Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Kids' Magazines Struggling

This should not be exactly startling news, given the state of all print journals and newspapers throughout the country. With advertisements dropping and periodicals closing at record rates, it should be no surprise that kids' journals are not immune. This short Media Daily News article by Erik Sass gives more detail and some specific numbers. Let's just hope that print resurges or online alternatives continue improving; though I love digital, the Luddite in me wants Loretta, for instance, to know what it's like receiving a regular magazine the way I did Boys' Life or The Weekly Reader when I was young.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Honoring Asia's Top Illustrators

As a film fan I must begin by commemorating Paul Newman, who’s work amazed and astounded, from Somebody Up There Likes Me to Cars (suitably, for us, he ended his career with a children’s film).

But to return my attention to Asian children's literature, tomorrow is the deadline for the sixteenth Noma Concours, a competition for illustrators from Africa, the Mideast, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia/the Pacific (excluding Japan). The competition is biennial and was first held in 1978, with one Grand Prize, two Second Prizes, ten Runner-up Prizes, and twenty Encouragement Prizes awarded. According to an article in the July/August SCBWI Bulletin by Holly Thompson, in 2006 a record 522 entries were received, with eighty percent from Asian countries. Although it is not an Asian award specifically it therefore serves well as one arbiter of the best rising talent in Asian picture books. In 2006, for instance, the Grand Prize went to Pradyumna Kumar of India for the book How the Firefly Got Its Light, and the two second prizes went to Narges Mohammadi of Iran for The Princess Couldn’t Laugh and Jainal Amambing of Malaysia for The Last Day I Lived in a Long House. In 2004 the Grand Prize went to Balormaa Baasansuren of Mongolia for My Home. More information on the award’s history and winners can be found on its website. I’d like to just pass along a some links and info on some Asian illustrators whose work was honored in the award’s fifteenth edition; the profiles that I’m including are from this page.

Pradyumna Kumar, India

“Born in 1969. Artist, sculptor, and instructor of Madhubani art. MA in Geography, Bihar University, India. Instructs traditional Indian art at school and in public-awareness programmes.”

Here’s an online gallery of fine art for sale. Here’s another similar page.

Jainal Amambing, Malaysia

“Born in 1968. Freelance artist. Winner of numerous prizes, including the Second Prize in the 12th Noma Concours, the Runner-up in the 13th and 14th Noma Concours, and the Encouragement Prize in the 11th Noma Concours.”

Here is a gallery and exhibition history. Here’s an article about various Malaysian illustrators.

Awang Fadilah Bin Ali Hussein, Malaysia

“Born in 1972. Illustrator. Studied fine art at Sabah Institute of Art, Malaysia. Winner of several prizes for illustrations in Malaysia.”

Here’s an online gallery.

Jose Miguel Tejido, Philippines

“Born in 1982. Freelance architect, illustrator, author, and painter. BS in Architecture, University of Santo Tomas, Philippines. Cartoonist of “Mikrokosmos”, a daily comic strip in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Was host of children’s arts and crafts TV show “Art-is-Kool” (2004-06). Included in the 2004 IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Honour List for Illustrators. Winner of the 2006 Honourable Mention, Alcala Illustrator’s Prize of the Philippine Board on Books for Young People (PBBY).”

He has two websites, here and here.

Oh Jung-Taek, South Korea

“Born in 1972. Freelance illustrator. BFA in Fiber Art, Hong-ik University, Republic of Korea.
Studied MFA in Fiber Art at Hong-ik University. Winner of the Encouragement Prize in the 14th Noma Concours. The prize-winning work, The Colour Wheel, was published in Korean by Kyowon, Republic of Korea, in 2004. The prize-winning work for the 15th Noma Concours, A Book That Nobody Has Opened, was published in Korean by Hansol Education, Republic of Korea, in 2004.”

Here’s his personal website.

Pallop Wangborn, Thailand

“Born in 1973. MFA in Visual Art, Srinakarinvirot University, Bangkok, Thailand. Works as an instructor of fine art at Rajamangala University of Technology, Thailand. Has participated in many national art exhibitions, including the art exhibition to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s accession to the throne, at the National Museum of Thailand in 2006.”

Here’s his MySpace page.

Yoo Jun-Jae, South Korea

“Born in 1976. Freelance illustrator. Studies MFA in Visual Communication, Hong-ik University, Republic of Korea. The prize-winning work was published by Hansol Education Co. Ltd. Republic of Korea, in 2005.The original story was written by George Orwell.”

Here’s his Korean-language website with plenty of art samples.


I am considering Iran part of the Middle East for this entry, which I hope is not controversial, but it’s pretty amazing: out of thirty-three winners, seventeen were Iranian. Such an amazing showing warrants further investigation. I suspect that Iranian children’s lit might turn out to be a great deal like Iranian cinema, beautiful and awe-inspiring but largely unknown in the West.

I also only listed winners, even those from Asia, for whom I could find images or other web resources, and I only looked at the 2006 competition. Hopefully it’s enough to give a glimpse into some of the work going on in that continent in recent years.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Jemima Puddle-duck and Samuel Whiskers at 100

As I noted on Monday, for the next several weeks as I’ve decided to have ‘Anniversary Fridays.’ I’m doing this as a weekly series simply because I started blogging more than halfway through the year, and if I don’t make myself post something weekly I simply won’t get to it all before 2009. So Anniversary Friday will be my way, until sometime in November, to commemorate all the books, characters, films, etc. that are celebrating a significant birthday this year.

First off is one of my favorites. Listening to NPR this week one would think that Leonard Bernstein is the only person celebrating a centennial this year (and a happy 400th anniversary to John Milton), but it’s not so. He is joined in that regard by both Jemima Puddle-Duck and the illustrious Mr. Samuel Whiskers. These were the title characters in the two books published by Beatrix Potter in 1908. Miss Potter, who turned 42 in 1908, had at this point been working for quite a while, with eleven children’s books published by 1907 (her first, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was published in 1902). It had been three years since her fiancé Norman Warne had died of pernicious anemia and Potter’s subsequent move to the Hill Top farm in Cumbria (shown here) in the Lake District of northern England. In addition to her agricultural activities she dedicated herself to her writing and illustrating, producing one or two books a year until her eyesight gave out around 1920.

Both The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers were connected to her previous book, 1907’s The Tale of Tom Kitten. In that book Potter struck upon one of her great group of characters, the irascible three children of Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit, the three kittens Moppet, Mittens, and Tom. The trio is dressed for a self-important tea party but proceed to sully and lose all their clothing while outside waiting for the guests to arrive. Chief accomplices in this mischief is the Puddle-ducks, Mr. Drake Puddle-duck, Rebeccah, and one Jemima Puddle-duck. At this point Jemima is not distinguished from the other two in any way; they are simply all somewhat self-important (like Tabitha) and dim-witted. It was therefore yet another stroke of genius to subsequently single Jemima out as slightly more self-important and unobservant than her counterparts in her own book in 1908.

I won’t recount the story of The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck, but it is one of Potter’s strongest, I think, in regards to its depiction of motherhood and loss; the natural world can sometimes raise its ugly head in Potter’s world, not without empathy for her young readers but still without flinching about the Hobbsian nature of life and death Potter the naturalist would have been sufficiently familiar with.

I own a copy of The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, issued in 2002 for the Peter Rabbit centennial, and here is some of what it says about Jemima Puddle-duck:

“Beatrix Potter’s love of Hill Top and farming shine through this story. She painted her farm manager’s wife, Mrs. Cannon, feeding the poultry, while the children Ralph and Betsy (to whom this “farmyard tale” is dedicated) are also illustrated. Kep the collie was Beatrix’s favourite sheepdog, and Jemima herself was a real duck who lived at Hill Top. She is a most popular character: self-important, naïve, but very endearing.

“The story also contains many delightful views of Sawrey: Jemima’s wood can still be seen, the view from the hills above the farm, across Esthwaite Water, has not changed, and the Tower Bank Arms is still the local village pub. This blend of fantasy and reality, so often to be found in Beatrix Potter’s work, gives a ring of truth to her imaginary world.”

Near the end of The Tale of Tom Kitten, which is after all equally about Tom and his two siblings, Potter’s narrator says, “And I think that some day I shall have to make another, larger, book, to tell you more about Tom Kitten!” With The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, or the Roly-Poly Pudding that is exactly what she did; this was in her mind all along, of course, as the two books were being composed more or less at the same time, in 1906. After having created the suave villain of the foxy-whiskered gentleman in Jemima Puddle-duck she upped the ante, in my opinion, creating not just her greatest villain but one of her greatest characters ever in Samuel Whiskers; this is also the only Tale named after its antagonist (there is no Tale of Mr. MacGregor!), an indication of how strong Samuel Whisker’s character is. The Complete Tales sheds some light on the title, however; here’s what it has to say:

“When this story was first published in 1908, it was entitled The Roly-Poly Pudding, and it appeared in the larger size used for The Pie and The Patty-Pan. In 1926 it was reduced to the standard size and given the title we now know it by.

“The tale was actually written in 1906, when Beatrix was exploring the Hill Top, the farm she had recently bought. She described the house in a letter to a friend. ‘It really is delightful—if the rats could be stopped out! . . . I never saw such a place for hide and seek and funny cupboards and closets.’ Here was her inspiration for the further adventures of Tom Kitten: an old farmhouse, and her pet rat, to whom the book is dedicated, ‘In remembrance of Sammy, the intelligent pink-eyed representative of a persecuted (but irrepressible) race. An affectionate little friend and most accomplished thief.’”

Samuel Whiskers is indeed irrepressible: despite his intention to eat Tom (how is he to bake him?) he is one of Potter’s most endearing characters. Her affection for his real-life model comes through in her treatment of his villainy. I also love how she turned the traditional cat-and-mouse tale on its head. (Some American readers may benefit from knowing the difference between a Jell-O pudding and a traditional British savory pudding of the kind Samuel wants to make of Tom.)

Along with Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers is my favorite Beatrix Potter book. I bought my Potter collection in 2003 and began reading some of the shorter tales to Loretta when she was about one, in 2005. (Samuel Whiskers, it seems to me, is one of the longer, with a higher text-to-illustration ratios akin to The Tailor of Gloucester.) Loretta was therefore introduced to the character via the 1993 film in the half-hour animated series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends. I intend to devote at least a complete post to these wonderful productions at some point, but suffice it to say that we watched nearly all of them and found each to be exquisite. They are among the most delightful literary adaptations I’ve ever seen on the screen, maintaining the integrity of the original stories and even expanding upon them; the character (and voice) of Samuel Whiskers is among the prime examples of this. I particularly appreciate the lyrical quality of the films, exemplified in the live-action opening credits as well as the cartoons, as opposed to the sharper style of something like the recent film Miss Potter (probably okay for adults, but not what I’m looking for for Loretta necessarily, although I should mention she adored the frenetically kinetic adaptation by Annie Poon; scroll through her “Animation” excerpts to find The Roly Poly Pudding). At this point I plan on purchasing the entire series, but I was delighted to find this example on YouTube, although I still recommend full-screen presentation:

After seeing this Loretta created the Roly-Poly Pudding Game, where she is Tom and I Samuel: I roll her up in a comforter/duvet, spread butter on her (i.e. tickle her face with my finger), and roll her flat, either with my hands or our actual rolling pin, until a Scottish terrier saws through the roof to save her. The game’s slacked off a bit recently, but for two years it was one of her absolute favorite things to do, over and over and over again… It wouldn’t have worked if I had tried to invent it and explain it to her, but since she created it organically out of the movie she absolutely adored it, along with Tom, Moppet, Mittens, and, dare I say, even Samuel. She has, since then, equally taken to the original book.

Thanks, then, to Beatrix Potter for one hundred years of enjoyment. Her tales are timeless, and I think we can look forward to one hundred years more.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Igor Bows on 2,000 Screens

Last weekend saw one of the most interesting animated releases in a long time. It’s Igor, directed by Anthony Leondis (director of 2005’s Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch), written by Chris McKenna, and produced by Exodus Film Group. This is a new independent company in the realm of feature animation, and it’s aiming to shake up the world of Pixar and Dreamworks a little bit. Not a lot, of course; as producer Max Howard says in this Animation World Magazine article: “We’re not aspiring to be Pixar or Disney. We’re more like Juno. I’m hoping we’ll be discovered.”

According to Box Office Mojo they’re somewhat on their way. The film opened on an impressive 2,339 screens—quite a good number for an indie—and took in $8,010,000, which is perhaps slightly less satisfying. 

Igor looks like a good film as well. In it, the misunderstood assistant aspires to become a mad scientist himself, but he faces opposition from the mad scientist community and, I imagine, his own stature (as with the first Shrek, the film seems to create parallels between its antagonists and the production company’s competition). I’ve always enjoyed pictures that make spooky stuff fun, although in this case I can’t fathom why MGM, as the distributor, didn’t wait two more weeks to tie in better with Halloween. Maybe I'm wrong and they’re just getting a jump on it.

The film’s gotten mixed reviews, however, typical of this one by Jenna Busch or this one by Todd Gilchrist. Here’s a trailer:


It might seem incongruous, but Igor and Exodus Film Group are also working to help eradicate malaria around the world (given the film’s plot, it’s not too incongruous after all). Here’s an article with more information.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Wubbzy Springs onto DVD

The first Wow! Wow! Wubbzy DVD is being released today in the North American market. It’s called A Tale of Tails, after the first episode, and contains eight episodes from the premiere season, listed and described on the disc’s Amazon page.

Wow! Wow! Wubbzy is produced by Bolder Media, which itself is a subsidiary of Frederator Studios. That fact gets to the heart of why a Wubbzy DVD is so late in coming, in my estimate (the show’s been on the air since August 2006): because Frederator is so intensely committed to putting material on the web. In this case, we have the Wubbcast, billed as the first video podcast for preschoolers. It’s free to download and features short independent animations along with occasional Wubbzy episodes. It updates weekly, so they’re now in their seventy-sixth episode. I’ve watched about ten episodes, primarily flying with Loretta a couple weeks ago, and the films were superb. It’s a shrewd move on the part of the Frederator people, because it places Wubbzy within a larger context of cutting-edge preschool animation (and the occasional live-action film, like one Loretta really loved about cats). The site also has links to other online Frederator content; I love their blogs.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Japanese Picture Books - Part 1

This week I’m launching two new series for Red Balloon. On Mondays for the next five weeks I’ll be looking at the status of children’s literature on the world’s largest continent in 'Asian Literature Mondays.' At the end of the week we’ll have 'Anniversary Fridays,' in honor of all the books, shows, characters, etc., that are completing prestigious birthdays in 2008.

It’s a little tricky addressing Japanese children’s literature because it’s a subject about which, frankly, I know nothing from firsthand experience. As I’ve started digging into children’s literature, however, I’ve grown increasingly curious about the field outside my own western/English-language culture, the same way I’ve turned to international music and cinema in recent years. I was therefore quite pleased to discover an article in the January-February 2008 issue of The East, a magazine for Japanese ex-patriots in the West, written by Doi Yasuko and entitled “Children’s Books Today” (actually a reprint from Japanese Book News Number 52, published by the Japan Foundation). Doi is a researcher at the International Institute for Children’s Literature, Osaka and wrote the most cogent and intelligible article I’ve seen in The East in many, many months.

That’s the good news, so let me follow it immediately with the bad, which is that none of the authors or titles he discusses are available in my local library system which, given that I live in New York City, is fairly extensive. There were a few exceptions, but they were in Japanese and held in reference collections not particularly close to my apartment. I was therefore unable to physically handle any of the books he mentions, so I’m speaking from hearsay. (I’m assuming, by the way, that Doi is a man, begging forgiveness if not and pleading extreme ignorance of Japanese language and names.)

Japan has a venerable tradition of visual and narrative arts, of course. Noh, kabuki, and other traditional storytelling methods combined with traditional painting and woodblocks to create a natural environment for children’s picture books in the twentieth century. I’m no expert on manga, but I know that it grew dramatically after World War II and that to a large degree it stemmed from this rich tradition of illustrated texts. Today Japan is arguably the world’s leading country in its acceptance of graphic novels and comic books as appropriate material for adult reading. It is also the only country in the world, by the way, where the animation industry is larger than the live-action film industry, another consonant result of this national tradition. One would think that such a culture would create a vibrant children’s book industry, perhaps even an overabundant one. Doi doesn’t address picture book output in relation to other cultures, but instead gives a cursory history of the past few decades followed by a detailed discussion of top talent working today.

Japanese picture books flourished from the 1960s through the 1980s before a sharp decline in the ‘90s. There are surely many reasons for this, but one possibility that came to my mind was the sharp increase in anime production in the 1980s changing both the market and the available workforce by the next decade. Again, Doi doesn’t address causation, but he does deem the ‘90s as a largely fallow decade. Happily, though, a renaissance is now underway, with 5,064 books published in 2005 alone. Surprisingly, the number of authors has not gone up as dramatically as the number of books each is producing; it seems, to an extent, that Japan is the land of the prolific children’s author.

“The trend,” he writes, “may be in part due to recent legislation passed as a result of anxiety about children abandoning reading: a December 2001 law promoting reading among children and a July 2005 law that aims to promote the culture of the written word. A widespread movement to encourage reading is now underway, exemplified by the ‘10-minute morning reading exercise’ commonly carried out in elementary and middle schools….” This exercise consists of a volunteer, not the teacher, visiting schools and reading aloud for ten minutes each day, an excellent way to start the school day in any country. The program is so successful that publishers have begun to take it into account in their formatting, producing picture books that can easily be read in that setting and in a ten-minute time frame.

The first author Doi discusses is Cho Shinta. A member of the old guard, his first book was published in 1958. He followed it with an astounding four hundred additional books, give or take, before his unexpected death in June 2005. Doi mentions his works Goro-goro nyan (Cats That Travel by Plane: Fukuinkan Shoten, 1984), Kyabetsu-kun (Little Cabbage: Bunken Shuppan, 1980), and Gomuatama Pontaro (Rubber-Headed Pontaro: Doshinsha, 1998). In English translation apparently Cho’s most available book is The Gas We Pass: The Story of Farts. As such a title might suggest, his work is often liberated and nonsensical, a trait which has drawn him both praise and criticism. Doi describes Cho’s illustrative style as colorful and childlike; his text includes “insistent repetition,” simple vocabulary, and frequent onomatopoeia.

Next is Sasaki Maki, author of nonsense picture books. Doi sites a recent work, Sora tobu teburu (The Flying Table: Fukuinkan Shoten, 2002), which “tells the story of a young girl and her canine friend, who discover a strange flying table and travel to places including the South Pole, a maze, a railroad bridge, and the sea, making friends with all kinds of animals on the way”; this summary sounds more like a traditional narrative than nonsense in the vein of Lewis Carroll, but then Carroll had his traditional narratives too. Sasaki, born in 1946, has illustrated comics, novels, and other media.

Katayama Ken writes for babies and infants using warm watercolors and distinctive figure drawings. Ki wa nannimo iwanai no (The Tree Says Nothing: Gakushu Kenkyusha, 2005) is about a young boy and father in the park, the boy pretending the father’s a tree in order to climb all over him.

Horror film aficionados will recognize the name Suzuki Koji from the films Dark Water and The Ring (both done in Japan and followed by American remakes), but while it is tempting to believe that the Suzuki Koji who authored the stories on which these films are based could also be the author of many children’s picture books, from what I can tell that sadly doesn’t seem to be the case (corrections are welcome, though). There is very little online material about author/illustrator Suzuki Koji, but Doi gives as an example of his work Gattan Gotton (Clickety-Clack: Heibonsha, 2006), a story about a reindeer driving a railcar through a town, volcano, and other places.

Among those authors who first published in the boom of the late 80s are Arai Ryoji and Kondo Kumiko. Arai is internationally known, partly because a 2001 British exhibit entitled “The Art of the Japanese Picture Book” assisted in his winning the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2005. One recent book is Rufuran Rufuran (Refrain Refrain: Petit Grand Publishing, 2005), about a “strange and colorful world” in which a young girl befriends a prince in a forest. As might be expected of many Japanese illustrators, Arai has recently branched into animation, and his film The Country Between the Worlds won the Best Animation award at the 2006 Japan Media Arts Festival (where I suspect there’s some stiff competition). His Japanese-language website can be found here

Kondo Kumiko is one of the only authors mentioned who I am able to determine to be female, given my aforementioned lack of Japanese. She generally deals with nature, with a good dose of humor. Suku-suku nohara (Growing Field: Alicekan, 2001) is akin to The Very Hungry Caterpillar but evidently for slightly older children as the scientific content is a little more advanced. It “begins with two pages of life-size drawings of the eggs of various insects that live in the fields. Following this, the lives of these insects are shown page by page.” To enliven the text with play, there are also hidden objects on each page.

Doi then discusses picture books for youth over ten, something we probably need more of in the West (who says picture books are just for kids?), using the examples of Obachan wa ki ni natta (Granny’s Turned into a Tree: Poplar, 2002), a photo-illustrated book by Onishi Nobuo about a group of people staying in their village right until it’s submerged by a dam (akin to what’s happening with the modern Yangtze River next door in China), and Hoshi-gaki (Dried Persimmons: Akane Shobo, 2006), a book about the traditional Japanese dish, with text and photos by Nishimura Yutaka. Both of these books are photo-illustrated, so it would be interesting to learn to what extent drawn illustrations are used in Japanese books for older children and adolescents.

The article is extremely enthusiastic but ends with a qualifier and a plea. The former is a statement that despite the high volume of current picture books coming off the presses, “it is extremely difficult to find works of outstanding value among [them].” We should assume, then, that the titles he has mentioned are among this cream of the crop. Then comes the plea: “The number [of books] being translated into foreign languages, particularly for young readers, is still small, but I believe that many books would be just as enjoyable to foreign readers as they are to their Japanese fans. I very much hope that as many as possible of the titles described here will be translated before too long.”

I hope so as well. As I mentioned at the outset, in writing this post, which obviously owes itself entirely to Doi’s informative article, I was virtually unable to locate anything, either in my local libraries or online, about the books and authors under discussion. I do not think it is culturally or ethnically illegitimate for authors of one culture to respectfully produce something about another culture (here, Americans writing picture books about Japan), but I also think that such efforts should be balanced with authentic works produced within the culture itself. In other words, I would like my daughter to be able to read the same picture books that children in Japan, or Russia, or Saudi Arabia are reading—like we are already often able to do with books from English-speaking countries like South Africa and Australia. Translating and marketing such works is a tall order for publishers, I know, but with emerging digital technologies and on-demand publishing, we should be able to increase access over what’s been available in the past. Simply reading a book from a foreign culture to your child will greatly increase her respect and understanding of it, as it shows we respect people enough to listen to their own voice; the same is true of music and visual media.

Much thanks to Doi Yasuko for his enlightening and informative article, and kudos to The East, a general-interest magazine not usually interested in literature, let alone children’s literature, for reprinting it. If you’re interested in finding out more, you won’t be disappointed by the websites for the International Institute for Children’s Literature, Osaka or the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Tokyo Chapter.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Brooklyn Children's Museum Reopens Its Doors

It appears that I'm writing a little series about events in New York City, but I suppose that's because quite a bit is happening. Topping off the Babar exhibit and the Little Red Lighthouse Festival is the reopening this weekend of the Brooklyn Children's Museum, which, after its $80 million facelift, looks like this.

Edward Rothstein wrote a fairly enthusiastic review in today's New York Times. Personally I like children's museums, like those in Edinburgh and Bethnal Green in London, that have displays of childhood memorabilia from ages past in addition to the hands-on activities, and it sounds like Brooklyn has its emphasis on the latter but with a fair amount of the former thrown in. It's also an institution: founded in 1899, it is the oldest children's museum in the United States; the museum website also claims to be the oldest in the world. 

Also note that there's a video included with the Times article. 

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Visiting the Little Red Lighthouse

The sixteenth annual Little Red Lighthouse Festival will be held this Saturday, September 20, at the foot of the Great Gray Bridge. Among all New York City’s events for children, this is one not to be missed, and it's happening right in my neck of the woods in upper Manhattan.

In 1942 Hildegarde Swift wrote a picture book, with marvelous illustrations by Lynd Ward, about the lighthouse that sits on Jeffrey’s Hook in New York City, the bank of the Hudson River looking across to the New Jersey Palisades. It was called The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, in honor of the massive George Washington Bridge that looms directly overhead. The relationship between these two structures--most lighthouses do not situate underneath bridges--is the subject of the book. It’s not a straightforward history, of course--that can be summarized simply by saying that the lighthouse was built first--but a story about how the lighthouse felt when it was no longer needed and what it did to start feeling important again (even if it involves a bit of deus ex machina). The analogy for children, who are small and unempowered folks in a world of larger-than-life adults, is obvious yet still beneficial: everything and everyone has a purpose in this world.

An actual history of the lighthouse can be found on its Wikipedia page or in the back the book itself. What's not included in the latter is the fact that the lighthouse was scheduled for demolition in 1951, but outcry from fans, largely young ones, of the book eventually led to its ownership passing to the city's parks department, which resulted in the lighthouse's preservation to the present. That a children's book could have such a dramatic effect on public policy is encouraging. It seems, in fact, that the book was correct: even little people can have an effect in this big world.

In 2003 Vantage Books published a new paperback edition that is fairly easy to find. At sixty-four pages it’s quite longer than your typical picture book, but it can be read in one sitting. We read it a few times before going to the festival last year and Loretta, then three, loved it. She was then trying to spot the G.W. Bridge all the time, whether it were it sight (Fort Tryon Park) or not (downtown). For an even longer time she thought it was terrific she had a book about her own neighborhood.

Here are two views from New Jersey:

The lighthouse--obviously--stays in place year round. The park’s open all the time; my wife Carol regularly runs past it along the path down the Hudson, and often over the bridge itself to Fort Lee and back. What the Festival offers is, first and foremost, a chance to go inside. It is a little lighthouse, so there are free tickets distributed for entrance; last year we were too late to get in. While we don’t intend to repeat that mistake this week, there was still plenty of other activities to fill up our day: a hayride (the highlight of the day), face painting, arts and crafts (several stations), games (also several stations), and even playing in the sand by the river. Dr. Ruth made an appearance to read Swift’s book; while this was poetic, Loretta (who, remember, had read the book earlier that week) was more interested in the hands-on activities. Here’s some evidence of how we filled our day:

First things first... (Loretta wouldn't do or play anything until she looked like a kitty cat.)

"Am I as pretty as my shirt?" (That's facing south, midtown Manhattan in the background.)

Playing with Rose.

Learning to row a boat, dry docked.

The festival, which is free, runs from noon to 5pm. There’s information here and here. The actual location is Fort Washington Park, at 178th St. and the Hudson River. Last year there were good walking directions posted all the way from the A train’s 181st St station (with actual people along the way to assist those still confused). This weekend the A train’s down north of 168th St. but I expect the same service from the free shuttle bus, which runs the same route as the train all the way to 207th St.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Increasing Economic Ties Between Books and Films

Julie Bosman in the New York Times wrote an article a little while ago about a deal between Simon & Schuster and the Gotham Group, in which the former will enjoy greater involvement in and revenue from films and other ancillary products derived from its books. The flipside is that S&S will consider and even accept unwritten books based on their cinematic and marketing potential (providing a strong market position for Gotham). The deal will be tested out on a young adult series written by David O. Russell, director of I HEART Huckabees, Three Kings, and the upcoming political comedy Nailed, but the article also discusses the recent film adaptation of The Spiderwick Chronicles (seen below) as a prototype of the collaborative process. It is up to you whether you see this as increased synergy between publishers and film producers or the corruption of literature and the creative process by marketing studies and box office sales, but I suspect that in many cases it represents the future of children’s media.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Babar in Midtown

I'm glad some people were interested in the illustration exhibit up in Amherst, and to complement that there's news of a similar show much closer to home (at least for New Yorkers). It's "Drawing Babar: Early Drafts and Watercolors" at the Morgan Library & Museum at Madison and 36th St. 

The show opens on September 19, this Friday, and runs through January 4. It features, according to the September 1 New Yorker (pae 46, but not online), 175 works (mostly watercolors, evidently) by Jean de Brunhoff and his son Laurent, who took over the series after his father's death in 1937. It includes a draft of Laurent's first such effort, Babar et Ce Coquin d'Arthur, and a number of public events: a lecture about the French imagination by Adam Gopnik on November 6 and, even more exciting, an illustrated lecture by curator Christine Nelson on November 21. There's a great deal of information, and some images, on the museum's website. This is an exhibit that is absolutely not to be missed; I think I'll wait until October, though, so I can also catch the only surviving manuscript of Paradise Lost. (Go in September to see some excellent early Bibles and prayer books.)

Babar, of course, is one of children's literature's greatest figures, so I won't add any effusive commentary here. He first appeared in 1931 in the book Histoire de Babar, le Petit Elephant. 

Friday, September 12, 2008

Presidential Politics for Preschoolers

I basically only watch Sprout, Playhouse Disney, and Noggin, so if it weren’t for the good old radio and the nice folks at WNYC I wouldn’t really know there was a presidential election this year at all. But it turns out that there is, and kids can be nearly as involved in it as grown ups. As proof, in 1984 I decided to run on an independent Second Grade ticket, with a third grader named Alex as my running mate, on a platform of less homework, increased recess, and “improved relations” with the USSR. Though I’m certain we had a plurality of votes amongst the Crestview Elementary School electorate, sadly none of us had the franchise, and the rest is history.

Times change, but kids don’t. A few months back on Super Tuesday I picked up Loretta from day care then dutifully toted her around the neighborhood trying to find the right school for me to cast my ballot. En route I asked her who we should vote for for President and she immediately said, “Baby John!” meaning the two-year-old brother of her best friend Rose. She’s been enthusiastic about the presidential race, and John's prospects, ever since.

Now, I’m not flippant all the time. I have shown her pictures of the grown-up candidates and tried to use Hillary Clinton’s campaign in particular to show her that girls can be Presidents too. (“I want to be a ballerina and the President,” was the reply.) She’s in Pre-K, not second grade, so her understanding isn’t complete, but I’d like her to at least be aware of who Bush, Obama, and McCain are, what an election is, and what a President is. Thus by 2012 she’ll be ready to embark on her own historic campaign.

There are, thankfully, a few resources to help. My sister-in-law, a former aid to a few Senators and speech writer for Mitt Romney, has “Future President” onesies for her infant that look something like this. (These ones are cute for the Traveling Pantsuit crowd.) But this is not exactly what I have in mind.

Instead, parents and educators can turn to the work of Catherine Stier. In 1999 Stier published her first children’s book, If I Were President, presenting the presidential office on a preschooler’s level. As she says in an article in the 2008 Children’s Writers’ and Illustrators’ Market, she knew, for instance, that preschoolers memorize their addresses, so she wrote about how, upon becoming President, she would have to remember “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

The book tied in well to tourist destinations like the White House and events like Presidents’ Day, so when the 2008 campaign was approaching she decided to make a sequel: If I Ran for President.

Several resources say that the book would not be released until October, but Amazon thankfully informs us it has been available since April 1, in the midst of the primary season; this also allowed schools, I presume, to have the book on hand when school resumed this month. Here is a brief review by Barbara Katz, posted on the book’s Amazon page, which mentions the book's strengths and apparent flaws:

“Grade 1–3—This title is a step above the usual election books, both in content and entertainment value. Six children take turns explaining the election process as if they were running for president. They discuss their decision to run, campaigning, primaries and conventions, debating, being interviewed, meeting the public, voting, and being sworn in on Inauguration Day. Stier does a good job of explaining election details, both in an introductory note about electoral votes and in the text itself. The fact that one must be 35 years of age is only mentioned in the note. The author adds flavor by providing humorous examples, such as the need to smile despite indigestion. However, the multiple narrators can be confusing. One must rely on the illustrations to know which child is speaking, and sometimes it is not apparent at first glance. The lively cartoons cheerfully clarify the action and reinforce the concepts. Libraries will want to consider this kid-friendly title.”

Other presidential book titles include Grace for President by Kelly Dipucchio, Woodrow for President (about a mouse, not Wilson) and a sequel, Woodrow, the White House Mouse, both by Peter and Cheryl Barnes, America Votes: How Our President Is Elected by Linda Granfield, Otto Runs for President by Rosemary Wells, Duck for President by Doreen Cronin (our family always loves Duck)…

So You Want to Be President? by Judith St. George, Vote! by Eileen Christelow, My Teacher for President by Kay Winters, and Madam President by Lane Smith. I have surely missed a great many.

But Duck aside, I have frankly never heard of any of these candidates. (I will here skip the Sarah Palin jokes to maintain the nonpartisan nature of this blog.) Youngsters—and oldsters—may prefer a candidate they have known their entire lives, a Washington outsider who has nevertheless been a consistent presence in their community and their homes, a candidate who never fails to fail and fail again. It is America’s favorite loser, this guy:

Yes, Charlie Brown is running for President. But he’ll have to face off against Lucy, Linus, his kid sister Sally, and even his own dog (good grief!). The Peanuts franchise has teamed up with Rock the Vote—a historic enterprise on its own terms—to demonstrate to children, and adults, how simple it is to register and vote (true to Rock the Vote’s purpose, assistance in registering for the real McCoy is available as well). Anyone of any age can cast a single ballot online at Peanuts Rocks the Vote, although it’s the debates that I’d really like to watch (we're missing Bill Melendez already). Some information at the bottom of the main page tells us that Charles Schultz was drawing Peanuts during twelve election years, and in 1960, '64, and '68 he had his characters get involved and run for office. So the tradition runs strong, making Rock the Vote a perfect fit with this particular franchise.

Some of Schultz’s political cartoons are available for viewing on the website, but folks in northern California are in even more luck. The Charles M. Schultz Museum in Santa Rosa is featuring an exhibit entitled “Political Peanuts” through November. (Of course, the museum would be worth visiting any time of year.) For those of us unable to get to that neighborhood, we can still watch Bill Melendez’s film from 1972 (a notorious election year), You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown. In honor of the Rock the Vote alliance, a new DVD has been released with a documentary and other, if somewhat slight, bonus features. You can watch a brief trailer—and purchase it—here.

So somewhere between 1) the actual candidates, 2) the plethora of presidential picture books, and 3) the genius of Peanuts and the ability to cast an actual vote online, children and parents should be able to work out the perfect way to foster civic awareness in this election year; the most important component, of course, would be adults setting an example by actually going and voting on election day, perhaps with the young ones in tow. Then on November 5 they can all tune back in to Sprout to see what they’ve missed.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What Kids Do Online

A month ago there was an intriguing little article in the Times Online called "Adopting penguins, dressing dolls: what our children like on the web." It reports a survey of British kids who put items such as those atop their preferred online activities. Loretta and I don't play online very often lately, but when we do it's generally through a portal like Nick Jr.'s to play Wonder Pets (85% of the time), Pinky Dinky Doo, Peep and the Big Wide World (not Nick of course), or Ni-Hao Kailan. When she was around a year old we'd occasionally do Teletubbies games, but be aware that one should check out both the British (seen below) and American sites for different activities. Most were completely engaging for one- and two-year-olds, and I was involved as well, mostly from watching how Loretta interacted with it, but also partly because I wanted to know where Dipsy was going to hide next.

I've also tried to start compiling a list of useful sites, such as Surfing the Net with Kids, at the top of my blog roll on the right. There's certainly a lot out there, and you might even adopt a penguin in the process.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Something New from the Simosphere

When I was a kid I had an Atari, then a Nintendo, then a Gameboy (the old black-and-brown variety), and that’s the extent of my video game experience, except for some Crash Bandicooting back in the day on my brother's original Playstation. But in the spirit of doing a little series on interactive media, I do have a tidbit of week-old news today, which is that Will Wright, creator of The Sims, has just unleashed his latest game. This is Spore, where players play God not just by directing civilizations but entire planetary eco- and social systems. In other words, there are five levels in which users guide a species’ evolution from a single cell (akin to what's shown here) up to complex civilizations with galactic empires. Sounds fairly sweeping.

Guiding evolution can be pretty fun, I expect. As I understand it, players design the organisms’ physical bodies and then the computer determines how they move and behave. That right there sounds pretty fun for science buffs and inspiring cartoonists, let alone all the hunting, gathering, farming, and city-building.

As one might expect, I have absolutely no Sim experience and hence can’t predict how easy the interface will be for kids to master, but I suspect the kids will figure it out. The New York Times, however, wasn’t exactly exuberant, citing the fact that it allows entirely too much freedom. Popping bubbles on the Wii may be the way to introduce youngsters to gaming, while something of this breadth might be for the older (teen and above), more dedicated players.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Nintendo for . . . Grandparents

Nintendo’s Wii is not exactly breaking news anymore, but I still find it interesting. I’ve never played it myself--the last video game system I owned was the original gray Nintendo in the 1980s--but every account I see of it seems to be about how it’s bridging generational gaps and energizing a group that has never played video games: the elderly.

Amy Kraft posted about this over on her blog Media Macaroni back in May, about how the Wii has given a common activity to her daughter and parents, an equation not usually considered with video games. Equally engaging is when the seniors go at it alone with no kids in sight, and virtual bowling tournaments seem to be the preferred activity in that regard. Here’s a great little story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gizette. That’s from April, and more recently, in August, a similar story turned up in Kiplinger’s Retirement Report of all places. That story, which is by Jeff Bertolucci, is apparently not available online, but it recounts several personal anecdotes about seniors in Murietta, California who enjoyed bowling but, no longer at top physical form, had given it up until the Wii came along. The article details their first video bowling tournament, the enthusiasm it generated, the sore muscles afterwards, and the expectation for continuation in the future. Time for Dance Dance Revolution to make a foxtrot version?

As an addendum, here’s another quick article, with some links of its own, about the health benefits of video games for the kids. I remember Nintendo’s Power Pad coming out when I was a kid (in 1988), with all the similar talk it generated. I think video games and health will be in a perpetual love-hate relationship, but platforms like the Wii’s are continually moving us in a more symbiotic direction.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Elephants and Bears in Massachusetts

The current exhibition at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts looks enthralling. It’s entitled “Flights into Fantasy: The Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection of Children’s Illustration,” which is a bit of a lengthy name but which promises a treasure trove of art from the post-Victorian heyday of children’s book illustration (1880-1940).

I’m not in Massachusetts and therefore learned of the exhibit from a Magazine Antiques article (scroll halfway down the page to find the correct section); there’s also good information on the museum’s site itself. The exhibition’s title stems from the large amount of fairy pictures included, as fairy stories were a quite popular genre in England for a very long time (think of Peter Pan in 1904). In addition to fairies, featured artists include Jean de Brunhoff (Babar), Ludwig Benelmans (Madeline), Jessie Wilcox Smith (Alice in Wonderland), Johnny Gruelle (Raggedy Ann), and many others, including original decorations for Winnie-the-Pooh by Ernest Shepard.

That latter item alone should make the trip worth the while for any New Englander who can get to Amherst. The exhibit runs through October 26.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Few More DVDs and Imagination Movers

To round out my list of recent and upcoming DVD releases, here are a few more that might be of interest:

Bakugan Battle Brawlers: On August 16 chapters 1 and 2 of this series were released on DVD by Vivendi Entertainment Canada. This Nelvana-produced anime series full of dragon action airs on the Cartoon Network in the United States. Amazon has a clip on its page for volume 1. According to KidScreen both volumes include "include a limited-edition Bakugan Ability card that is playable with the Bakugan game."

Dragon Ball Z: If you like Bakugan Battle Brawlers then you might well also like to know that season six of Dragon Ball Z is available as well. This will be released on September 16 and you can preorder at Amazon.

Thomas & Friends: The Great Discovery: If, however, your tastes skew more towards preschool, then you'll be glad to hear about HIT Entertainment's latest Thomas compilation, featuring both the late George Carlin and Alec Baldwin. This will street on September 9 and is available for preorder here.

Barbie Princess Collection: There is nothing new here, but the creation of a "Princess Collection" out of previously similar but disparate productions is a wise marketing move, and the price ($36) actually helps parents. The newfound trilogy includes The Diamond Castle, The Island Princess, and The 12 Dancing Princesses. Loretta saw The Island Princess while staying with my parents, and she loved it, especially the crazy red panda. She chose a repeat viewing of it over a repeat viewing of The Jungle Book. I've not yet seen a Barbie film but I have received positive feedback from intelligent--and surprised--parents. This collection also hits streets on September 9 and can also be preordered.

Best of Both Worlds Concert: Finally there is Hannah Montana's recent movie, which probably gave U2 more than a run for its money in the 3-D concert film department. Loretta has not yet delved into the world of Miley Cyrus (the other day she identified her picture as High School Musical), but we had friends who drove their daughters out to New Jersey to catch this on the big screen. This is being billed as an "Extended Edition," and it hit streets on August 19 (Amazon). I don't know what kind of glasses, or how many, are being included, but it's been my experience that 3-D generally works better on the silver screen (although it's gotten pretty good on television sets). 

Imagination Movers: Now, this last point is not a DVD release, but I would hate myself if I didn't mention that Imagination Movers is premiering tomorrow morning on Playhouse Disney. I met the director a few months ago at the Little Airplane Academy and I believe he described it as grunge rock for preschoolers. The group--the Imagination Movers--hail from New Orleans, my favorite musical city and the location of all the filming, and they evidently spend the show jamming and swinging and otherwise showing how zydeco and blues and soul and rock can all blend together and make preschoolers groove like never before. When I picked Loretta up from Utah I also brought back my alto saxophone--which Loretta was very keen to start playing herself on the A train from JFK, to "earn some money"--so perhaps the show will allow for another multivalent activity as I start to teach her the rudiments of jazz (and as we save up for a synthesizer to start her "piano" lessons). Anyway, here's the group's description of the new show from their website:

"...The series introduces preschoolers to the Imagination Movers' energetic rock and roll music while emphasizing creative problem solving skills."

It will definitely be worth checking out.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Bill Melendez, 1916-2008

One of the great children’s film and television directors passed away on Tuesday. Bill Melendez died of undisclosed causes in Santa Monica at the age of 91. 

Melendez was a native of Hermosillo in Sonora, Mexico. After coming to the United States he began animating for Disney, working on the features of the early 40s (Pinocchio, Fantasia, etc.). He did a stint at Warner Bros. working on the classic post-war Bugs Bunny cartoons, as well as at UPA where he contributed to Gerald McBoing-Boing (now a children’s television show) and other groundbreaking work. He founded his own studio, Bill Melendez Productions, in 1964, creating hours and hours of industrial, television, and other work.

His claim to fame came with the company’s first production, however: A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charles Schultz not only approved Melendez to bring the Peanuts gang to life, but stipulated that his be the only company that ever animates Snoopy and the gang. That request has been honored up to the present, even for all the MetLife commercials and other spots that the Peanuts characters appear in. A Charlie Brown Christmas, probably my favorite Christmas film of all time, for any age group (the Grinch is the other contender), garnered enormous praise and set the wheels in motion for over forty subsequent Peanuts specials. The film’s innovations have come to be known as equally groundbreaking as the comic strip: the use of plunger mutes for adult voices, for instance, and the tremendous jazz scores by Vince Guaraldi, with the “Linus and Lucy” theme making its way into the standard repertoire. Much of the shows’ innovations—like the use of authentic children’s voices (Melendez himself has always done Snoopy and Woodstock)—have been adapted for other children’s programming today. 

I already knew most of this, and the fact that he’s received dozens upon dozens of awards, but what I didn’t know about Melendez was that he was also the first to animate Jim Davis’s Garfield, as well as working on Babar, Cathy, and a host of other characters. He had a studio in London and has done a few feature films—the original The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance—along with his television work. Although budgets, tight schedules, and his sheer prolificness precluded much of his work from being as inspired as A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, he was an innovator, pioneer, craftsman, and artist.

Rather than go into more detail myself I’d like to survey some of what’s been written about him, particularly in the wake of his passing. His own website has an excellent biography as well as a portfolio and other samples of his work.

ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive Quicktime interview 

Associated Press 





Yahoo News 

Finally, here’s an interview from YouTube, with more available here

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

It's Monkey Time!

For the third installment in our little series on new online/DVD releases, I'd like to go to the other end of the spectrum from Underdog. Whereas that show represents an old production re-released on a modern platform, It's Monkey Time! is absolutely new. This is a series of four animated programs (they're not airing as television shows but they're not quite stand-alone films as we generally think of the term; my hunch is that they were created for television but never found an outlet) that are being released sequentially on DVD. A few weeks ago KidScreen said the first installment would not hit the streets until yesterday, September 2, but I now see that Amazon says it has been available since August 26.  Here is the Amazon description:

"This DVD is the first in a series of four that follow Sue and her seven colorful monkeys at the Happyland Zoo where the monkeys live, learn and play. Each day at the zoo is a magical adventure filled with music, laughs and discovery of how we grow together and learn from one another. This DVD features colorful animation and story time illustrations about the importance of good dental hygiene, learning to tie your shoes and learning your ABCs while introducing letter, numbers, shapes and colors and stressing responsibility, good communication and grooming as well as social skills like good manners, sharing and teamwork."

The show was directed by live-action director James Cross, produced by the Willmoss Company; I've also seen both the names TNT Media Group and Brandissimo! attached as well. This first disc runs a total of fifty-one minutes for an Amazon price of $11. (Hotcake-like, as of this writing there are only four left in stock.) According to the website allmovie.com it includes coloring sheets, flash cards, a storybook, character cut-outs, and even some recipes; if that's accurate that makes it quite a bundle.

Besides Curious George I can't quickly think of any shows with monkey protagonists; they mainly turn up in supporting roles for humans like Dora and Kailan. It's an animal that has obvious child appeal, though, so hopefully Willmoss will be able to run with it for quite a while. I don't yet know dates for the next three installments.