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My take on the documentary about children’s books, “Library of the Early Mind”

 Last night, I went with Jeannine to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA to see a new documentary film about children’s books titled "Library of the Early Mind: A Grown-up Look at Art in Children’s Literature". The film’s producer, Steven Withrow, and director Edward Dalaney were on hand to introduce the film and take part in a panel discussion after the screening, along with several noted children’s book creators who were featured (or at least briefly shown) in the film.

Jeannine was very interested in seeing this documentary, and told me that it was necessary to reserve tickets (which she did), as it was apparently expected that there would be a lot of people showing up to see it. Not having heard much about it myself, and not knowing nearly as much about and/or being nearly as involved in the world of children’s books as Jeannine, my interest level was significantly lower, but I was looking forward to seeing it… partly because one of my new goals is to become more knowledgeable and more involved with this world of "kidlit".

We arrived at the Carle early, to make sure that we got good seats, and perhaps the first warning sign that this film was not exactly what Jeannine hoped it might be was that by the time the entire audience had filed in, the small theater space at the Carle was not even close to being filled — in fact, I am pretty sure about half the seats were vacant.

The director and co-producer gave a short, forgettable introduction, and the film began.

A little over an hour and a half later, Jeannine and I were walking back to my truck, looking at the beautiful near-sunset clouds, and I was wondering what the hell it was we just saw.

The documentary is basically a "talking heads" kind of thing, with many segments from interviews with various children’s book writers and illustrators like Jane Yolen, Jerry Pinkney, Chris Van Allsburg and Mo Willems, among others. (In doing a bit of online researching about the film to get some details correct, it is noted that there are supposedly "more than forty" authors and illustrators featured in the film, but — because of one major problem with the film, which I will get to in a moment — I came out of it thinking that it must have been half that number or less.) Bridging these "talking head" segments are what often seem like random images, many having to do with kids reading (or being read to from) children’s books (although some of these bits seemed suspiciously "stagey", as if someone was just off-camera saying "Okay, now point at that page!"), with others being almost bizarre in their randomness. One in particular was a scene in an airport, followed by a lingering pan across some green storage lockers (at least that’s what I thought they were).

But that’s a minor annoyance, and not the biggest problem with this documentary.

The biggest problem with this film is that it has no discernible theme. Every so often, you can sense a theme struggling to emerge (one that came to me as Jeannine and I talked about the film later was something having to do with the perennial nature of the creation cycle of children’s literature, wherein some children are profoundly affected by books they experience at that young age, and as they grow up and experience adult things, they then bring those aspects of life back to children’s books in some form as they create their own new works), but that quickly goes away, drowned out by the long — some (like myself) might say nearly interminable — interview segments with a few of the authors and illustrators.

There are several offenders, but the worst is the guy (I can’t recall his name) who talks at great length about how, when he was a younger man, he piloted a sailboat up to New York City, said sailboat being stuffed with hashish, all so he could make $10,000 (in cash!)… following which he was arrested, and spent time in prison.

Now, that is actually an interesting bit, and as an example of how a somewhat sleazy, disreputable adult experience could somehow be transmogrified and integrated into a children’s book, it could lead to some fascinating insights about the nature of the creation of children’s literature.

But it doesn’t.

Instead, the story about this stupid drug smuggling "adventure" goes on, and on, and on…

… and for me, it pointed out the greatest weakness of this film — it’s lack of proper editing. In my opinion, given the content displayed in this thing, the whole film SHOULD have been less than an hour long, maybe even forty-five minutes — certainly not an hour and a half. The story about the drug smuggling could have easily been presented in about half a minute — and while I did not have my stopwatch out to time how long it went on, I would guess it took up somewhere between three and five minutes.

There are several other points in the film where interviewees are allowed to ramble on about something that happened to them or that they did in their past, and while some — maybe even most — of these things are to varying degrees interesting, the time wasted on them is, frankly, appalling. I found myself getting very agitated and bored hearing the same ground being covered, over and over.

And it is a pity, because even though I am a newcomer to this world of children’s books, even I know that it is a huge world, filled with a panoply of interesting characters, with a long and rich history… it’s a world which could be mined for a wealth of material to make a fascinating documentary — maybe even a series of fascinating documentaries.

This, sadly, is not such a beast.

It’s not a total loss — occasionally someone say something interesting and/or moving, the images are pretty, for the most part, and technically it is more than adequate (sound, color, etc.) — but anyone expecting a profound examination of the world of children’s books and those who create them will need to wait for another, more thematically coherent documentary to be made. — PL

P.S. I just remembered this one, and I should write it down here as #1 in the "Why is this pointless scene in this documentary?" sweepstakes — there is a scene apparently shot in a rare books store, with an unctuous book dealer showing off several very expensive early editions of classic children’s books ("And this edition of "The Wizard of Oz" is priced at $117,000.00." I may have the figure wrong, but it’s in the ballpark.). Why? WHY is this scene in this documentary? It gave me an immediate bad vibe memory of news stories about comic books in which, to try to add some kind of legitimacy to the art form, a collector or dealer would talk about how this or that Golden Age first issue was sold for a million dollars. Gag.

P.P.S. At least I managed to get this nice photo of the clouds after we’d left the theatre.

Making the connection: Michelle Kwasney and Lyme Disease

Last summer, I started following Jeannine’s example when we walked the dogs through the tall grass and weeds in our field — I would spray insect repellent on my feet and legs, as well as my exposed arms and face and neck. This was specifically to — as much as possible — keep ticks from latching onto us, and possibly infecting us with Lyme disease. That’s about as far as I went in thinking about it — if asked, I would probably have said something like "Lyme disease… yeah, that’s the thing spread by ticks, right? Isn’t there a shot for that or something?"

It wasn’t until just now that I made the connection between that habit and the travails of a new friend, Michelle Kwasney. MIchelle is actually a good friend of Jeannine’s, and, like Jeannine, a writer as well (though she was originally intending to be an illustrator). I only recently met Michelle through Jeannine, and have slowly been getting to know her better.

One of the reasons it is happening slowly is that Michelle has Lyme Disease, and has suffered with it for the last couple of years. I had no idea, before I started hearing about it from her, exactly how debilitating it is… and how difficult to get rid of once one is infected. It has altered her life in almost every way. She faces chronic pain and difficulty with her memory. She walks with the aid of a cane. She no longer teaches art, doesn’t leave her house very often, and can’t drive. It has slowed her writing pace and led to a host of other difficulties. And though she sees some incremental improvements as the weeks and months pass, she doesn’t know if she’ll ever get completely better.

I am still learning about this stuff, but one thing which seems to be evident even to me at this point is that more attention needs to be given to Lyme disease — or, perhaps more to the point, to those who have it and whose lives are altered, often irretrievably, by its effects on body and mind. Physicians need to know more about it, how to diagnose it properly and promptly, and then how to treat it in the most effective way possible. And everyone needs to know more about how to try to avoid getting it in the first place.

This past week I saw a notice on Michelle’s Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/michelle.kwasney) about something called "Lace Up for Lyme" — a Lyme Disease Awareness Walk, an event intended to promote greater public awareness of Lyme and its devastating consequences for those afflicted with it. I asked Michelle if it was okay for me to post this information on my blog, and also if she would be okay with my talking about her and her battle with Lyme, and she gave me the go-ahead.

This page (http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=216196558394122) is a petition to get the news out about Lyme Disease.

And this one (http://laceupforlyme.wefightlyme.com/) gives more information about the "Lace Up for Lyme" walk event.

I would be remiss if I did not end this post with at least one positive note — if spirit and strength of will have any salubrious effects on one’s health, then MIchelle is well-positioned to reclaim her former wellness. Although I have only known her a short time, it’s clear to me that she has a sizeable reservoir of those qualities. — PL

P.S. The graphic at the top of this post is the cover of Michelle’s most recently-published novel, "Blue Plate Special". Here are the covers to her other two novels — "Itch"…

… and "Baby Blue".

You can click on the titles or the covers to be taken to their respective pages on amazon.com, if you are interested in buying the books, or just learning more about them. — PL

Book review: “The Monsters’ Room” by Hope Campbell (Scholastic, 1976)

"The Monsters’ Room" by Hope Campbell

Illustrations by Lilian Obligado

1976 Scholastic Books

This past weekend, my wife and I — on our way back from a short (two nights) vacation in Maine — stopped in Dover, NH, a small town where we’d lived for two years when we’d first gotten together, and got married there as well. We were looking for lunch, and as it happened, there was a bookstore ("Baldface Books") right across the street from the lunch place ("Cafe on the Corner").

We both love bookstores, so minutes after eating we were poring over the selection in Baldface Books, a well-chosen mix of new and used books. Jeannine loved the poetry section, and liked the adjacent childrens’ book section almost as much. While browsing in the latter, my eye was caught by the title on the spine of a slim paperback– "The Monsters’ Room". I pulled it off the shelf and immediately I was snagged again, this time by the cover illustration — an image of a young boy cautiously (and fearfully?) opening a door, behind which lurked various monsters.


The art had a lively feel to it, done with what looked like to me in a combination of watercolor and pencil, and I looked in the book to see if the cover artist was credited. There was no specific cover art credit, but I noticed a line reading "illustrated by Lilian Obligado" on the title page. Thumbing through the book, I saw that there were about ten black and white illustrations, all drawn in a style similar to the cover, so I think it is safe to assume that Lilian Obligado drew the cover as well, and quite possibly colored it.

I was quite taken by the quality of the black and white interior illustrations — they appeared to be done in pencil, and the draftsmanship was excellent.

I really like the vigorous strokes balanced by subtle shading.

It was these drawings which prompted me to buy the book (that, and the fact that it was only $1.50). And as someone who appreciates a good monster story, I thought that any book with a title of "The Monsters’ Room" and with some cool illustrations in which monsters fetter prominently had a pretty decent chance of falling into that category.
Maybe I should have paid more attention to the fact that in small print on the cover, right under the large letters of the title, was this:

"original title: Peter’s Angel"

Perhaps if I had thought about that a little more — how do you go from a title like "Peter’s Angel" to "The Monsters’ Room", after all? — I might have had some foresight into the questionable quality of the story.

It was a strange read.

The basic story has to do with a boy named Peter living in New York City, who, along with his two best friends, Obie (another boy) and Sal (a girl), is part of a "monster club". The club’s "headquarters" is Peter’s room, filled to the brim with monster paraphernalia — toys, comics, posters, and so forth. But Peter is starting to get tired of the whole monster thing, because the monsters are now appearing to him (and him alone) and driving him crazy. They won’t leave him alone, and he needs to figure out a way to rid himself of them.
Inspired by a recent trip with his friends Obie and Sal to one of New York City’s cathedrals, where he saw a large and imposing statue of an angel, Peter decides he must build his own angel to combat the monsters which plague him. So he gets to work, trying to transform a barrel into an angel.

Yes, you ready that right — he has a barrel, a wooden barrel with slats and everything, and with wires and cords, an old mop head, gold wrapping paper, and plastic umbrellas (for the wings), he makes his "angel".

Helping him out are Obie and Sal, and it is Sal who — for reasons I am still not terribly clear about — makes a "brain" for the angel, because she is into making brains. She makes them out of clay, and she makes the angel’s brain out of the same material. Unfortunately, at the crucial moment of joint the angel’s brain to its body, the brain is dropped, and it shatters. But all is not lost, because — quick thinker that she is — Sal realizes that an angel’s brain COULD be like a balloon, and she has one of those, which she blows up and uses as the angel’s brain.

(Are you starting to get a sense of the slightly — maybe more than slightly — hallucinatory nature of this tale??

Now, parallel to this story of Peter and his friends and the monitors, is another story — that of two anthropomorphic mice, Mr. and Mrs. Starbuck, who live in Peter’s house and are friends of his. Or at least, he gives them crumbs of food. These mice — who speak in English to each other, if not to Peter — want to assist him in his quest to rid himself of the monsters, so they set out to find a "real" angel that will help him. This part of the book seemed weirdly shoehorned in, as if the author had had another idea for a different book, one which featured talking mice, and for some reason decided to mash the two stories together.

(Oh.. I guess I forgot to mention that these mice are the only ones in the story, other than Peter, who can see the monsters.)

Now, I appreciate a bit of whimsy, and I am not opposed to using elements of fantasy in a story — in fact, I like that kind of thing.

When it is done well, that is.

This book… I finished reading it last night, and I am still trying to process HOW it ever made it to publication. It is SO bizarre, almost like a fever dream of a story. It is not technically badly-written. The illustrations are very competently drawn. But the story as a whole is simply… odd. I can only imagine what this book might have seemed like to the youngsters at whom it was aimed. — PL

“Mary Poppins” thoughts from 2010

I recently (about five minutes ago, actually) ran across this short essay which I wrote last year, with the idea then of posting it on Jeannine’s blog after she wrote this post about the "Mary Poppins" movie. But I decided it perhaps was a little too long and too argumentative, so I posted a much abbreviated version as a comment on that page, and did it anonymously (this was back before I had gotten my livejournal account).

Why am I posting it now? I guess because I liked it, and always felt that it would have been fun to rebut what I considered the fairly silly claims of misogyny that Jeannine mentioned were thrown at the movie by one of her students. And seeing as nobody comes to this blog anyway, what’s the harm? 

So here it is. — PL

—————————-

"Pete’s Essay re: "Mary Poppins" June 4, 2010

Back on April 29th of this year, when Jeannine posted her blog entry about "Mary Poppins", in which she discussed her Children’s Literature students’ papers comparing a novel read in class to a film adaptation of same, I was stunned (well, maybe more like mildly flummoxed) to read that one of her students considered the Walt Disney film version to have included a "misogynist smear campaign". The exact quote:

“Apparently when the male film writers put their heads together to think up the perfect hallmark of a bad mother, they decided she must be a feminist. No wonder P.L Travers was upset, she probably had not expected the adaptation of her whimsical children’s book to include a misogynist smear campaign.”

Having watched "Mary Poppins" several times during the course of my life, most recently when our daughter Emily was young, and having very fond and positive memories of the movie, I was baffled by this description. "Misogynist"? Isn’t the definition of that word "hatred of women"? Try as I might, I could not recall any such vile sentiments, oblique or overt, in the Disney adaptation. My recollection of the treatment of women in that movie was that it was even-handed, with perhaps a bit more sympathy for the female characters than for the male. I remember the fledgling Suffragette, Mrs. Banks, as being a strong woman trying to balance the responsibilities of an early 20th century middle-class British household and family with her own growing sense of female empowerment — not an easy task, especially in that era.

But, knowing how time can often (though not always) play tricks with one’s recall, I thought it appropriate to watch the movie again. Jeannine was agreeable, so — after buying the latest DVD version, with new behind-the-scenes special features — we sat down and watched it. And enjoyed the heck out of it.

"Misogynist"? Not even remotely close, in my humble opinion. The characters were exactly as I remembered them, and Mrs. Banks feminism was, as I had thought, positively (if SLIGHTLY comically) rendered. I loved this line in her big musical number, "Sister Suffragette":

"Though we adore men individually
We agree that as a group
They’re rather stupid"

Now, consider that this line was featured in a "family" movie made back in 1964 (hardly an era of all-pervasive feminism), and the sly subversiveness of it becomes even clearer. To me, the inclusion of just that one line renders any claim that Disney’s adaptation of "Mary Poppins" is — in any way, shape or form — "misogynist" completely silly.

And as for the screenwriters’ supposedly including Mrs. Banks’ feminism as the "perfect hallmark of a bad mother", I simply don’t get that. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Banks are presented as truly "bad" parents, but more like slightly clueless and distracted parents. Among other things, Mr. Banks is distracted by his work at the bank, and Mrs. Banks is distracted by her Suffragette activities (as well as her myriad household responsibilities). Important distractions all, but they ARE distractions… things that take both parents’ attention away from those two children who need them to be more present. And the film, at least, ends with both parents realizing that fact, and with the promise that they will try to do better. Nowhere, at least as far as I could see, is is stated or implied that Mr. Banks is going to quit working, or that Mrs. Banks is going to cease being a Suffragette — they are just going to try to be better parents.

After watching the movie with Jeannine and discussing it at length with her (and, I will confess, singing with her some of those catchy tunes), and hearing her talk about the difference between the original book (which she has read and taught), I was inspired to read at least the first "Mary Poppins" book to see how it and the Disney film matched up.

After reading it, I could see how P.L. Travers might have been disappointed in how Uncle Walt and his crew had adapted her work. It really is quite different. But I truly believe that if they had made a straight, literally "by-the-book" adaptation, it very likely would have bombed as a movie. At the very least, it would not have become the fondly-remembered entertainment icon it is today.
As someone who has had some experience in having my work successfully adapted into different media (TV, movies, videogames), I know how it can feel when the adaptation veers away from one’s cherished vision of one’s original. And sometimes, one is legitimately horrified by foolish and pointless changes. But other times, the changes are necessary and right. And in the case of Walt Disney Studios’ adaptation of "Mary Poppins", the changes made were overwhelmingly in the latter category. — PL"

Jeannine feeds the birds

I have had some luck recently feeding wild birds out of my hand. I stand next to the bird feeder, sunflower seeds in my bare outstretched hand, and wait… and wait… and three times in the last few weeks, a small bird has lit on my fingertips and grabbed a seed. It’s pretty cool.

I’ve been encouraging Jeannine to try it, and a couple of days ago, when she went out to fill the bird feeder, she came REALLY close to getting a bird to eat out of her hand. I think she was startled when the bird landed on her hand, and she reflexively moved a bit — and it was enough to make the wild, naturally skittish bird fly off.  

But I had my camera set up in the window, looking out at the scene, and I captured some video from which I grabbed the following six frames. I love the expression on Jeannine’s face as she feels the little bird feet grasping her fingers. I saw this from inside the house (I was watching at the moment when the bird landed on her hand), but the slow-motion video setting of my camera caught her wonderful reaction in its several stages. — PL

(P.S.Actually, as I think more about it, I realize that the bird MAY have grabbed a seed from her hand. It all happened pretty quickly, so I might have missed that. I’ll have to watch the slow-motion video again more carefully.)

When are corrections correct?

Back in December of 2010, Jeannine asked me to accompany her to an event put on by the English Department at UMass, a lecture given by renowned Irish writer, Colm Toibin. The talk was titled "The End of the Family: Jane Austen and the Victorian Novel". You could almost smell the brainpower in the room — the small audience was filled with people from, or associated somehow with, the Engilsh Department, and the introduction to Toibin was given by a woman whose position in the English Department I can’t recall at the moment, but I know it was pretty significant.

So I was pretty shocked when this high-powered English Department person mispronounced two important words in her introduction — "systole" and "diastole". The way they are supposed to be pronounced is like "sis toe lee" and "die as toe lee"… but she spoke them like "sis toll" and "die as toll". Now, I understand that these are not terribly common words… but they’re not that terribly UNcommon, either. (Both are medical terms of art relating to blood pressure, and the speaker did use them in proper metaphoric context when talking about the rhythms in Toibin’s writing.)

I mentioned this to Jeannine after we’d left the lecture, and expressed my surprise at this faux pas by someone who is supposed to be in command of the language. I actually felt a little embarrassed for the woman, because she had clearly written her remarks herself and meant them to be a clever and intellectually-substantial commentary of the work of Toibin. But to me, hearing those two mispronounced words in the middle of her otherwise beautifully-crafted introduction was like finding a big, sticky wad of chewing gum on the floor of a lovely art museum.

And I wanted to tell her about her mistake, so that she would not make it again (if — and I suppose it’s a big "if" — she ever finds cause to use those words again in that manner). I considered trying to find her office at UMass and either leaving a note or trying to speak with her in person. I even thought about making up some flyers with the correct pronunciation of the two words (without pointing out that it was she who had mispronounced them) and posting them around the English Department building.

Jeannine didn’t think either plan had much merit, and I deferred to her judgement. I still think it would be good if SOMEONE told the speaker that she had mangled the pronunciation, and in fact, given that there were a bunch of smart English Department folks at the lecture, quite possibly someone DID tell her.

Why does this bother me? Well, I have always hated to make mistakes in language. I find it personally quite aggravating and embarrassing when I either use a word incorrectly, or pronounce or spell it incorrectly. It just really bothers me. It has ever since an incident which happened years ago, probably in the late 1970’s, when I was hitchhiking. I was carrying a heavy car battery, and needed to get to where a friend’s car had broken down, which was a few miles off the main road.

I really dreaded having to walk that distance carrying this battery, so when a nice woman picked me up, I asked if there was any way I could coerce her into giving me a ride the rest of the way. She gave me an odd look, and said gently "’Coerce’ means to compel by force or intimidation. Are you sure you don’t mean ‘cajole’?" Which is EXACTLY what I meant, given that compelling by force or intimidation was the LAST thing on my mind in that situation, and if I could have sunk down out of sight in her car seat at that moment as I apologized profusely, I would have done so. I felt like a real ass, and as you might guess, I have never misused that word again.
(To that woman’s great credit, she did give me a ride all the way to the car. I think she saw my very stricken look after she’d corrected me and understood how badly I’d felt about my misuse of the word.)

Since then, I have taken extra pains to try to speak, spell, and use words correctly. I don’t always succeed, but when I fail, I actually appreciate people who know better correcting me. It is well worth the momentary frisson of humiliation.

And so I tend to think other people feel the same way. I know that Jeannine doesn’t mind it too much when I point out her occasional typo or misspelling or (even more rare) misuse of words.

But is there any "best" way to handle this situation? I am not sure. What do YOU think? — PL

“Hexapod” color version

 Like most of the things I am working on these days, this started out as a sketchbook drawing in a sketchbook with pages measuring about 8.5 by 11 inches. To do these color experiments, I have been copying the drawings onto heavy paper — at least paper which I can get to run through the copy machine without getting stuck and/or refusing to allow the toner to be fused to the surface of the paper.

I was hoping that I could get some actual watercolor paper to work in this manner, but so far, no success. This particular experiment was done on a sheet of pretty smooth Bristol board which I managed to run through the copier with only minimal lifting of the toner in some spots. For those spots, I went back in later and used black waterproof ink to touch up the lines which were damaged.

But the Bristol board, while not the greatest surface for watercolor, actually worked quite well (at least in my opinion). I used my little five-tiered watercolor set to color this one — I know I should be bolder and use the tubes of watercolor and start mixing colors and so forth, but for now, I like this approach. I did the whole thing sitting in the sun room with Jeannine, dabbing the watercolors while she sat on the couch opposite and worked on her next book.

When I was finished with the watercolors, I scanned the piece on my big flatbed scanner which is still hooked up to my desktop Mac, a computer which doesn’t get much use these days. Oh, I should probably point out that the reason I used that instead of my handy new little 8.5 by 11 inch scanner is that when I copied the image from my sketchbook to the Bristol board, I actually enlarged it by about 125%.

After the scanning at 600dpi, I copied the image on a memory card and transferred it to my laptop (which, I am finding out, is MUCH faster than my desktop computer!), where I selected all the empty background areas in Photoshop in preparation for dropping a background into the image. I’d decided that I would try to use one of my old digital photographs of a sunset, and I found what I thought was a very appropriate one which I’d shot from our back deck — it incorporated some branches of the trees behind our house, which I thought might work well with the thorny vines in the drawing.


And I think it did. I am not sure if this is the last version I will do of this drawing, but I am fairly happy with it. — PL