Reading List: Shaun Tan

May 3rd, 2012 · 11 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

I was driving Phoebe to school on Wednesday morning – she had to be at her desk by 7:30 for a field trip to Ellis Island or else – when I told her that Shaun Tan had sent us a guest post about his formative books for kids. What do you want me to tell people about Shaun’s books, I asked her. What should they know?

His pictures have a lot of feeling, she said.

Okay, I said. But what do they make you feel?

I think about them when I’m daydreaming, she said. Can you stop asking me questions now?

If you got a copy of 121 Books last week — the little book that Jenny and I gave away here last week — you might have seen Shaun’s book, Tales From Outer Suburbia, sitting there at #91. What you didn’t see was what the book actually looks like. I’ll start with the cover, which is as evocative and alluring an image as I can recall on the cover of a book. I remember seeing a review of this one in the New York Times Book Review a few years ago and looking at that cover, and thinking: I want to climb inside that book. And once you do, a similarly strange, exquisite, odd, absurd, whimsical, mysterious world awaits. Tales From Outer Suburbia is a collection of stories about, well, about a lot of things, including: a stoic water buffalo who lives in a vacant lot; a tiny stick figure-ish, possibly alien foreign exchange student who sleeps in a teacup and asks to be called, perfectly, Eric; two brothers who argue over whether the earth simply ends at the edge of the map, and then set out on a journey to find out who’s right; and a story with the stunningly great title, “Broken Toys,” that contains the following two stunningly great sentences: “Well, we’d certainly seen crazy people before — ‘shell-shocked by life’ as you once put it. But something pretty strange must have happened to this guy to make him wander about in a spacesuit on a dead-quiet public holiday.” How do you not want to read that?

Anyway, if you want to see what Phoebe was talking about re: the emotional punch — the feeling — of Shaun’s art, check out some of his work. He did a wordless book, The Arrival, whose soulful beauty kind of defies description. He did a picture book, The Lost Thing, which he then turned into a fifteen minute short film, which then won a little known prize called AN ACADEMY FREAKING AWARD. (You can see it here.) The pleasure of having someone this talented on Dinner: A Love Story never gets old — for us, at least — and I hope you enjoy Shaun’s recommendations. What I love, in particular, is that Shaun – being an Australian, and an artist — has so many books below that I’d never heard of, and have now ordered. That, and I also love his use of the word “carnage.” Enjoy. — Andy

I should begin this list with an early “mistake” made by my mother when it came to bedtime reading. She herself did not grow up in a literary household: in fact, as a kid, I was fascinated by the sheer absence of books, or even paper and pencils, in my grandparents’ house – books just weren’t part of their world. Perhaps for this reason, our Mum felt her own children should be exposed to as many books as possible, but at the same time was not guided by (a) experience, or (b) the kinds of lists you find on websites like this. If it looked vaguely interesting, Mum would read it to my brother and me at bedtime. One such title, read to us when I was 7 or 8, was an apparently charming fairytale by some guy named George Orwell: “Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes…”

We were all hooked (and, frankly, a bit unsettled) from the outset, so there was no turning back. My brother and I looked forward to each progressively disturbing chapter: conniving pigs, brainwashed sheep, a horse carted off to something called a “knackers” – poor Mum, having to field all of our questions. I asked her recently about this, and she remembers being increasingly anxious about how the story “might affect your young minds” – yet we voted to keep going (bedtime reading should always be democratic). Of course, the book ends with the pigs celebrating their triumphant depravity, and Mum was very worried about that. As for me, I just thought it was terrific. And it was no more disturbing than stuff I witnessed at school every day, with our occasionally cruel kids and less-than-perfect teachers – I thought Orwell was right on the money. I’d never thought about a story so much after it was read. From then on, I began to appreciate unresolved endings, and to grow tired of the less-convincing, moralizing stuff that kids were being fed in suburban Australia, where I grew up. I realized books weren’t just for entertainment, that they could say something. Animal Farm – along with Watership Down and Gulliver’s Travels –profoundly influenced my development as an author and illustrator. Most specifically, The Rabbits, an allegory about colonization written by John Marsden and illustrated by me. That was quite a controversial book when it was published — and was even banned in some Australian schools – yet very young children seem to enjoy and understand it quite deeply; they grasp, somehow, the hidden optimism that adults often miss. That continues to surprise and delight me, the ability of children to find silver linings in grim stories.

I don’t have children, and don’t specifically write/paint for them. Maybe that’s why kids like my work! I just think of them as smallish people who are smart and creative, and honest in their opinions. So when I think about what makes a great children’s book, I tend to think of books that achieve universality, the widest possible readership – books that appeal to us, from toddlers to geriatrics, in a primal way, and can be understood on many different levels. Picture books are particularly great for this, because they’re concise and easily re-read; they often invent their own narrative grammar, as if you are learning how to read all over again.

My interest in picture books only came about later, as an adult artist, as I was moving from painting into commercial illustration and looking for interesting work. The book that really got me interested in picture books — professionally, I mean, in that “Hmmm, I’d really love to do something like that one day” kind of way –was A Fish in the Sky, written by George Mendoza and illustrated by Milton Glaser. (Even if you don’t know Glaser’s work, you almost certainly do. He’s a legendary (more…)

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Extremely Graphic Content

September 22nd, 2011 · 22 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

It’s hard to know who was more excited when the Amazon box landed with a thunk on our doorstep last week, Phoebe or her parents. We knew from the heft what was inside: All 640 pages of Brian Selznick’s new book, Wonderstruck. We’ve spent many dinners and car rides and bedtimes discussing Brian Selznick. His last book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, for me, was one of those books where you just think, Wow, that’s amazing. I guess I’ll never write a children’s book! I mean that in the nicest possible way: it’s hard to imagine even attempting to create something that transporting and beautiful, let alone succeeding at it. If you gave me a different brain and some artistic talent and a million peaceful years to make it happen, no. But that’s just me. For Phoebe, our resident dreamer and book critic, Brian Selznick is something different: he’s a writer who has taken her beloved graphic novel form and turned into something bigger and better. Phoebe just seems to love the added layer that imagery adds to a story, the way she can keep going back and getting more out of it. This is not to say that she doesn’t like chapter books, but if you asked Phoebe to pick her ten favorite books, a hundred bucks says all ten would be graphic novels. I kind of hope that never changes. Wonderstruck is not a graphic novel, just to be clear. I don’t know what to call it. It’s a chapter book with hundreds of luminous, moody, full-bleed illustrations, which unspool in these amazing ten, twenty, thirty page stretches, like the greatest flip book ever created. As Phoebe says, when asked why she loves it so: “He makes you feel it.”

We thought we’d use this book’s arrival as an excuse to round up our latest favorite graphic novels for 8- to 12-year-olds. And, like always, I’m going to turn the mic over to the reader herself. – Andy


Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick: “If you liked The Invention of Hugo Cabret, you’ll like this book. I can’t really explain it, because this author makes his books really complicated, but it’s about a deaf boy and a deaf girl. It makes you think about how hard it must be to be deaf. It’s half pictures and half words; the girl’s story is pictures and the boy’s story is words. He puts so much feeling into his stories. And there’s a surprise at the end, which is always good.”

Phoebe rating: 9*

Parent note: Why not a 10? Because Phoebe said it wasn’t quite as good as Hugo Cabret.

Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity by Dave Roman: “This is one of my favorites. I read it like three times on vacation. It’s about a school in space and it’s cool: they have anti-gravity drills and time-bending watches and things like that. Everything that’s impossible on earth is possible there, pretty much. It’s funny and adventure-y. My favorite character is Miyumi San because she has a watch that lets her travel in time and because she acts tough. She’s like a tomboy.”

Phoebe rating: Half 9, half 10*

* Parent note: I assume this means 9.5.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword* by Barry Deutsch: “Okay, this is a tale of knitting and pig-chasing. Weird, right? It’s the story of an Orthodox Jewish girl named Mirka who has nine brothers and sisters and she’s always wanted to fight dragons and trolls. I know all this sounds really strange, but if you read it, it’ll make sense. This is a good book for people who like adventure. It makes you want to go grab your own sword and start fighting some trolls!” (more…)

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There Goes the College Fund

January 18th, 2011 · 18 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Uncategorized

I can’t remember ever making this Official Family Policy, but Jenny and I are completely powerless against a kid — our kid — who asks us to buy her a book. (Full disclosure: We love books and are happy to encourage as much reading as possible in our house, but if we’re honest, there’s also an element of self-preservation at work here. I’m in the book business as an editor, and Jenny is in the book business as a writer, and I guess we see this as doing our part to keep the ol’ boat afloat.) I’m not about to revoke this policy, but I can’t pretend it doesn’t have its drawbacks, either: It isn’t cheap with Phoebe around. Her graphic novel and comic book obsession continues apace, and now seems to be infecting her little sister, Abby. We’ve spent many dinners lately — and many car trips, including one to Virginia over the holidays where Abby was so deeply immersed that she ended up actually puking on the book — talking about Raina Telgemeir’s latest book, Smile. The girls seem to connect to this one on some primal level –in no small part because they’ve both racked up crushing dental bills in the past month, and this seems to offer some measure of comfort. We’ll be ordering Raina’s other books within the week, I’m sure. (You’re welcome, Amazon. I could have paid for a semester at Bennington with all the one-clicking I’ve done in the past few years.)

We couldn’t vet all of the following books on our own — I haven’t read a word of some of them, as Phoebe is impossible to keep up with and I have, you know, a life — so it only seems fair to cede the floor to the third grader herself (with some help from her second grade sister, Abby), and let them tell you why they like them. Rankings are from 1 (not good) to 10 (the best ever). I suspect there’s some grade inflation at work here, as always, but these kids are enthusiasts. What can we say?

Smile by Raina Telgemeir ”This is a true story about a girl named Raina who has an overbite and a little bit of gum damage and she knocks her permanent two front teeth out. She goes through a lot of trouble at the dentist and her friends make fun of her. It takes place a long time ago, when the author was little. In the book, she’s in sixth grade. Boys might like this, but it depends on their style.”

Phoebe rating: 10.

Abby rating: 11 (And, yes, that’s out of 10. As Abby says, “I love it because I’m lucky not to have that tooth accident.” This coming from someone who had two molars yanked yesterday.)

Parents note: We realized before it was too late (Abby had already devoured the book 3 times) that there was a page or two of teen talk (body changes, boy crazy girls, etc)  that might have been confusing and maybe a tad inappropriate for a seven-year-old. So just be warned.

Lunch Lady by Jarrett J. Krosoczka: “I totally grew out of this last year. But I liked this series. It’s about a lunch lady who is really a superhero but she pretends to be a lunch lady. She has all kinds of cool gadgets and an assistant who makes the gadgets and will go in disguise so she can distract the person they’re fighting. Is it funny? No, not very. But you always want to know what’s happening next. Boys might like it. It’s probably good for seven year olds. On the back of each book, it says, ‘Serving Justice and Serving Lunch.’”

Phoebe rating: 7. (more…)

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Put Down the Book, or No Dessert Tonight

July 22nd, 2010 · 28 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Rituals

There’s a girl, all 42 inches of her stretched out on the family room couch, reading a comic book. There’s a dad or a mom, standing over her, failing to get her get her attention.

“Phoebe.”

No response.

“Phoebe?”

Not a muscle moves.

“Phoebe. Come on. It’s time for dinner.”

Crickets.

“Phoebe! Put the book down. Time to eat!”

The comic book is slowly, reluctantly lowered to her chest, and the face of an eight year old girl is revealed. “Do I have to?” says Phoebe. “Just a few more minutes.”

Some variation on this scene has played out pretty much every night before dinner in our house for the past two years, with one of us trying to pry Phoebe away from her book as dinner sits on the table, growing colder, and Phoebe so deep into her world of comic book heroes that her ears seemingly cease to function. It’s the good kind of problem, but still: it’s a problem.

And it all started with Jules Feiffer.

In the summer before first grade, Phoebe discovered a book at our local library called Meanwhile… by the great Jules Feiffer, which is about a boy who loves comic books – loves them so much that he dreams he is living inside of one, fighting pirates and running from mountain lions and floating weightless through outer space. From there, it was a short trip to Phoebe trying to draw her own comic books (called “Mini Man,” which drew, um, heavily from Feiffer), and then from there, onto The Adventures of Tintin. We bought her all six volumes, eighteen stories in all, and she read them non-stop for the next few months, over and over and over again, until she practically had them memorized. When that phase ended, she looked around like, “So anyway, that was fun. What’s next?” We needed some new material. Not knowing where to turn, I asked my much smarter and comic-savvy former colleagues at GQ, Alex P and Raha, for some cool suggestions – comics that were girl-friendly but not princessy, challenging but not too adult, not likely to cause nightmares. Raha actually (more…)

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