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I love language. I especially love the poetry that comes from chasing words free association style through the pages of a Roget’s unabridged. As someone who makes their living largely through writing, there is no better office companion. With words grouped by meaning rather than alphabet, browsing it often feels like a waking dream or an act of meditation. I even use it in my design work when I am stuck for inspiration.

So, imagine my absolute delight when I discovered that the good folks at Thinkmap have taken my intuitive approach one step further, and created a Visual Thesaurus that in their words “works like your brain, not a paper-bound book. You’ll want to explore just to see what might happen.” Type in any word, and before your eyes blossom the most beautiful, delicate constellations. At the heart is your word, and around it a branching depiction of all of the related words on a snowy white field.

Each related word meaning is depicted by a different color (noun, verb, adjective, or adverb), and its relationship to the original word, be it synonym or antonym, is depicted by a different kind of line. Click an icon in the center, and you can even hear it pronounced. Click on any word in the constellation and a new form magically blooms. Quite aside from its usefulness, it’s really beautiful.

“The whole interface feels almost alive; it reinforces word connections in a direct manner and encourages exploration… overall it’s a rare, rewarding example of a paper-bound process that has been radically rethought from the bits up.” -The Washington Post

Check out a free trial at www.visualthesaurus.com, and while you’re there try your hand at the spelling bee or any of the other fun language games, create your favorite thematic word constellations, and generally join the language geekery. If you love it as much as I do, the $20 annual subscription seems like a small price to pay for something that’s both practical and a whole bunch of fun.

essential compressed

Often I hear parents lamenting, discussing, debating, or downright ranting about tolerable “kid’s music” or the lack thereof. Given the massive industry that is churning out an avalanche of crap entertainment for kids, you’d think that there would be a better and more coherent source for helping parents sort out the good stuff. A Rolling Stone for kids, of sorts. Perhaps we could call it Rolling Pebble?

I digress.

Before getting into publishing, I was in the toy business, and I spent nearly seven years working in a variety of different positions in one of the best independent toy businesses in the US–Henry Bear’s Park–headquartered in Cambridge, MA. Day in and day out I logged thousands of hours in those stores, and just about every minute of those thousands of hours was filled with kids music. Some good, and some–well–let’s not go there.

My criteria for great music for kids is pretty simple: it must stand up to repeated playing, over and over and over, without making the adult listener a) want to commit suicide because it’s so mind-numbingly saccharine, or b) bash their head into the wall because they can’t get the songs out ’cause they’re too damn catchy. Raffi, who I think is one of the most genius songrwriters for kids ever, falls into this latter category and so isn’t recommended below. Let me say for the record, however, that the song Baby Beluga is one of the most perfect kids songs ever written. Seriously. Kids love it, and it’s a blast to sing it to them.

Anyway, here is an essential dozen list of CDs I can confidently recommend, plus some extra stuff. They are great, everyone will enjoy them, and there’s quite a genre range so you can pick your poison. Many of the CDs are from series with additional offerings so you can go out and explore. I’m sure you have your own favorites that aren’t listed here, and if they pass the 1,000 play test, feel free to chime in below. Although I always support buying local if possible, I am including the Amazon links to my suggestions, because there you can listen to samples of every track. Enjoy!

One last note: There is nothing wrong with playing “real” music for kids. In fact, I think it’s a critical part of their cultural education. Why play a CD of kids singing reggae when you can just play great reggae? Like reading, kids will grow up loving music if they’re raised with lots of it around. Share what you love.

***

These first two are from a great series by a company called Music for Little People, and they are compilations of original music, so no saccharine kiddie pap. They have a bunch of Genre CD’s also, “A Child’s Celebration of” Show Tunes, (singer)Song(writer), Dance Music, Classical, Silly Songs, Jazz, etc. These two are a good start but every CD in the series is awesome.

cco folk

A Child’s Celebration of Folk

Music for Little People

ASIN: B000002M7Z

Favorite track: Garden Song by David Mallett

 

cco song

A Child’s Celebration of Song

Music for Little People

ASIN: B000002M5Q

Favorite Track: St. Judy’s Comet by Paul Simon

*

I love Dan Zanes. He used to be in the Boston indie rock band the Del Fuegos, but he has seriously hit the big time with his CDs for kids. His theory as a musical pro with kids of his own was play good music that everyone will love. He’s right on, and he gets plenty of great musicians to go along like Cheryl Crow etc. It sounds just like an old fashioned hootenanny would sound if a rocker got it together. His song choices range far outside of traditional kid’s songs and his enthusiasm is infectious. (Even his hair is excited.) If he ever happens to be touring near you, it’s worth it to go, if only to see the legions of adoring five year olds in the mosh pit. Any of Dan’s CD’s are good (I particularly *heart* his sea shanty CD with kids singing about “beer and tabbaccy” below) but these two are a nice introduction:

rocketship beach

Rocket Ship Beach

Festival Five Records

ASIN: B000051ZNR

Favorite Track: Brown Girl in the Ring

 

sea music

Sea Music

Festival Five Records

ASIN: B000QMU214

Favorite Track: All for Me Grog

*

On a completely different vibe is Tony Bennett’s kid’s album. So smooth and hip you could play it at a cocktail party, and your guests might not even notice that he’s singing duets with the likes of Kermit the Frog and Rosie O’Donnell.

the playground

The Playground

Sony

ASIN: B00000C285

Favorite Track: (It’s Only) A Paper Moon

*

Many people don’t know that Woody Guthrie wrote a large body of songs for his kids, and they are all really charming. His son Arlo has recorded many of them on this excellent CD which also includes some of the original recordings by Woody.

TLIYL

This Land is Your Land

Rounder

ASIN: B0000003H1

Favorite Track: Howdi Do

*

There are a ton of lullaby CDs out there, and they are not created equal. I am a total sucker for this album, both because it is so great musically, but also because all the songs were recorded and in some cases written by famous male musicians for their children. The album has a subtle old style country bluegrass feel, but it’s not at all hokey—okay—the song Little Hands IS hokey, but you can play around it.

daddies cd 150

Daddy’s Sing Goodnight: A Father’s Collection of Sleepytime Songs

Sugarhill

ASIN: B000000F3B

Favorite Track: Nolabye by Jerry Douglas

*

Ah, the Putumayo Kids Present CDs. These comps of World Music by genre are completely awesome. There are many, many of these, all equally wonderful from all over the world, including Africa and Asia, so they can just pick what you like by genre. Bonus: because these are compilations, you can discover whole new areas of music by picking up the full titles by the artists on these albums you particularly like. These are a few of my personal favs:

world playground

World Playground

Putumayo

ASIN: B00000JT4P

Favorite Track: Bongo Bong by Manu Chao

 

dreamland

Dreamland

Putumayo

ASIN: B00008XESC

Favorite Track: Durme Durme (Brazil) – Fortuna

 

french playground 150

French Playground

Putumayo

ASIN: B000B5UNH4

Favorite Track: Chatouiller Le Ciel Avec Toi – Alain Schneider

 

raggae playground

Reggae Playground

Putumayo

ASIN: B000CC4W7I

Favorite Track: Here Comes The Sun – The Burning Souls

*

And last but not least, this one speaks for itself all year round:

CBXMAS

A Charlie Brown Christmas

CBS

ASIN: B000ICLSMY

Favorite Track: Linus & Lucy

 

An alternative for our Non-Christian Brethren:

A Boy Named Charlie Brown

CBS

ASIN: B000000XDH

*

BONUS: As I look back on this list I realize it’s weighted more heavily to the folk end of things than rock. There are plenty of great original rock albums that are awesome for kids just as they are. Here’s a few suggestions, but any upbeat album with clean language will do the trick:

The Beatles: 1 (the singles)

The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

Jim Noir: Tower of Love

The Jackson 5: The Ultimate Collection

Various: Motown’s Greatest Hits

Wilco: Sky Blue Sky

Harry Nilsson: Greatest Hits

Various: Pure 80’s

(This last album does include some innuendo, but it’s very fun overall. You might want to skip over Centerfold by J. Giles and avoid the inevitable explanation scene you will have to deal with eventually. But hits are hits for a reason and greatest hits collections are usually awesome for kids.)

cinderella

Walt Disney’s Cinderella by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Mary Blair

Disney Press; August 2007; 64 pp; $16.99 HC

978-1423104216

Core Audience: Children 4-8; Design lovers of all ages

Strengths: AMAZING original concept art from Mary Blair

Culturally, we are in a new golden age of design right now, with a distinct blurring of the lines between commercial and fine art. It’s everywhere you look: Target’s Design for All project is pulling in designers like Isaac Mizrahi and Michael Graves, Todd Oldham is busting a move for La-Z-Boy, the geniuses at Pixar are re-inventing animation, and even the most humble toilet brush is not immune to its own version of an extreme makeover.

It makes sense then that contemporary artists are looking back to the last golden age of US design, the mid-century. Ground-breaking artists, who until now were largely unsung, are finally getting their props and it’s about time. The vaults are being thrown open, and we’re all reaping the benefits.

One of my all time favorite of these artists is Mary Blair. Incredibly versatile, winsome, and magical, Blair’s use of color and form rivals the great modernists. (I’m not kidding, here.)

MB

During a career than spanned more than half a century, Blair did fine art, illustration, commercial design, murals, and children’s books, but she is best known as one of Walt Disney’s favorite house artists. She did the concept art for more than a dozen Walt Disney projects including The Three Caballeros, Song of the South, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, as well as the design for the ubiquitous It’s a Small World attraction which she created at Walt’s behest for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Here’s a tiny little taste of some of her work to wet your whistle:

blair collage

Blair’s work has an irrepressible optimism paired with a sophisticated sense of composition and color that I just love. It’s the pure embodiment of that great Charles Mingus quote: “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”

***

It used to be that you had to hunt and peck to find examples of her original work for Disney. Most of it was residing in WDAS’s Animation Research Library collection. Now you can have a little bit of this magic on your very own bookshelf!

Disney Press has taken the original concept art for Cinderella (1950) and worked it into a new book with great text by Cynthia Rylant. It has been released with very little fanfare into a market crowded with Cinderellas, but this book is really amazing, and deserves a closer look.*

Title

Cinder's house

carriage arrives

at the doors

at the ball

riders

In his book Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in 1950s Animation, Amid Amidi makes the argument that the male-dominated, hard-edged animation department at Disney didn’t quite know what to do with Blair’s dreamy, color-block style, and that’s why she didn’t receive more external recognition during her time there. (She finally did recieve a posthumous nod with a “Disney Legends” award in 1991.) However, anyone who knows the movie will recognize the impact Blair’s art had on the final product. The drama, color, scale, and composition are all hers.

Nearly sixty years later, Blair’s art has lost none of it’s power. Walt Disney loved her work because like him, he felt she was able to tap directly into childhood. Disney Animator Marc Davis recalled, “She brought modern art to Walt in a way that no one else did. He was so excited about her work.”

A whole new generation of readers and design enthusiasts will feel exactly the same.

Rated: 9.5

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_________

Web Worthy

Meadow Gold 2

BONUS: Check out this very cool Mary Blair 1950′s B&W commercial for Meadow Gold Ice Cream.

Many thanks to Fred Cline for making it available. Fred knew Mary and her husband Lee, who encouraged him to study design and animation, and he is doing a great job of carrying the torch.

ALSO: If you are excited by Mary Blair’s work and want to learn more, check out this great retrospective: The Art and Flair of Mary Blair (978-0786853915; Disney Editions; $40.00 HC)

SUPER DOUBLE-BONUS IF YOU LIVE IN SAN FRAN: The Museum of Cartoon Art has an exhibition up by the same name running until March 2008. Lucky!

*Book images: Copyright 2007 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

17 Things

17 Things i’m not allowed to do anymore by Jenny Offill & Nancy Carpenter

Random House/Schwartz & Wade; December 2006; 32 pp; $15.99 HC

978-0375835964

Core Audience: Children 5-8; Adults who remember being less-than-perfect

Strengths: Engaging art; Funny, funny, funny

This book is an ode to every sassy girl who has ever lived. (I am one of those sassy girls, and I bet many of you are as well.) It is a laugh-out-loud litany of one troublesome idea after another and the consequence is always the same… “I am not allowed to (insert idea here) anymore.”

From gluing her brother’s bunny slippers to the floor, to setting Joey Whipple’s shoes on fire with the sun and a magnifying glass, to a reoccurring obsession with beavers, to my favorite—giving her brother the “gift of cauliflower” [by flinging it off his forehead with a fork], the heroine of this picture book is irrepressible.

The artwork in the book is just as lively, with a wonderful combination of pen and ink illustration, collage, and mixed media. It spills across the page with great exuberance, and does an excellent job of working with the text to give you the full flavor of its spirited protagonist.

There are many books about behaving badly, but it is much rarer to find one that celebrates the individual with as much warmth and humor as this one.

Because of the weird 12/26/06 release date, I hope this book doesn’t fall through the cracks and get lost in the shuffle for awards and recognition.

It’s a gem.

Rated: 9.5

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Okay, I feel that I have been giving short shrift lately to picture books, which as a designer are one of my first loves. I am having book guilt. So, I have decided that this is Pixie Stix Picture Book Week, and I will post a new review of one of my spring favorites each day. Enjoy!

The runaway book

Polo: The Runaway Book by Regis Faller

Roaring Brook; January 2007; 80 pp; $16.95 HC

978-1596431898

Core Audience: All ages; Lovers of great design; Aficionados of wordless picture books

Strengths: Lyrical story full of wonderful visual detail and charming plot twists

Those of you who have been faithful readers know how much I loved Faller’s previous book The Adventures of Polo. Published first in France, these books about a little dog with a great imagination and a bottomless backpack are among my favorite offerings of the last year.

There is so much to love about Polo, it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the design. Faller’s illustrations are crisp, engaging, and totally irresistible. He plays liberally with graphic formats, using frames, full-bleed, and white space in unexpected juxtapositions throughout the book. An unspooling ball of red yarn breaks the right hand margin, and on successive pages becomes a Family-Circle style loop-de-loop, the ground, a hill to slide down, and then the outline of two trees and a dog-eating castle. Line as path, line as ground, line as object. The book is full of these kinds of graphic transformations.

Before we even get to the title page, we have a whole wordless vignette with Rabbit buying and sending a book to Polo on his little island. Drawn only in black, white, and yellow on a tomato red background, this little prequel grabs the attention from the get go, and sucks the reader right into Polo’s world.

And what a world it is. Magical. Lyrical. Full of the most amazing things. I LOVE books that unfold in a way that takes me on an unexpected journey, and Faller has one of the most unfettered imaginations going. When Polo’s new book is stolen by a little yellow creature–(a star? an alien? a florescent dust bunny with arms?)–Polo immediately sets off from his island in hot pursuit. What follows is a delicious adventure where the chase is only half of the fun. Each development is less predictable than the last as Polo meets a cast of characters including a humongous penguin, a little pig princess, elephant belly dancers, cloud wrestlers and a genie complete with wishes. And them there are the conveyances… A rope to nowhere, a hot air balloon, a raft, a mechanical flying bird, a magic liquid mirror, a dandelion puff, and numerous ladders, holes, caves, nooks, and crannies. Really, I can’t do the book justice in words when it comes to how imaginative it is. You just have to check it out.

Although Polo’s books are officially labeled with a 4-8 age range, to dismiss them simply as picture books for the youngest readers does them a great disservice. At 80 pages, the visual complexity, unexpected plot twists, wordless storytelling, and multiple frames are quite sophisticated, and the lyricism of the story will capture the imagination of everyone who picks them up—even adults.

At this point I am going to give you my rating, and if you are just interested in the review, read no further. This book is FABULOUS, and if you like great design and visual storytelling, stop reading and go order it now.

Rating: 9.5

However, if you are interested in a little more analysis on the publishing industry, read-on….

Polo in Bed 2

[Begin digression into TRENDWATCH industry-speak]

For my part, although the Polo books are certainly picture books in production format, I place them in the rapidly growing category of graphic novels for children, and I think they fall on one end of a spectrum that includes things like Emmanuel Guibert & Joann Sfar’s Sardine in Outer Space series and Jeff Smith’s Bone series, which is having an incredible resurgence among elementary readers. In fact, take a good look at the publishing news right now and it’s hard to miss the buzz in this area: in 2006 graphic novels hit $330 million in sales in North America, (surpassing the comic book format), with booksellers clamoring for more titles published for kids because of the demand they’re seeing at book fairs and in stores.

Why do I bring this up? Certainly wordless picture books are not new in and of themselves. (Think Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, Itstvan Banyai’s Zoom, or Patricia Lehman’s The Red Book and forthcoming Rainstorm.)

However, given the growth in the graphic novel category, and young readers’ increasingly sophisticated and technological world which predisposes them to a high level of visual comprehension, I think this is an exciting time to explore innovative formats and hybrids of traditional publishing forms. Polo is an excellent example of blending genres to great effect, and I expect we will see more and more of this in the kids’ market.

In fact, Roaring Brook’s children’s graphic novel imprint 01:FirstSecond, under the direction of the brilliant Mark Siegel, is on the cutting edge of producing great new graphic work for a whole range of young readers, from elementary school to the most sophisticated teens, and they are actively reaching out to educate the traditional children’s book market. Many other publishers have been launching their own graphic novel imprints for kids as well. (Do a search at Publisher’s Weekly Online for the term “Graphic Novels”, and you’ll get 58 story hits just since the first of this year.) And let’s not forget Manga, which has never been stronger in the US. In a few years we’ll be able to look back on this period as a new golden age of graphic novels, with a whole expansion of the market for kids.

So now what?

I would ask you where you fall? Do you get this genre? If you are a bookseller or a librarian, where do you shelve graphic novels for kids? Do you think it’s a real trend? Do you care?

I think it is a trend, but I also think that there is a pretty clear line between people who get this genre, and people who don’t. I’m not sure if it has to do with age or perception or relationship to technology or what.

However we can always return to the basics. A book like Polo, which straddles these worlds, is at the end of the day, a wonderful book … and comfortingly familiar for all its brilliant ambition.

Yay, Polo. Je t’aime.

Web Icon

For a compelling diversion, visit Polo’s magical world online at Chez Polo. It’s worth it just for the soundtrack.

____________________________________________________________________________

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Rainstorm

Rainstorm by Barbara Lehman

Houghton Mifflin; April 2007; 32 pp; $16.00 HC

978-0618756391

Core Audience: Young readers ages 3-7; Lovers of wordless picture books and mysterious keys

Strengths: Crisp illustration, magical and mysterious premise

COMING SOON TO A BOOKSTORE NEAR YOU

You remember those days.

Days when you were stuck inside—alone—on a rainy day with nothing to do and no one to play with. Everything seems to take on the same drab feeling, and nothing feels interesting.

So it is with the character in Barbara Lehman’s new book, Rainstorm. From the very start, on the cover of the book, we see our hero gazing forlornly out the window on a dark and blustery day. Although you can’t see it on the flat illustration above, colorless spot-varnish raindrops fall from the leaden sky. Clearly this is no day for playing outside. There seems like nothing to do but wander aimlessly around the big house, kicking a ball for lack of anything better to do.

BUT—and there is always a “but” in Barbara’s stories—things become a lot more interesting when or hero discovers a key under a chair, and in true Lehman style, the key unlocks an adventure bigger than any box, closet or trunk. This rainy day is about to get a whole lot more interesting.

For those of you familiar with Lehman’s previous books, Museum Trip, and The Red Book, (which won a Caldecott Honor), you will recognize her crisp artwork, appealing visual style, and engaging wordless storytelling. I particularly love the way these books manage to surprise us with plot twists and magical elements while keeping the visual story from becoming overly busy or complicated. They are a masterful study in simplicity and restraint, and because of that they appeal to a wide range of ages. Subtle details, like the oppressiveness of the big house, they boy’s tie, and his transformation once he finds the key are things to be discovered with each reading. For instance, why is there a blue sky in the INSIDE of the house on the cover?

As with all of her books, careful attention has been paid to the design and production of the book, so that it all works beautifully together. Details like the spot varnish raindrops on the cover, the larger vertical trim, and the thoughtful variation of frame and full-bleed illustration enhance the unexpectedness of the story. It is a pleasure to flip each page and see what happens next.

It is truly a wordless and wonderful adventure. I want to find one of those keys, too.

Rated: 9.0

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B&W RAO

One day recently I walked into my office and sitting on my bright red couch were copies of 365 Penguins and Cat and Fish Go to See. Two great books that looked great together. It made me wonder if I could come up with an Essential Dozen list of books that do awesome things with black and white illustration. The criteria for the list were pretty basic: 1) Great content; and 2) Great art. As a designer this was too good a challenge to pass up, so I spent some time thinking about it and perusing my bookshelf, and finally obsessively culling through the work of my favorite illustrators. And lo and behold, I had a FABULOUS list when I was finished! These books would ordinarily never wind up on a list together, so it was fun to pull them into a collection. Each and every one is a worthy addition to any book lover’s—or design lover’s—shelf.

365 PENGUINS by Jean-Luc Fromental, illustrated by Joëlle Jolivet
978-0810944602; Harry Abrams; November 2006; Ages 3-8; $17.95 HC

I wrote extensively about this wonderful book in a full review a few weeks ago, so let me just say that this is one of my favorite books of last year. It has the magic trio of great eye-popping art, fun concept, and hilarious writing.

A FARMER’S ALPHABET by Mary Azarian
978-0879233945; David R. Godine; October 2005; Ages 4-8; $19.95 HC
I could have chosen any of Mary Azarian’s work for this list, because her woodcuts embody the very definition of great use of positive and negative space in illustration. This book was commissioned by the Vermont Board of Education, and it depicts scenes from rural farm life in a series of 26 alphabet scenes. From Apple to Barn and Cow right through Zinnia, each illustration is a masterpiece of design and execution.

ALPHABET OF BOATS by James Dodds
978-0939510726; Mystic Seaport Museum; July 2002; Ages 3-7; $9.95 HC

This is probably the most obscure book on this list, but it is one of my treasured favorites. With a petite 5”x 5” trim, this book features lovely black and white woodcuts of 26 different kinds of boats from around the world, one for each letter of the alphabet. This little book feels like a prize left over from a salty old captain’s sea trunk.

CAT AND FISH GO TO SEE by Joan Grant, illustrated by Neil Curtis
978-1894965392; Simply Read Books; November 2006; Ages 4-8;$16.95 HC

This book is one of the most striking examples of black and white design that has crossed my desk in quite some time. Evocative of the illustrations of M.C. Escher and the batik designs of Southeast Asia, every illustration in this book pops off the page. The story is a lovely parable of friendship between two unlikely pals who are curious about where the waves go. Their journey of discovery is a wonderful tale of friendship, adventure, and the pleasures of being true to oneself.

FIVE FOR A LITTLE ONE by Chris Raschka
978-0689845994; Athaneum; June 2006; Ages 2-5; $16.95 HC

The “five” in the title refers to senses, and the “little one” is the very cute floppy eared bunny who is at the center of this sweet tale from Caldecott Award-winning illustrator Chris Raschka. With bouncy rhyming text, and good use of strong ink lines and cheery color accents, this book is a perfect introduction to the concept of senses for the youngest readers.

KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON by Kevin Henkes
978-0060588281; Greenwillow; March 2004; Ages 2-5; $15.99 HC
What to say about Kevin Henkes? Aside from being one of the most brilliant children’s book writers working today, he is also a genius when it comes to illustration. This gentle tale about a little kitten who mistakes the full moon for a bowl of milk won a Caldecott Medal, and deservedly so. The simplicity of the story is a part of its brilliance, as are the luminous black and white drawings with their effective use of line and shading.

LOOK, LOOK! by Peter Linethal
978-0525420286; Dutton; September 1998; Ages 1-3; $6.99 BB

The high-contrast papercut artwork in this bold board book, along with the striking use of red letters on a black and white ground make this title perfect for catching the attention of the very youngest readers. The images, like a cat stretching and flowers blooming are a surprise, and take this book out of the predictable run-of-the-mill offerings of board books for babies.

SCRIBBLES by Taro Gomi
978-0811855099; Chronicle; April 2006; All Ages; $18.95 PA

Taro Gomi is one of the most prolific illustrators on the international scene, known as much for his design of clothing and other consumer goods as for his more than 300 books for readers of all ages. This book is a magnificent 368 page invitation to creative exploration, with chunky lines and loose free flowing shapes. Part coloring book, part design study, and fun for children ages 2 to 102. Make sure you have some crayons handy.

THE RAVEN (Visions in Poetry Series) by Edgar Allen Poe, Illustrated by Ryan Price
978-1553374732; Kids Can Press; August 2006; Ages 12+; $16.95 HC

Part of the excellent Visions in Poetry Series, this handsome edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s brooding masterpiece is perfectly illustrated with Price’s shadowy dry point illustrations. The narrator’s decent into madness over the refrain “Nevermore” is a visceral, terrifying vision. I would also encourage you to check out the other titles in this series, including Jabberwocky, Casey at the Bat, The Highwayman, and the Lady of Shalott. Each poem has been given a striking illustrative reinterpretation that will appeal to YA readers.

THE STORY OF FERDINAND by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson
978-0670674244; Viking; January 1936; Ages 4-8; $17.99 HC

One of the most beloved stories of all time. Ferdinand would rather smell the roses than fight, but when he is stung by a bee, his stomping and snorting convince everyone that he is the fiercest bull around. When he is carted off to
Madrid for a bull fight, hilarity ensues. Robert Lawson’s classic black and white illustrations have been updated with some subtle watercolor washes, but they retain all the wonderful charm that have made them a favorite for countless readers since 1936.

WHAT IS BLACK AND WHITE? By Petr Horacek
978-0763614607; Candlewick Press; June 2001; Ages 2-5; $4.99 BB

With inventive pairings of opposites and bold expressive artwork, this book is a great introduction to the concept of color opposites for the very youngest readers. What I love about this book is the way that the black and white stripes at the edge of each spread get tighter and tighter until the last spread reveals what is black AND white—a zebra of course! Fun and playful.

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS by Shel Silverstein
978-0060572341; HarperCollins; January 2004; Ages 9-12; $17.99 HC
“If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer,
A wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er,
A magic bean buyer . . . Come in . . .”

More than any other title on this list, this book holds a special place in my heart. It was my first experience of falling in love with poetry as a child, and the writing and offbeat illustrations are just as fresh today as they where when this book was first published in 1963. No good children’s book collection is complete without this infectious and brilliant anthology.

ADDENDUM 1/5:
I have already stared hearing from readers about additional B&W faves that belong on an essentials list so I will add them below. The truth is, I could probably come up with another dozen! (Feel free to e-mail me your sugestions.)

  • Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg
  • Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
  • The Spider and the Fly by Tony diTerlizzi
  • Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McClosky
  • Blueberries for Sal by Robert McClosky
  • Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge by H. Swift, illustrated by Lynn Ward
  • Biggest Bear by Lynn Ward

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IA Italy 2

Hello faithful readers!
I’ve been away for a little R&R, but now I’m back, so look for many new posts in the weeks to come. Here’s something new for the New Year. Enjoy!

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Much ado has been made about the demise of the book with the rise of the digital age, and to be sure, e-books are one of the strongest areas of the publishing market. As a confirmed bibliophile, I see e-books as a convenience product that supplements rather than replaces books, and in the children’s realm they now work best for reference applications. As far as children are concerned, the printed book-as-a-perfect-technology is hard to beat.

What I have been watching for in the last few years are cross-over projects which capture both the narrative quality of a book and the multi-media potential of digital technologies. Children today are growing up in an increasingly sophisticated environment, and I was sure that sooner or later someone would begin to publish for this. I think digital enhancements to printed books are inevitable—like book related websites and tie-ins—but this is something different.

Let me be clear. I’m not talking about a game or a virtual environment. I’m definitely not talking about a toy or a movie. I’m talking about a new medium that integrates the narrative form of a book with new ways of telling the story which are digital. And now I think I’ve found the first completed instance of it.

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Welcome to inanimate alice, an ambitious new on-line serial story co-created by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph (a.k.a. Babel).

IA Alice Russia

This is the dark and moody story of Alice who is eight when the narrative begins. Alice has a problem. She keeps losing her parents. Her mother is an artist, and her father does something covert and shadowy that may have to do with the oil industry. As the series is conceived, Alice progresses from age eight to her 20’s through ten episodes, each set in a different location. Episode 3 was just released in December. There is a tense and suspenseful undertone to the completed installments, set in China, Italy, and Russia. Each episode gets more complex narratively and visually as Alice’s sophistication grows. The sense of menace grows with each episode as well.

What distinguishes this project, and qualifies it as something “new” as opposed to a game or interactive movie, is that the narrative moves in one direction. The interactivity of the experience is confined to advancing the story by clicking a forward command, (think turning the page), and some simple games that Alice has created and shares with the reader within the context of the story. Unlike a game or CD-rom, there are no choices to be made on the part of the reader. Unlike a movie, the story must be read in words in addition to its visual elements. Like a picture book, the visuals exist to support the narrative, not the other way around. The reader reads and controls the advancement of the story. It shares more with a book than other forms of digital media.

IA Italy 1

In an excellent 12/7 interview in The Guardian, Pullinger talks about what her narrative intentions were. “For me, the kind of gameplay in Inanimate Alice is the kind of interactivity I’m interested in as it’s part of the story, not a diversion from the story,” says Pullinger. “As a reader I’m not interested in choice, I’m not interested in having to make decisions as I’m being told a story. But I think that anything that involves interactivity involves a different mindset than reading a piece of fiction.”

This project has garnered an incredible number of awards in Europe, and just by reading the press and reviews, it’s clear that people are having a hard time figuring out what to call this new medium. “Kinetic novel”, “digital drama”, “online movie productions”, “digital fiction”, “new media objects”, “blook” (which I hate), “flashfiction”, and the terribly pedantic “Ergodic literature” have all been thrown around.

Kate Pullinger acknowledges the complexity of this problem. “I think that when a new form emerges, part of the problem is how to figure out what to call it, how to describe it – but what I do know is that I like to make it and people like to read it when they find out about it…” She has more to say about it in a recent blog post.

This isn’t Pullinger’s first foray into digital narrative, but it is the first for children. A previous project The Breathing Wall (2004) tells the story of a man incarcerated for the murder of his girlfriend. Part mystery, part dreamscape, the two-hour CD story is told through two types of narrative, alternating between day-dreams (flash movies), and night-dreams. The night dreams are told with an experimental software program called the Hyper Trance Fiction Matrix, which allows the story to respond to the listener’s rate of breathing via a headset with microphone. (Wild, right?)

IA China 2

Clearly, this whole thing is in its infancy, but I for one am interested in seeing where it goes. Right now there are fairly rigid barriers between what is being conceived as a “book”, and some of the more amazing technological innovations in the video game and digital design industries. As these fields merge more closely under the heading of “new media”, I think we’ll see more and more of this type of project. Pullinger and Joseph are both involved in writing programs at DeMontfort University in the UK, which has a new Institute of Creative Technologies program.

Is there a commercial future here?
No one has figured that out.

Will these kinds of stories completely replace the book?
Not likely.

Are they intriguing?
You bet.

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Many thanks to Read Roger for first bringing this to my attention.

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Bonus: Check out an online version of US author/illustrator Jean Gralley’s passionate argument in favor of digital children’s books that first appeared in the January ’06 issue of the Horn Book. She also has a very cool flash animation piece called “Books Unbound” that demonstrates the potential of digital picture books.

Christmas balls

Okay, let me just say right up front that I am a purist when it comes to Christmas books.

Every year the fall catalogs arrive from publishers packed with hundreds of brand new children’s titles for the holidays, and pretty soon my eyes start to glaze over and I need an insulin shot. Not to say that there aren’t a few gems in there, but man, they are hard to find.

This year–maybe because I’ve got a baby on the way–I’m spending a lot of time parsing the meaning of the holiday and what I want for it to be.

I want wonder.
I want genuine gestures of caring.
I want a pony. (Just kidding.)

Growing up in New England, Christmas is a nostalgic holiday, and I always find myself returning to books that evoke the best parts of it….the snow, the smell of good food, and the comfort of footie pajamas that zip up the front. For me, great books at Christmas are books that capture these qualities of familiarity, warmth, and seasonal ritual.

So here are three favorites–one new, one older, one very old– that get at the essence of what Christmas is in my neck of the woods.

Best wishes to everyone for a happy holiday.

Sabuda Xmas

CHRISTMAS POP UP by Robert Sabuda
0439845688; Orchard Books; October 2006; $12.99 mini HC

Speaking of little gems, this petite paper wonder from the engineering genius who brought us THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, WINTERS TALE, THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and THE CHRISTMAS ALPHABET is every bit as wonderful as its larger holiday cousins, but at a size that is perfect for little hands and stockings. Each letter of the word Christmas is illustrated on a page with an elegant little white pop-up on a color ground. I love Sabuda’s work for its design brilliance, and I never fail to be amazed when I turn the pages of his books. His Christmas titles perfectly capture the sense of enchantment we all want at the holidays. The closest thing to modern sculpture you will find in the pages of a book.

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Bonus: Check out Mr. Sabuda’s wonderful webpage and try your hand at making your own pop-ups.

Also, catch Robert Sabuda & Matthew Reinhart’s visit on the Today Show this week.


Stopping by the Woods

STOPPING BY THE WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING by Robert Frost, illustrated by Susan Jeffers
0525467343; Dutton; September 2001; $16.99 HC

This beautiful children’s picture book edition of the Robert Frost poem, first published in 1978, perfectly captures the hush of snow blanketing the woods in a New England blizzard. New Hampshire illustrator Susan Jeffers’s luminous illustrations lend warmth to the poem and fill in the spare text with additional story elements, like feeding the birds and visiting family, that are comforting to young readers. It’s the perfect invitation to slow down and savor the simple pleasures of the season. The beautiful vellum cover and touches of additional color in small details of the pictures make this a seasonal book to be treasured year after year.

 

Twas the night

‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS by Clement Clark Moore, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith
0395643740; Houghton Mifflin; October 1992; $5.95 PA

Nothing says Christmas like the granddaddy of all holiday poems. There are many, many editions of this classic available, but this is my all-time favorite. Originally published in 1912, this book has the loveliest illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith, a groundbreaking illustrator from the early part of the century, and a text design that feels like it just rolled off a letterpress. The best part? It’s so unabashedly red.

TNBC3

A note about editions: Houghton Mifflin just re-issued this book in 2005 with a different cover. If you really prefer the red one like me, you may have to look for it used.

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Adventures of Polo

The Adventures of Polo

By Regis Faller

Roaring Brook Press; April 2006; 80 pp; $16.95 format

1596431601

Core Audience: All ages

Strengths: Magical wordless picture books about a little dog with big adventures; brilliant conception and illustration

Ah, petit chien! How do I love thee?

Let me count the ways…

1) I love the way your adventures are completely magical, and full of swell stuff like your bottomless backpack, your snug little boat, your house in a tree on a little island, and your wonderful friends of all kinds and colors. I want to come and live with you.

2) I love how your friend Regis Faller has packed each brightly colored frame of your adventure with wonderful details and unexpected developments.

3) I love that your stories will be just as interesting to a three-year-old as to a ten-year-old. I love that I find them interesting too.

4) I love that—like another hero of mine, MacGyver— you have everything you need to solve any problem on you at any time.

5) I love that you remind me of some of my other beloved friends like The Little Prince and TinTin, with all the lyricism and poetry of a movie like Spirited Away.

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And let’s not forget that completely amazing website you’ve got. It’s just as wonderful as your books, like a sweet dream with a lovely soundtrack!

Magnifique, Polo, magnifique!

I look forward to may more wonderful adventures ahead.

Rated: 9.75

 

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Howdy!

Welcome to pixie stix kids pix, the site for reviews and opinions about new and interesting books for children and young adults, by a professional in the children's book industry.

What rates?

When I read books they get rated on a 10 point scale. What I like is subjective, but basically I look for great content, excellent design, and fresh ideas. Generally, only books that receive a 7.0 or higher make it on to the site.

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