What’s Up, You Cool Baby?

Esquivel! Space-age Sound Artist by Susan Wood, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. Charlesbridge, 2016. 9781580896733.

esquivelThe 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.

cosmobiographyThe 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.

Understanding Israel

How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less by Sarah Glidden. Drawn & Quarterly, 2016. 9781770462533.

how-to-understand-isreal-in-60Emailing my new Israeli librarian pen pal (Hi Karen!) seems to be bringing a lot of books on her country into my orbit, or at least has me moving them to the top of my reading pile.

Glidden’s graphic novel memoir about her birthright tour to Israel is one of the best. At the beginning, she’s on the lookout for pro-Israel propaganda and evidence of the mistreatment of Palestinians. But as she learns more about Israel’s history and it’s people, she sees how complicated the situation is. It’s an awkward, upsetting, emotional journey, and luckily Sarah has her friend Missy along.

This is much more of a personal journey than Joe Sacco’s journalistic Palestine  and Footnotes in Gaza, and it lacks the funny moments of Delisle’s Jerusalem. In some ways I think Glidden took on the tougher job in making her uncertainty both inform and entertain. And I really enjoyed the way she characterized the people she met: other visitors, their guides, and the people they met and listened to along the way.

Between the above books, Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future, and Brigitte Findakly’s Coquelicots d’Irak (a graphic novel about growing up in Iraq that’s still only available in French), I’m becoming more and more interested in visiting the Middle East.

Go Go Gravel Books

Two friends independently told me about Elise Gravel’s nonfiction picture book series Disgusting Creatures. The Slug! The Fly! The Rat! More! I saw them in a bookstore recently, and wondered what else Gravel had been writing. The answer: great comics for very little kids (and adults with great taste).

The Great Antonio by Elise Gravel. (Easy-To-Read comics Level Two) Toon Books, 2016. 9781943145089.

great-antonioInside the front cover, there’s a photo of a giant bearded strongman (Antonio Barichievich, 1925 – 2003). Is he about to pull those three elephants sideways?

This is his story. He was a big baby from Europe. There’s a drawing of him hauling a tree around with no hands when he was 12. Antonio was even more enormous when he moved to Canada at 20. There he became a famous wrestler who not only fought ten people at a time, he once fought a bear.

After a relationship ended badly, he lived on the streets outside a donut shop in Montreal (Gravel’s hometown). Apparently everyone knew and loved Antonio and his crazy stories about his life, many of which turned out to be true.

This is an amazing book, and my favorite of the three

I Want a Monster by Elise Gravel. Katherine Tegen Books, 2016. 9780062415332.

i-want-a-monsterWinnie wants a pet monster like her friends. She talks her dad into it by convincing him she’s willing to do all the hard work involved and they head to the Monsterium to choose one of the weird creatures. Things are great after they bring Gus home, but there are also some issues, particularly after he grows a bit.

I’m a huge fan of kids’ graphic novels full of simply-drawn weird creatures. (This is marketed as a picture book, but it’s also just a big hardcover comic.) This is one of my favorites — it’s right up there with Trondheim’s A.I.L.E.E.E.N. And it’s extra cool because it looks like it’s drawn on blue-lined graph paper.

A Day in the Office of Doctor Bugspit (Balloon Toons) by Elise Gravel. Blue Apple Books, 2011. 9781609050924.

doctor-bugspitDr. Bugspit wants everyone to believe he is the galaxy’s best doctor. (He’s not.) Aliens come from all over to get help with their crazy problems. (Ms. Picklepus is growing toes everywhere!) His fix-it-up syrup’s disgusting ingredients are secret, but I can tell you it includes both ear wax and dead flies.

The best things about this one: it’s general zany tone, plus it appears to have been drawn on lined paper like kids use at school.

Insert Jaquard Loom Pun Here

Ada Lovelace, Poet of Science: The First Computer Programmer by Diane Stanley, illustrated by Jessie Hartland. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016. 9781481452496.

adalovelaceAda thought it might be cool to fly from house to house and deliver the mail. (This was long before airplanes.) So she went about her project in a scientific way: she studied bird flight and anatomy, and designed really big wings out of wire frames covered with oiled silk to be connected to a harness for her back. She decided to write a book about her project called Flyology, then work on her steam-powered flying horse idea.

This whole thing worried her mother. Would she turn out to be a hopeless dreamer like her dad, Lord Byron, who had long since abandoned his family and died young? To calm her daughter down, she set her to studying math and science like she had. This did not work in the slightest.

At this point in the story, I was already thinking this is the coolest kid ever and I want to hang out with her. AND WE HAVEN’T EVEN GOTTEN TO THE COMPUTER STUFF YET!

The illustrations are simple, energetic, almost sloppy-looking paintings that really convey the excitement of Ada’s ideas and how happy she was when she got to figure things out. The explanation of the ideas leading up to the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine, and why Ada’s writing on them was truly revolutionary (even if it was overlooked for years), was very well done. This a great biography for readers of any age.

It’s Slinky!

The Marvelous Thing That Came From A Spring: The Accidental Invention of the Toy That Swept the Nation by Gilbert Ford. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016. 9781481450652.

marvelousthingThis is the story of the invention and ingenious marketing of the Slinky, from it’s accidental invention (while Richard James was working on an engineering project for the Navy) to the hard work he and his wife Betty James put in to name, market, and create a machine to make the Slinky from steel wire, then build a factory to make enough Slinkies for the nation. I liked that this story included Betty’s planning and managing their toy company. (As the note at the end mentions, Richard left for Bolivia in 1960 and Betty turned their nearly bankrupt factory into a national phenomenon.)

marvelousthing2The illustrations are SO COOL. The jacket flap calls them “dioramic illustrations” — photos show painted and cut-out pictures of people and their surroundings combined with objects like washcloths standing in for suburban lawns and a tiny toy tricycle in Gimbels department store.  The Slinkies are real coils of wire! Stuff like dominoes and multicolored toothpicks form picture frames around smaller images. The whole effect is stylish and satisfyingly tactile.

This book is going at the top of my picture-books-based-on-cool-inventions list along with The Day-Glo Brothers and Earmuffs for Everyone.


Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir by Tom Hart. St. Martin’s Press, 2016. 9781250049940.

rosalie-lightning“Late November, 2011, [Rosalie] died suddenly with no warning, or with tons of warning signs — we still don’t know.”

This is cartoonist Hart’s memoir about his daughter Rosalie: her short life, her sudden and unexpected death, and trying to figure out how to live in a world without her. The book made me love her, from her joy at watching Totoro to her favorite story ((Louis) Night Salad by Metaphrog) to her everyday delight with the world. I swear I can hear her voice when I read the pages of the book. But when Hart remembers her, his feelings bleed through, and puts himself and his raw emotions right on the page with these happy memories. Right on the page with Rosalie saying words she loved like “Bumbites!” (bug bites) is a section of “…words we never got to teach you.”

This book was breaking everyone’s heart, so I didn’t read it for a long time. Then one of the folks I know at Macmillan admitted she could barely even pick it up (she has a little kid at home), and I took that as a challenge. I’m super glad I did. It’s hard to get through, but it’s worth it — even great books rarely make me feel this much. It’s strange and a bit disrespectful to just flip through and skim it as I work on this review, so I’m putting it on top of the stack of books to read tonight.

Radiant Mind

Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing by Kay A. Haring, illustrated by Robert Neubecker. Dial Books for Young Readers, 2017. 9780525428190.

keithharingWhen Keith was a little kid, he drew all the time. He drew with his family. He drew in the margins of his schoolwork. As a teen, he listened to loud music in his room and drew. He even sold his bike to buy art supplies. He went to art school and then moved to New York. He drew on everything: walls, posters he stuck on lamp posts, and on blank black paper panels on subway walls in chalk. Even after he was recognized by the art world, he kept putting his art where people could see it for free or buy it cheaply. He painted a huge mural on a children’s hospital in France and he opened a shop where people could buy his art on buttons and T-shirts. As Keith explained it, “I draw all the time because there are many spaces to fill. I give my drawings away to help make the world a better place. I draw everywhere because EVERYONE needs art!” (This is the part of the book where I got weepy.)

The story is told by Keith’s sister, Kay, and she includes some great anecdotes about Keith’s childhood. The scenes depicted in the illustrations include reproductions of Keith’s art back to when he was in second grade! The picture of his big gallery show is a who’s who of influential people in the 70s art scene in New York — it’s like Where’s Waldo? for art nerds. (Hey, it’s Klaus Nomi! Look, there’s Basquiat! Is that Lou Reed?) I liked that it was a story that would be really appealing to kids, with the positive message to keep on drawing, and an inspirational story about a tremendously caring and creative person who died too young. There’s great additional material in the back about Keith’s family, career, the Keith Haring Foundation, and information about all of his art that appears in the illustrations. I will definitely be telling all of the art teachers I know about this one.