of the constables. To draw him to her she sets the city on edge, reminding its citizens of their ancient gods and fanning the flames of their resentment at the Empire that now rules them. To experience love, she may have to reveal who she truly is, and why she has come home.
Aleister & Adolf, story by Douglas Rushkoff, art by Michael Avon Oeming, lettering by Nate Piekos. Dark Horse Books, 2016. 9781506701042.
Reader note: This book has a LOT of nudity and fucking in it, in addition to Satan worship*, murder, and Nazi atrocities. So, y’know, if any of those is a deal killer for you, give this one a pass.
A graphic artist in the early days of the web goes in search of the original paper files on the design of a corporate logo, after the digital files he needs to build a web page start to misbehave by refusing to stay put on the screen. He’s horrified to find images of torture and death that played a role in the logo’s development. He meets with an elderly man, now dying, who explains what it all means: in his youth, during World War II, he was tasked by American military strategists to recruit British magician Aleister Crowley because the Americans wanted to find a way to use Hitler’s interest in the occult against him. Instead of completing his mission and reporting back, as ordered, he ended up overwhelmed by Crowley’s ideas and in danger of losing himself to the powerful magicks at play. Crowley became obsessed with creating a symbol powerful enough to defeat the Nazis.
The story is based on real-life strangeness and occult beliefs during WWII, with a story of personal obsession and loss woven throughout. Crowley thinks the Nazis are adding power to the swastika through their horrifying medical experiments and mass murders. His efforts to create a rival symbol involve sex magick and sacrifice. This isn’t just a Hammer style occult horror story, it’s about the power of symbols and how they permeate of our lives. In the notes on his art at the end of the book, Oeming comments that while he usually sells his original cover art, he thinks he will burn the cover of Aleister & Adolf rather than unknowingly sell his depiction of Hitler to a neo-Nazi for any price. The symbols in this book are still powerful, generations later.
*a nerdy footnote: Aleister Crowley in the book (and probably in real life) would strenuously object to someone calling what he did Satan worship or black magic. Then he would give you a long-winded explanation as to why. But that’s what people who will want to steer clear of this book would call it, which is why I’m calling it out with those words.
I fell in love with Jon Agee’s picture books when I read and reread and rereread…. Terrific to my daughter. It was one of her favorite picture books (probably because I loved doing the grumpy protagonist’s voice — he’s unhappy no matter how well things work out for him). It was his drawings that really got me — they’re absolutely brilliant cartooning. Not a line is wasted and they perfectly convey action and character. (Maybe it’s time for me to cosplay the old man in the brown overcoat.)
I was looking at Terrific and Nothing the other day, getting ready for a talk I’m going to give on picture books that use the tools of cartooning, and decided to order all of the Jon Agree books at the Seattle Public Library that I’d never read. These were my favorites.
Orangutan Tongs: Poems to Tangle Your Tongue by Jon Agee. Disney-Hyperion, 2009. 9781423103158.
Hands are hard to draw. Hands using chopsticks, even harder. The title page of this book features 10 orangutans using chopsticks. It’s a signal that Agree is going to show off throughout the book, both in terms of the funny poems and in the variety of things he draws: a newsstand, the Purple-Paper People Club’s meeting, two moose, embers, a carnival, three-toed tree toads tying shoes, two hotels, dodos, more orangutans, and a crowd scene on a New York City subway.
(If you guessed that the tongue twister “Two Tree Toads” is my favorite poem in the book, you were right. But it was a close race.)
Little Santa by Jon Agree. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2013. 9780803739062.
I’m as surprised as you that there’s a Christmas book on this list. Not my holiday. The last time I enjoyed anything overtly Christmasy was the Finnish horror film Rare Exports. Agree’s young Santa dresses in a red hooded onesie that makes him look like he’s trying to sneak into Gabbaland unnoticed. He lives with his family at the North Pole where they are all miserable (he’s the only one who loves it). They decide to relocate to Florida, but their house is buried in a snow drift. They send Santa up the chimney to get help leading to…Christmas. When his family is finally rescued, Santa stays behind, but you probably already knew that.
Sherlock Sam and the Missing Heirloom in Katong by A.J. Low. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2016. 9781449477899.
Elementary-aged, Singaporean amateur sleuth Sherlock Sam (real name: Samuel Tan Cher Lock) teams up with his sister, his cousin, and his snarky robot Watson to solve the mystery of his Auntie’s missing heirloom cookbook. Sherlock Sam is earnest, he learned all about problem-solving from Logicomix, he’s annoyed that adults keep pinching his chubby cheeks, and he’s motivated by food. This book made me hungry: it’s packed full of Singaporean delicacies (Sherlock Sam’s love of his Auntie’s ayam buah keluak is the main reason he wants to solve the case quickly).
This is an illustrated chapter book (though Andrews McMeel’s AMP! Kids imprint is known for graphic novels) with delightful black and white spot illustrations by Andrew Tan.