Last week I read two very different books. One was written last year, and the other in the 1950s.
First the contemporary one, which I found through a book review.
When I first picked up Heads or Tails by Lilli Carre, Fantagraphic Books, 2012, I wasn’t sure I would like it. The strange graphic style of the cover, especially the nose and facial features, were not really a style that I liked. But I’d heard great things about it, so I began to read and I was fascinated. The stories are weird, dream-like and surreal, with a bit of existentialist humor. They also reveal a remarkable compassion for characters trying to puzzle out their lives.
The cover blurb says, “…the stories contained touch on ideas of flip sides, choices and extreme ambivalence.” In “Wishy Washy,” a judge of floral arrangements survives a car accident but loses his ability to judge and make decisions. In “Welcome to my Kingdom” a single snazzily dressed man is increasing boxed in by the borders of his life and the page. “The Carnival” is a ambling story that combines ideas of floods, flight, romance, family and solitude into a circular story that left me with the same feeling I get when I’ve had a particularly vivid dream. It’s rife with meanings that I can’t quite put into words.
Which is part of the lure of this book — it’s told in ways that you can’t put into words. The graphic elements are an integral part of the story. It’s more than an illustrated story — it’s a dance. There are a few sequences under the title “Short Bits” that deal with the whole dance of life — the words, the movement, what happens in reality, and what happens in our minds and hearts. In “The Thing About Madeline,” a woman finds her own double working at her customer service desk one morning. She becomes a spy in her own life, then develops a whole new existence. In spare prose and jittery drawings, ideas of identity are deftly explored and exposed.
Then there are moments of great humor — my favorite being the last drawing The Woman With Something Stuck Between Her Teeth.
Lilli Carre won acclaim with the graphic novel The Lagoon. Her work has appeared in The Best American Comics, 2008, and the Best American Non-Required Reading, 2010.
You can find out more about her here:
Here’s a little video of how the book looks:
The other book I read was much more traditional. The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong, Illustrated by Maurice Sendak, was published in 1954 and won the John Newberry Medal. It’s a novel for ages 10 and up, and is still in print. I got mine at the library. I found it by googling “children’s book fishing village,” since I’m working on a picture book set in a fishing village. I love the way books come to me. It didn’t have the pictures I was looking for, but it had everything I needed in a good story.
At almost 300 pages, it is a warm, sweet book that follows a group of school children in a small Dutch village. Lina, one of six children in the village school, wrote a paper on storks, but admitted to only knowing what her aunt from another village told her. In that village, every Spring, people put wagon wheels on their roofs, as a foundation for a nest. “(Storks) build great big messy nests, sometimes right on your roof. But when they build a nest on the roof of a house, they bring good luck to that house and to the whole village that that house stands in. Storks do not sing. They make a noise like you do when you clap your hands when you feel happy and good…on your roof they are noisy. But it is a happy noise, and I like happy noises!”
The children are instructed to try to figure out why storks no longer visit their village. Lina finds out from an old woman that there used to be storks but the village trees had been lost in storms and no one even put a wagon wheel on their roof anymore. What ensues is an adventure that takes each child out into the village to find a wheel to put on the school and lure a stork couple to the village. They are told to look “where one could be and where one couldn’t possibly be.” In their search, they learn about their elders, their history, and their own bravery. In a charming turn of events, they discover the meanest man in the village, who uses a wheelchair and is rumored to have had his legs bitten off by sharks, is in fact, their best ally. The storks begin to bring good luck even before the first ones fly overhead on their migration from Africa.
Encounters with irate farmers, terrible storms and grumpy fathers keeps the children on their toes. Each child is developed in the course of the story and the village comes to life in the masterful storytelling of DeJong.
It was delightful to read this — it was slow paced and soothing at times, at other times an engrossing page turner. There were moments when the children’s ears were boxed and they were paddled when I wondered if such scenes would be acceptable in a contemporary children’s novel. There were vivid and detailed descriptions of the buildings, boats, tides, dykes and terrain — descriptive elements often left out in the fast pace of modern novels.
I loved reading it in bed with a cup of tea. It has community and environmental themes that are very contemporary and valuable, but it has a nostalgic feel to it. The illustrations for this are very spare, rendered in ink and wash by Maurice Sendak and add to the quaint. cozy feeling of the book. I hope I get a chance to read it out-loud to someone someday.
One more thing, I found this article on the film “Girl Rising” in this morning’s paper. A trailer for the film is included. It’s a documentary addressing the question “What would happen if more of the world’s 66 million uneducated girls were allowed to receive the same schooling as their male counterparts?”
I look forward to seeing it and I hope we all get a chance to help improve the lives of girls.
I hope you get to read something wonderful soon. Remember, books require no batteries and transport you through time and space in the most magical way.