Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Dinosaur's (Literary) Ancestors

"Real dinosaurs didn't like attention.  They didn't want anyone to see them.  That's why Bolivar lived in the busiest city in the world."


Bolivar has been getting a lot of justly deserved attention.  But he is not the first (fictional) dinosaur to find refuge in New York.

That would be - I think - Sinclair Sophocles, The Baby Dinosaur.  Published in its author's and illustrator's home of Vienna in 1971 and published in English in the United States in 1974, Sinclair has Bolivar beat by over 40 years.


You might think that a lot has changed in 40 years, and a lot has.  People lament the gentrification and write odes (through rose-colored glasses, in my opinion, possibly even hot-pink) to the gritty days of yore.

But some things never change.

In Sinclair Sophocles Friederike Mayrocker wrote, "You are probably wondering why the people in the street did not stare or scream when they saw a baby dinosaur walking by.  I am wondering, too, but the fact is - no one did.  People who live in cities are often like that."

Were truer words ever spoken (or written)?  We New Yorkers pride ourselves on not staring - not at celebrities, not at crazy people, not at the strange outfits or the strange things people carry with them.  Some people disparage this attitude as isolating.  We prefer to see it as respecting people's privacy.  Therefore people of all stripes, clothing and headgear- and dinosaurs - can ride the subway in peace.

Bolivar rides the subway undisturbed and unnoticed

The Lizard form the Park rides the subway, undisturbed and unnoticed

Man with giant red mouse ears rides the subway, undisturbed but noticed by me

Shopping at Fairway, of course
The 1 train does not stop here!
Bolivar is strikingly beautiful and detailed, leading to cries of recognition (Fairway! the subway tiles!) and the occasional calling out of an error (the 1 train does not stop at 81st St for the Museum of Natural History; that would be the B and C trains).  There also some clever visual jokes, some New York-related (the local hot dog joint is the Papaya Czar rather than the Papaya King) and some not (Sybil's mom uses a Pineapple brand laptop (or perhaps Pomegranate)).  The themes of friendship and when privacy becomes isolation, when anonymity turns into loneliness are treated with a light touch.

But for my money, Sinclair Sophocles is the winner here.  Both Bolivar and Sinclair are stories of a friendship between a child a dinosaur.  Both are absurd, although Sinclair Sophocles ventures into the surreal with a talking furniture dust cover that renders the wearer invisible.  But Sinclair elevates the theme of friendship with its beautiful ending, when Sinclair flashes his "promised sign" of forever friendship in the sky: the infinity sign.


After Sinclair Sophocles came the dinosaurs of Hudson Talbott's We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story (disappointing, in my opinion), followed by Mark Pett's Lizard from the Park, both of which, amazingly, feature the dinosaurs camouflaged as balloons the Thanksgiving Day Parade:




If we expand our search to include not just dinosaurs but reptiles in New York City more generally, we have Lyle the Crocodile who made his first appearance in 1962 in the classic The House on East 88th Street and Have You Seen My Dragon?, published in 2014.  And in Chalk (2010) we have a playground structure shaped like a dinosaur coming alive in a city that, while not specifically New York, certainly could be.



And underlying it all is that old "alligator in the sewer" urban legend, which dates back until at least the 1930s.  Steve Light, author and illustrator of Have You Seen My Dragon? notes that his father used to claim that the steam coming out of manhole covers was the breath of a dragon.

There is something about the intersection of the wild and the civilized and the line between privacy and isolation that fascinate us.  Perhaps that is why the legend of the urban dinosaur, unlike the dinosaur itself, will never become extinct.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Masks We Wear

Halloween is not my holiday.  Scary and, to me, morbid, I could happily skip the whole thing.  But most kids love it and so I decided to find non-scary Halloween books to read to my students this year.

Illustration by Louis Darling
The first book - or rather, chapter of a book - that came to mind - was the one in Ramona the Pest where she dresses up as "the baddest witch in the world" and participates for the first time in the school Halloween parade.  Reading it to classes over and over, I was struck each and every time by how perfectly Beverly Cleary describes the terror that can come with the anonymity that a costume can bring.  Cleary writes, "Nobody knew who Ramona was, and if nobody knew who she was, she wasn't anybody."  Desperate to assert her identity, Ramona runs back to her classroom and writes herself a nametag, which she proudly holds in front of her costume.

Cleary also describes with emotional clarity the satisfaction children (and adults) can have in scaring themselves - in controlling the amount of fear they experience.  Ramona finds her own mask terrifying and hides it under a couch cushion so she doesn't have to look at it.  But then she periodically "would lift the cushion for a quick glimpse of her scary mask before she clapped the pillow over it again.  Scaring herself was such fun." And while Ramona finds looking at her mask scary, when she wears it - and therefore can't see it herself - she feels brave.  That is, until she feels lost and alone.


Illustrations by Kurt Werth

















Written five years before Ramona the Pest, A Tiger Called Thomas by Charlotte Zolotow also uses Halloween and costumes to tackle issues of identity, but from a very different perspective.  Thomas, who has just moved to a new neighborhood, is too shy to approach any of his neighbors.  (And why should he?!?  Shouldn't they come over and greet the new arrivees?  But that is neither here nor there.)  But safely inside his tiger costume, Thomas is brave enough to trick-or-treat, feeling secure that no one will recognize him.  Much to his surprise, everyone knows who he is!  (A Tiger Called Thomas wass reissued with new illustrations in 1988 and again in  2003 and will be published again next year with yet another set of illustrations.  There was an article in the March/April 2017 issue of The Horn Book about the different versions, but unfortunately it is not online.) 

Masks - literal and figurative - can embolden us, change us, or render us invisible or anonymous.

But I still don't like Halloween.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Imagination Can Never Be Obsolete

Finite funds and finite space necessitate that libraries weed their collections.  And when they do, they indicate which books they are removing by a variety of stamps or handwritten words, like this one:


Or this one:



But this one?


Obsolete?  Well, some books are indeed obsolete.  Books that talk about the Soviet Union as if it still exists, for example.  Atlases that show Czechoslovakia.  Books that have scientific information that has since been proved incorrect, or for which new terminology has been agreed upon (e.g. Is Pluto a planet?)

But this was a picture book.  A picture book about a child who is visited by a king and his royal entourage... which turns out to have all been in the child's imagination, piqued by a deck of playing cards.  This book is not, and could never be, obsolete.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Tragedy Does Not Rhyme

When I came across The Little Chapel That Stood, I was immediately taken in by the cover and the use of the survival of St. Paul's chapel on 9/11 as a framing device to teach children about what happened that day.  I assumed that St. Paul would be used as a symbol of hope and resilience and that it would, like many books about horrific events, ease children into learning about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Like Number the Stars, which teaches children about the Holocaust by focusing on the Resistance (like Mr. Rogers' reminder to look for the helpers), or several of the books I wrote about here which focus on lost loveys as a way to teach children about the Holocaust, I assumed that The Little Chapel That Stood would be a paean to resistance and resilience.


Well, I shouldn't have judged a book by its cover.

Rhyming and tragedy do not go well together.  Sure, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" rhymes, but A.B. Curtiss is no Tennyson.  With lines like "Two planes hijaced by/ a terrorist crew/Struck the Twin Towers:/ no warning, no clue!" and "One Tower, the other/ they fell, fell, fell," this book is in extremely poor taste.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

L'dor Va'dor: From Generation to Generation

What would you take with you if you had to leave your home?  What thing - an object, a recipe, even a story - have you inherited?  What do you want to pass down to your descendants?




Maybe it's a shovel - like in Dan Yaccarino's All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and A Little Shovel and Leslie Connor's Miss Bride Chose A Shovel - which can be put to any number of uses, from the expected digging to the less predictable scooping flour and salting the sidewalk in advance of a snowstorm.  Or a quilt as in The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco or a rope, as in Jacqueline Woodson's This Is the Rope: A Story From the Great Migration, both of which can also be used in myriad ways - the quilt becomes a chuppah (wedding canopy); the rope ties, and hauls, but also becomes a jump rope and the string for a pull-toy.
















Maybe it's a cup, broken but still whole, like in Chachaji's Cup by Uma Krishnaswami (perhaps my very favorite of all the titles here), or Patricia Polacco's The Blessing Cup.

Or a precious doll or stuffed animal, perhaps lost forever as in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, perhaps only thought forever lost and then found again, like Tomi Ungerer's teddy bear Otto or Claire Nivola's Elisabeth (all three of these involve WWII). Or a doll damaged and repaired, like Miki in Yoko's Show and Tell  or a teddy bear that could tell quite the story if only it could speak, like Anzac Ted and A Bear in War (both set during WWI) or Polar the Titanic Bear who journeyed on the ill-fated ship.


What about something that your whole family had to bring, piece by piece, like Izzy and Olivia's ancestors did in Under the Sabbath Lamp?

Perhaps you'd bring with you a smell or taste of home, via seeds that you could plant in your new land.  That's what Azzi does in Azzi in Between and what the protagonists do in The Butterfly Seeds.

Or maybe you'd take a piece of jewelry, like the necklace in The Granddaughter Necklace or the ring in When Jessie Came Across the Sea, or the bracelet in Yoon and the Jade Bracelet?


Or a collection of small mementos, like an olive pit to remind you of hunger, or a single bead from a rosary, like those in The Matchbox Diary or Small Beauties: The Journey of Darcy Heart O'Hara

Would you bring an instrument with you? Mendel did.

Maybe something you left behind - or merely a remnant of it - was found and returned to you after you left, like the pillow in The Feather-Bed Journey.

Or something you created under the worst conditions imaginable, like the menorah in Nine Spoons: A Chanukah Story?


Or maybe you had to leave with nothing. Nothing tangible, that is. Instead, just the story of an item, recycled and reused until nothing is left but the memory of it, as in How I Learned Geography or Joseph Had a Little Overcoat and its many iterations (Something from Nothing, Maya's Blanket: La Manta de Maya, My Grandfather's CoatBit by Bit, I Had A Favorite Dress).  Or not even a recipe on a worn, creased piece of paper, but one memorized, so no one could take it from you, as Bill Freund writes in The Cookie That Saved My Family, "Something you've learned can never be taken away."

What would you bring?  What did you or your ancestors bring?  What do you want to pass down to your children?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

HalleluYAH! HalleluYAH!

After my last post about books set in NYC, I picked up another book I'd been meaning to read, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, only to discover it too was set in New York.  But it got the details wrong and those mistakes nearly ruined the book for me.  True, the protagonist is a bit of an anxious kid, afraid to travel by himself in the city.  But certainly he's traveled with his mom!  My kids - and all those I know - know to use a Metrocard on the bus and to signal for their stop!  (In fact, NYC kids, from toddlerhood, beg to be the one to ring for their stop.  It's kind of like pressing the elevator button.)   All New York kids, except the most sheltered and wealthy, which Jeremy and his friend Lizzie clearly are not, would know these things.  Despite an appearance by the Museum of Natural History, this book could have been set anywhere.  Those two facts make it ineligible for my next books-set-in-NYC post.

Days later, a friend posted a photo of a page from Rachel Vail's book, Well, That Was Awkward on Facebook, in which the characters hear the "Halleluyah Guy" (a real, older man who walks the streets of the Upper West Side from approximately 100th to 110th St. shouting, "Glor-EE!  Glor-EE!  Jesus.  Jesus.  Jesus.  HalleluYAH!  HalleluYAH!"  and are relieved that he is well since they haven't heard him in a while.  The Facebook thread blew up with current and former Upper West Siders sharing their reminiscences about Halleluyah Guy and, just like the characters, sharing their concerns about whether he was still with us, until one commenter finally said she'd heard him recently.  Now THAT'S authenticity for you.

So I picked up the book, and on nearly every page was a reference to my neighborhood.  I drove my husband nuts by telling him about every mention of our local pizza place, bakery, bagel shop.  I started to wonder if the book was too authentic - too specific to a time and place to be universal.  (It's really specific.  Only people who lived between 96th St. and 112th St. and Amsterdam Avenue to Riverside knew what we were talking about.  Upper West Siders who live in the 70s had no idea.)  But it's not.  It's really about relationships - familial, platonic, and romantic.  It manages the trick of being both universal and specific, and its authenticity and accuracy have earned it a place on my next list of New York city books.

What errors in a book ruined or almost ruined a book for you?

Monday, July 24, 2017

New and New to Me New York Books

There must be more books written about and/or set in New York than any other city in the world. London might come close, Paris should be up there, but New York has to be the winner, don't you think?  I have absolutely no evidence to back up this claim, but it's my story and I'm stickin' to it. Here are some of them:

Picture Books

New

Stop Feedin' Da Boids by James Sage, illustrated by Pierre Pratt.   I wanted to love this book.  I love the title, resuscitating as it does a nearly-gone New York accent.  The first full double-page spread by illustrator Pierre Pratt of a scene in Brooklyn with the Brooklyn Bridge in the distance is perfection.  With its bright colors and its diversity of Brooklyn residents - a Hasid, a man in a wheelchair, a Muslim, a dogwalker, a skateboarder - it's both visually beautiful and so evocative of its setting.  And it's resurrection of the classic New York accent - perfect.  But the plot is lacking.  Swand, having moved from the country, is eager to find any signs of nature in New York. But soon her building is overrun with pigeons - and their noise and filth - due to her feeding them. The solution is obvious: stop feedin' da boids!  But it takes far too many pages to get there and the journey is not worth it.  Nonetheless, this book prompted me to check out Pratt's other work.  He's prolific, and I'd never heard of him before.



Pax and Blue by Lori Richmond. Another pigeon book.  This time, a pigeon ends up in the subway. Sweet but not saccharine, with more great NYC illustrations, including subway illustrations.  I love how only the title character is in color.


New to Me

Rosa-Too-Little, written and illustrated by Sue Felt.  One of my newly discovered finds, this book, published in 1950, is set uptown, seemingly in Spanish Harlem and features the local library branch.  So of course I love it! The street scene art is fantastic.




One Monday Morning by Uri Shulevitz.  A little boy who lives in a tenement building and takes the D train finds a way to amuse himself on a rainy day.  While the street sign is not easy to read, I'm pretty sure it says Broome Street.

Chapter Books





New

The Goat by Anne Fleming.  I wrote about this one here.  Love it.

The Doorman's Repose, written and illustrated by Chris Raschka.  This volume of interconnected stories set in a single apartment building, 777 Garden Avenue, a fictional short street that I imagine something like Claremont or Manhattan Avenue, is just so good.  From the doorman (think of Henry, featured in Judy Blume's Fudge books, but with more gravitas), the elevator (Otis, naturally), the cranky busybody (recalling Mrs. Mind-Your-Own-Business of Johanna Hurwitz's Riverside Kids series), the local mice  (one a psychiatrist (this must be the Upper West Side), who has learned her specialty by residing in the tissue box of her human equivalent, and a jazz musician, who has learned his art by living in a double bass), the super (Clementine's dad?), this book gives life to some of the "eight million stories" in the city.

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar.  In this semi-autobiographical novel, a Cuban Jewish immigrant girl to oft-literarily-neglected Queens is bedridden for a year after a car accident, and learns who her friends really are.  (Other books set in Queens include Gina by Bernard Waber (picture book), Twerp and its sequel Finding the Worm by Mark Goldblatt, and, in YA, Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina.)

Apartment 1986 by Lisa Papademetriou.  Another book I wanted to like more than I did.  Callie skips school one day, but playing hooky suddenly becomes a habit she can't break.  Add in parents who are acting strangely, financial fraud, and a grandmother with a secret boyfriend, plus a friend facing a debilitating illness, and it all seemed a bit much to me.

York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby.  Set in a present-day but alternate NYC, where the subways are immaculate and never break down.  On second thought, maybe it's not just an alternate NYC but a fantasy NYC.  I just started reading this aloud to my 9-year-old.  I'll keep you posted!

New to Me

Stoneflight by Georgess McHargue.  Janie is stuck in the city for the summer.  Her parents are preoccupied with their jobs and their faltering marriage.  She takes refuge in her Morningside Height's building's rooftop, where she, by force of will (heart?) brings the stone carved griffin that stands atop it to life.  With scenes at the local library branch, the main 42nd street building, and a "vacation" in her uncle's Upper East Side townhouse, combined with flights on the griffin over Manhattan, I don't understand how this book has ever gone out of print. It's similarities to the recent adult book, The Gargoyle Hunters (preteen protagonist named - you guessed it, Griffin -  whose parents' marriage is on the rocks) makes me wonder whether that book's author read Stoneflight before he wrote his book.

Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani.  I grew up on the Lower East Side and I knew that this book featured letters between from a girl living there and a penpal in Kentucky.  And yet even I  was set around the turn or beginning of the last century, in the Lower East Side's heyday, as if real, young people don't live there anymore.  Of course, I was wrong.  Written in 2008 and set contemporaneously, this epistolary novel features Meena, a young Indian immigrant, on the LES, and River, a young boy who lives in Kentucky.  Meena has only recently rejoined her family in NYC from India after her parents and brother finally had enough money to pay for her to rejoin them. While the book deals with many of the issues you would expect - feelings of abandonment, homesickness - it also addresses body image (Meena writes to River about shaving her legs, which he is not pleased about, and her brother is the person who teaches her how), interracial relationships (her brother's girlfriend is Latina) and a sibling relationship that seems a little too good to be true.  And on River's side, the focus is on the environmental disaster of mountaintop removal done to facilitate coal mining.  The two bond over the stereotypes that both of them face but the book never seems preachy.


The Wizard of Washington Square by Jane Yolen.  David, new to NYC, meets the Wizard of Washington Square.  I have one quibble with  this book.  The boy's dog goes missing and his parents don't notice?!?  But it makes up for it with great descriptions of Washington Square Park in the late '60s, with people signing petitions without reading them, everyone having long hair, and a reference to the IRT (subway). And do those illustrations look familiar? Why, yes they do.  Do they perhaps remind you of a boy who's having a bad day?  A terrible day?  A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?  They should!  Ray Cruz is indeed the illustrator here.

What are your favorite new or lesser known children's books set in New York?