Two Short Stories by Octavia Butler

It’s hard to believe that I’d never heard of Octavia Butler until a few weeks ago. How did the wonderful work of possibly the most celebrated female African-American writer of science fiction manage to bypass me? Or rather, how did I manage to bypass her? While I’m sure that the answer reveals more about my upbringing and education than I’d like to admit, at least I know who she is now.

Evelyn Alfred of the blog Librarian Dreams asked back in May whether her readers would like to participate in a Twitter blog party to discuss two of Butler’s stories, published posthumously as an e-book just last month. I’m not particularly adept at Twitter (how on earth are you supposed to process all of that information? I’ll take a discerning algorithm, please), so I thought it would be a nice “social media” challenge. Plus, I usually want to discuss the books I read, and as fulfilling as a blog can be, it’s often a one-sided conversation apart from the comments section.

With that lengthy intro aside, here is my concise review of Unexpected Stories, interwoven with snippets from the Twitter conversation.

Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler - image from Amazon

A Necessary Being

The first of the two stories is my favorite, purely because of its length. Set on another planet with a terrain similar to the Earth’s, “A Necessary Being” is about a vulnerable group of people, the Kohn, who have splintered into warring tribes. At the head of each tribe is a bright blue Hao, a semi-deity with unparalleled fighting skills and acumen (Avatar inspiration, anyone?). The head of the Rohkohn tribe is Tahneh, a middle-aged female who has been unable to provide her people with a successor. As a result, the entire tribe is endangered — without a Hao, a tribe disintegrates quickly.

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What is most striking about “A Necessary Being” is the complex, yet rigid, hierarchy in which the Kohn live. One’s social status is entirely dependent upon amount of blue in one’s skin. Occupying the lowest caste are farmers, artisans, and other nonfighters with muted yellow skin. Above them are hunters and fighters, cast in shades of green. Only the judges and the Hao are legitimately blue — and of course, the Hao is a deep, determined, and resplendent blue.

This hierarchy is reinforced by the color spectrum of emotions. That is, the Hao change color depending on their mood.

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Interestingly, just as social positions fall into alignment along the yellow → green → blue color spectrum, so, too, are emotions roughly sketched onto the same hierarchy. “Lower” emotions, like yellow (which symbolizes anger, pain, and submission) and green (indicating embarrassment), are subservient to “higher” emotions like white (approval, amusement) and, naturally, blue (power, dominance, confidence). It’s a fascinating correlation, to say the least, so if you do happen to read the story, be sure to pay attention to this dynamic.

tweet 2tweet 3As you would expect from an Octavia Butler story, many of the characters in “A Necessary Being,” mostly notably the Hao themselves, question the hierarchy that is considered “natural” in their society. It would be easy to say that Butler was attempting to map contemporary race relations in the United States onto a fictional society of her creation, but the intersection of mythology, skin color, and emotion complicates this comparison. It’s not only a critical look at power structures and how they automatically privilege certain people over others, but also a partial indictment of the way in which people learn to internalize visible social “cues” and accept them as a natural pecking order. It certainly provides much food for thought.

Of course, any person could speak with [Hao] Tahneh regardless of caste, but most people preferred to go through their caste chiefs. The blue made them secure, but when it came too close, it also frightened them.

Part of the tension between expected vs. demonstrated behavior was expressed in the difference between liaisons (e.g., casual sexual relationships) and marriage. Liaisons between different caste members were tacitly accepted among the Kohn, but marriages in which children were produced were significantly more controversial.

tweet 4I asked my fellow Twitter partiers why this was the case. I’ve included a couple of their insightful responses below.

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I won’t say anything more about this story — I don’t want to spoil it! It’s certainly worth a read, though. It reminded me of The Martian Chronicles, but was more complex. If, like me, you are hungry for more when the story ends, Butler’s book Survivor is considered the sequel.


Though “Childfinder” was only a few pages long, it left me deeply intrigued. It takes place in a futuristic society identical to our own, except that a significant portion of the population has developed psionic (i.e., telepathic) abilities. Instead of creating a utopia, however, or even improving communication among humans, the psionic abilities are weaponized and used to further marginalize and control the lower strata of society. It’s a bleak portrait, to say the least.

tweet 9tweet 10tweet 11Clearly, the ability to listen is not synonymous with the ability to care — the NSA proves this all too well. In fact, with surveillance technology and capabilities becoming ever more widespread and accepted, it’s remarkable how well the contemporary surveillance state mirrors the telepathic dystopia in Butler’s story. Those of us who participated in the Twitter discussion seemed to share Butler’s self-described pessimistic outlook on humanity.

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Short stories in summation, if you want to read intelligent science fiction infused with a heavy dose of social criticism, you can’t do any better than the marvelous Octavia Butler.

tweet 19You can download Unexpected Stories from Amazon here. If you haven’t yet used your 30-day “Kindle Unlimited” free trial, then you can do so in order to read these two stories for free (like I did). They only take a couple of hours to read. The reminder of our conversation is archived under the  #UnexpectedStories hashtag on Twitter. If I didn’t manage to convince you that these two stories are worth reading, then perhaps this excellent review in the Los Angeles Review of Books will.

Finally, another huge thank you to Evelyn Alfred for introducing me to Octavia Butler and for facilitating the conversation.

Overall rating: 4.5/5 stars

P.S. I created a fancy new “Book Review Index” page where you can see a list of all of the books I’ve read in 2014, in order from best → worst.


I’m Moving to New Zealand!

Or, I suppose I ought to say “we.” Greg (alias G.), that initial that sometimes hangs out at the bottom of my posts and takes credit for my photos, is going to New Zealand, too.

In early September we’ll be flying to LAX and then straight on to Auckland. We’ll likely (I say “likely” because we’re chronic procrastinators with a distaste for concrete plans) stay in a private room at some Aucklander’s house for a week or two before either finding more semi-permanent accommodations or moving on to a smaller, less expensive city. We’re going to be in full-fledged tourist mode for that first fortnight, so if you’ve ever been to Auckland (or anywhere in New Zealand) let me know what I can’t miss!

Now, onto the questions that we’ve already fielded numerous times…

Sunset Flight

1). Why?

There are many ways to answer this question. It sounds corny, but we are driven primarily by our desire to seek out and integrate ourselves within a healthier society — or at least one not as psychotic as the United States’. While being born, raised, and educated in the U.S. has been a tremendous privilege, its disturbing characteristics are growing too obvious for us to ignore.

The United States was founded and shaped by the co-operating principles of capitalism (i.e., avarice) and independence (i.e., a twisted form of disaffected individualism), and the collusion of these two euphemisms has produced a staggeringly wealthy, yet also profoundly unequal and mentally distressed, country. Thoughtful criticism is frequently drowned out and delegitimized by excessive, extremist noise. Growth, work, and success via material gain are prioritized over everything else, creating a breeding ground for manipulation, low self esteem, and “corporate culture.” Reckless mindsets on education, health, social welfare, finance, and authority prevail, to the detriment of not only Americans, but the rest of the world. To take one simple, particularly salient example: It’s astonishing that in 2014 someone can break their arm and be denied treatment. Access to medicine is a right, but in the United States it’s traded like a consumer good. One should not profit off of others’ misfortunes.

Depending on your opinion of the United States, you might think that Americans either won the citizenship lottery, or scratched off a very, very unlucky ticket. Either way, it’s not anything that you chose. Do we expect New Zealand to be a utopia? No. It would be the height of foolishness to expect that moving to another country would magically eliminate all of the societal grievances we have. But at least moving there is an active choice, and it’s a choice that not many have the privilege to make.

2). Ok. But why New Zealand?

Honestly? A big part of it is because they speak English. Shameful Americans that we are, we can’t speak any other language fluently. I spent time in Argentina and while I enjoyed it, not being able to communicate effectively left me feeling severely disenfranchised. Plus, it’s supposed to be freakin’ GORGEOUS, and the country’s quite a bit more socialist, and hopefully significantly less materialistic, than our own. I’ve heard that TV shows/cereal/basic consumer goods/fashion trends take a looooooong time to reach New Zealand. I hope that’s the case. We’ve had enough of this race-to-get-the-latest-version-of-the-iPhone mentality. It also has a lot to do with the availability of a working holiday visa (see below).

3). Do you have a job lined up?

No, neither of us does. We have year-long working holiday visas — emphasis on holiday. We’re primarily supposed to be tourists, but we’ll likely hold a variety of short-term, minimum wage jobs. Many apples on many organic farms will be picked.

4). So… how are you paying for this?

Answer: We saved. Though we will have to work while we’re there, of course. You’ve also got to keep in mind that 1) we don’t have cars, 2) we don’t own a home, and 3) marriage strikes us as a quaint (not to mention expensive!) institution. We don’t expect any of these things to change when we are in New Zealand.

5). Why now?

Why NOT now? Seriously, the timing could not be more perfect. I’m 23, Greg’s 24, and if we don’t go now, then it’s highly likely that we’d NEVER go. And that would be sad indeed.

6). Be serious. Is this just because you’ve watched too many episodes of Flight of the Conchords?

Not really. No, no. Well, maybe. A little bit. Yes.

In all seriousness, I’m incredibly excited. So much so that I’m already having trouble sleeping. We’re planning to see as much of the country as we possibly can, and, if all goes well, I might go on to graduate school in New Zealand (big hypothetical!!). I’m planning to post LOTS of pictures and stories about our travels right here on this blog. There’s a new “New Zealand!” category in the right sidebar AND a page just under the header where all of the posts will be archived. I hope that all of you will follow along! Cheers.

Kiwi higher res

Cloud photo by Greg. Kiwi logo designed by Christopher T. Howell for The Noun Project.

Television: A Definitive Guide to What You Should (and Shouldn’t!) Be Watching

I realize that this post is ENTIRELY subjective, and that different people have different tastes. Which is ok! But since I’ve had a Netflix subscription (ok, my parents have had a Netflix subscription) for the past 6+ years, and I’ve intermittently had access to HBO Go, I’ve watched a fair number of the hyped-up shows. I also like to joke that I’m a serial quitter… get it? (Strained laugh). So I’ll tell you about both the shows that I love as well as those that I either couldn’t stand right away or that took a couple of seasons to go sour on me.

In general, this post is organized from Best → Worst. For my top recommendations, read the first portion, and to discover which shows I utterly loathe, skip to the very bottom.

My #1 TV show of all time: The Wire
The Wire

My opinion here is nothing unique; The Wire has been praised countless times as the best show that’s ever appeared on air. Set in Baltimore, this gritty police drama is an incredibly accurate and depressingly realistic portrayal of inner-city life in contemporary America. I never felt like I was wasting my time when I was watching this show; on the contrary, I always felt like I was learning something. Each season has a unique narrative arc and thematic focus; colloquially, they are referred to as  Season 1, drugs; Season 2, unions; Season 3, politics; Season 4, schools; and Season 5, media. Fair warning: there is an inordinate amount of cursing in this show. I’m 100% OK with foul language, but the pilot episode still managed to shock me. Just power through episode one, accept that Bunk is a hilarious character, and make it over the “season two hump” (the only slightly weak season in the whole series), and you’ll be extremely grateful to yourself.  Just wait until you meet Omar and his shotgun!

The Other Incredible Drama: Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad
Like many people, I was initially skeptical about Breaking Bad, not least because my parents told me I had to watch it. Well mom & dad, you were right: It is phenomenal. I’d been watching it for a couple of years when, suddenly, somewhere around the end of season three/beginning of season four, the show exploded in popularity. I was both astonished and extremely pleased that this amazing character drama was finally getting the recognition it deserved from critics and mass audiences alike.

You’re probably all familiar with the story by now: lovable and kind high school Chemistry teacher Walter White is diagnosed with lung cancer. Understandably, he panics at the thought of dying and leaving behind his pregnant wife and disabled son. Mr. White puts his Chemistry knowledge to the test and quickly becomes an accomplished methamphetamine cook. He recruits his former student and general low-life Jessie to be his partner. Though some people complained that the show took a long time to establish itself, I’ve never been fussy about pacing, and thoroughly enjoyed the first two seasons. Others claimed that the show took a deep dive in quality midway through; I couldn’t disagree more. Every single episode in the last season ends on a cliffhanger. Waiting an entire year to see Hank’s reaction was excruciating! It’s another show that I can’t recommend enough.

The Fabulously Funny Shows

I thought I had more entries in the drama category, but I guess not. Of the eight shows I’d call “incredible,” six are comedies (well, I suppose Louie is about half-and-half). I’ll just run through these quickly, as you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Flight of the Conchords

Flight of the Conchords is a campy, fabulously corny, and quirky to a fault. Created by New Zealand comedy duo Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, each episode features two or three outrageously bad, and therefore outrageously funny, song spoofs. My favorite? The pseudo-rap “Hipphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros.”
Another show that has me rolling on the floor, but which I think is comparatively less well-known, is Extras by Ricky Gervais. It’s chock-full of celebrity guest stars making fools out of themselves. The main character, played by Gervais, is an unlucky, slightly porky, middle-aged actor who’s never caught his big break—and thus has resigned himself to always being cast as an “extra” in TV shows and films. When he finally gets the fame he craves, he manages to do an excellent job destroying his entire life.

Arrested Development

Arrested Development is a cult classic at this point. It’s about a rich white family that has become stupendously backwards after years of living like parasitic beings. Michael Bluth is the only reasonably sane one, and even then he’s constantly making bad decisions. The show can be frustrating, but it’s also witty, incredibly entertaining, and dizzyingly self-referential. My favorite subplot is the multi-episode arc starring Charlize Theron as a British spy.
Louie is probably the most depressing comedy out there. But it’s amazing, in part, for precisely that reason. Louis C.K. has a biting sense of humor and a solidly unhealthy outlook on life. Peppered with bits from his standup routines, Louie is a show about a normal guy living a lonely, divorced life in New York and struggling to make it through the everyday absurdities that seem to affect him more than most.

The Boondocks Chappelle's Show

And now for the comedies infused with social criticism. The Boondocks, created by Aaron McGruder and based on his comic strip of the same name, is the only animated show on this list. Narrated by Huey, an intelligent and well-reasoned African-American boy growing up in a wealthy, predominately white suburb, The Boondocks is sharp, shocking, and satirical. Likewise, Dave Chappelle’s enormously popular Comedy Central show Chappelle’s Show has attained legendary status because of its unforgiving skits about racism, sexism, and pop culture figures. Famously canceled after just two years on the air, it’s well-worth investing in the box set.

Worth the Hype

Orange is the New Black

Yes, it really is as good as everyone says! Don’t let the first couple of episodes turn you off, because they are the weakest episodes in the series’ two-season run. Women, prison, relationships, drama, corruption, racism, empathy, and lesbian sex galore. It has it all.

Game of Thrones

With incredibly high production values, complex characters, a medieval setting, and incredible actors, Game of Thrones is just as good as everyone says. See My 5 Reasons for liking the series.

Office, House of Cards, Parks and Rec

Also deserving of the popularity that has been lobbed their way: The Office (a shockingly accurate portrayal of the sluggish corporate lives that many Americans lead), House of Cards (dark, ruthless, and twisted), and Parks and Recreation (cheesy, quirky, and substantially better starting with season 2).

Honorable Mentions

Coming directly after the “Incredible” and “Worth the Hype” categories are the TV shows that are still very, very good, but not quite great.


Treme is set in post-hurricane Katrina New Orleans. While I sometimes get tired of the excessive “city pride” that saturates the show, it’s an amazing way to learn about the city’s unique music scene. It took me a few episodes before I was hooked.

True Detective

True Detective became a smash hit almost instantly. I was enamored of the first few episodes, but thought the series ended on a weak note. Nonetheless, the cinematography is gorgeous, and if you want an eerie, haunting look into the psychoses of the American South, then HBO’s latest crime drama is a solid choice.

Shows that Started Strong / Shows that are Decent

TV that went sour

You know how I said that I tend to give up on TV shows? Well, I loved all six of these shows at one point, but after a while they just weren’t worth watching anymore. Seasons 1 & 2 of Mad Men contain some of the best TV that’s ever been produced; season 3 was still good, and then Megan appeared in season 4 and it was all downhill from there. The West Wing has amazing characterization, but the unquestionably patriotic overtones get old very quickly. The first two seasons of The Walking Dead are absolutely terrifying, but then it starts deteriorating — just like the rotting zombies. I watched House, M.D. religiously in high school, only to realize that it was making me slightly depressed. Scrubs was the lighthearted medical show that went bananas around season 5/6. And finally, Boardwalk Empire was excellent for the first two seasons, before descending into an aimless bloodbath in season 3. Basically, the bottom line here is that many TV shows only stay good for the first 1-2 seasons. To quote Batman: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.”

Also in this category, but weren’t as good to begin with: Bones, Glee (though past season two it’s pure tripe), True Blood, and Weeds

Ok shows

This next group of shows I consider decent. They aren’t masterpieces by any means, but they have their quality moments and you don’t need to feel embarrassed to admit that you watch them. The Middle is about an utterly average family of four and their amusing monetary woes. I think everybody knows about Modern Family by now; I don’t really watch it much anymore because the Sofia hype got to be a bit much, but it had some genuinely funny moments in the first couple of seasons. Downton Abbey is ridiculously dramatic, but somehow quite addicting, and I feel like the actors do a surprisingly good job considering the material they’re given to work with. Finally, Bored to Death is a funny little show starring Jason Schwartzman as a cowardly pseudo-detective. Utterly unrealistic (there are never any consequences), but that’s part of its charm. I almost forgot 30 Rock and South Park! But they belong in this category, too.

The shows I just didn’t get along with

Shows I didn't get along with

And then there are the shows that just didn’t sit well with me, for whatever reason: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Homeland, Veep, Doctor Who, Heroes, Curb Your Enthusiasm, American Horror Story, The Big Bang Theory, Law & Order, How I Met Your Mother,and Portlandia. Some of these shows are considered classics; others could probably be placed in the “Disgustingly Terrible” category (see below). Then again, I don’t think these shows necessarily deserve condemnation, but I do think that you’re wasting your time by watching them since there’s much better stuff out there.

The Disgustingly Terrible Ones that You Should be Ashamed of Yourself for Watching


Long subtitle, but I obviously feel strongly about this. My most-hated TV show of all time is Girls, followed closely by The Vampire Diaries and Sex and the CityGirls makes me ashamed of my generation. The show is an exercise in sloppy nepotism, and none of the characters have any redeeming qualities. That’s right; they aren’t “complex” or “realistic” because they “have problems” (Oh, woe is me, I live in New York City in my early 20s!); they’re simply spoiled, foolish, and, as a result, bordering on misanthropic.

Sex and the City

My dislike for Sex and the City also knows no bounds. It’s supposed to be a show about female liberation, when really it’s a textbook on corporate feminism (see: Sheryl Sandberg). Independence, intelligence, utility, and femininity do not depend on one’s ability to pop into Saks and pick up a pair of Manolo Blahniks. And for all of the credit that the show gets for supporting the concept of friendship, there’s an astonishing amount of inconsistency, detachment, and even manipulation among the four so-called friends. (Imagine if one of them suddenly couldn’t afford to dine out for brunch anymore. Would she still be included in “the circle”? I think not). Don’t even get me started on the show’s dysfunctional attitude toward relationships.

The other shows in this category are just… bad. I reserve special vehemence for Girls and Sex and the City mostly because they often get praised for being something they’re not: feminist. The same goes for Scandal. (See my full review of that shameful show here). The remainder of the shows — Vampire Diaries, Nip/Tuck, Little Britain, Pretty Little Liars, Drop Dead Diva, 2 Broke Girls, Supernatural, and Alphas – are the kind that actively kill your brain cells as you watch. Please, do yourself a favor and watch something that makes sense. Even Downton Abbey is miles better than this detritus!

Shows I Want to Watch / Shows I’ll Probably Never Watch

There are some canonical TV shows that I’ve never watched for one reason or another. These include: Seinfeld, Lost, The Simpsons, 24, Everybody Loves Raymond, Entourage, The Sopranos, Sherlock, and Family Guy. I’ve already decided that I probably won’t like these shows, with the possible exception of Sherlock. So… don’t bother trying to convince me.

The Good Wife

As for shows that I would like to start watching… Masters of SexNathan For You, Hung, The Good Wife, and Pushing Daisies are currently on the list. Is there anything else that I’m missing? Something that would appeal to my extremely high standards? Let me know in the comments below!

And this, ladies and gentlemen, concludes my thesis.
THANK YOU for reading, and congratulations if you made it all the way through!

The Witty & Wondrous Illustrations of Isol

Today I bring you a collection of amazing illustrations by the wonderful Isol, arguably Argentina’s most famous illustrator of children’s books. Born Marisol Misenta in 1972 in Buenos Aires, she publishes under the moniker Isol, a quirk that serves to make her all the more endearing. Given my historical interest in the children’s literature of Argentina, I decided that since I’ve already studied Argentina’s most famous children’s book author, María Elena Walsh (post forthcoming), it was high time for me to feature the work of that country’s most celebrated illustrator as well.

Isol || photo by LitteraLund

Photo by LitteraLund

Isol looks exactly how I’d picture a children’s book illustrator. She’s short in stature, with cheerful dark eyes and a mischievous grin. Moreover, she’s usually outfitted in colorful clothes, sporting green boots or bright red tights.

Isol || photo by Stefan Tell

Photo by Stefan Tell

Isol burst onto the scene with her first book, Vida de Perros (“Life of Dogs”), in 1997. It’s a lighthearted but clever tale about a boy who wishes his life could be more like his dog’s. The illustrations are typical of Isol’s earliest drawings: brash, colorful, with splashes and scratches that unabashedly stray outside of the lines.

Vida de Perros || Written & Illustrated by Isol

“Clovis and I don’t understand how Mom is so sure about everything. She says NO!” From Vida de Perros, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997

Overall, Vida de Perros was an exciting and extremely promising start for the young illustrator. Isol’s earliest publications laid the foundation for a career that Bookbird editor Roxanne Harde has called “both prolific and notable.” Isol’s books have been published in over twenty countries, including Mexico, the United States, France, Korea, Switzerland, Spain, Argentina, and, most recently, Sweden. Isol has already been nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award not once, not twice, but three times (in 2006, 2008, and 2014), and made history as the first Latin American illustrator to win the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2013. If the Hans Christian Andersen Medal is the most respected prize in children’s literature, then the Astrid Lindgren Award is the biggest. Recipients are awarded 5 million Swedish Krona (nearly $1 million USD) by the Swedish government, and enjoy a whirlwind of literacy and press events. It’s safe to say that Isol’s well-deserved success has been nothing less than phenomenal thus far!

Just as Vida de Perros was exceptionally well-liked, so was Isol’s next book, Un Regalo Sorpresa (“A Surprise Gift”).

Regalo Sorpresa || Written & Illustrated by Isol

“I thought: If they are chocolates they are going to melt! And what if it’s a kitten and it’s hungry?” From Regalo Sorpresa, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1998

In Regalo Sorpresa, a boy finds a box hidden in the closet and is barely able to contain his excitement as he imagines all of the things that could be inside. Again, the illustrations are in Isol’s archetypal style, featuring bold, slightly messy lines and exaggerated proportions.

Although it’s always easy to spot books by Isol, it seems that her work is divided into two basic color palettes: one filled with warm-toned reds, oranges, and brows, and the other full of soft, pastel yellows, greens, and blues. The former palette is typical of much of her “earlier” work from 1997–2004. My favorite book from this set is the incredibly creative Piñatas, in which a boy at a birthday party is too afraid to hit the candy-filled decoration. He ends up going on a sort of Twilight Zone journey into a nether region: The City of Broken Piñatas. His guide, a particularly loquacious piñata, takes him to bizarre after increasingly bizarre location. It turns out that only the brave piñatas that get smashed end up living happily ever after. The unbroken piñatas are doomed to reside, interminably, in the Quiet Sea.

Piñatas || Written & Illustrated by Isol

“This is the Quiet Sea. ‘Are those islands?’ I ask.’ Those are piñatas that were never broken; it is the saddest thing here.'” From Piñatas, Ediciones del Eclipse, 2004

In the end, the boy realizes that not only is it perfectly fine to hit piñatas, but it’s a ton of fun as well!

I sometimes wonder how children’s book authors come up with all of their weird stories. Isol has emphasized the importance of creativity in her work. When she won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, she shared the following sentiments during her acceptance speech:

I don’t actually think that I must put a limit to my imagination just because it’s a book for children, on the contrary! What reader could be more demanding than a child? Children have a lot of things to discover and I’d better be on their high level in order to satisfy their huge capacity for curiosity.

One of the most prominent aspects of Isol’s short yet distinguished career is her frequent collaboration with Argentine poet Jorge Luján. He read her book Cosas que Pasan and was so impressed that he suggested they work together on a a comic book hybrid. Shortly afterwords, volumes one and two of Equis y Zeta (“X and Z”) appeared.

Equis y Zeta, vols 1 and 2 || Illustrations by Isol

Equis y Zeta, Vols. 1-2. Altea, 2001 and 2003, respectively

The next book that Luján and Isol wanted to publish together, Mon Corps et Moi (“My Body and I”) was considered too strange to be successful. It was rejected by several Latin American publishers, and the co-creators had to look toward Europe to find a publisher. Eventually, Éditions du Rouergue agreed to publish the book in French.

Mon Corps et Moi || Illustrations by Isol

Mon Corps et Moi, Éditions du Rouergue, 2003

The entirety of the text in Mon Corps et Moi is a short poem, as follows: “My body and I are not at all alike / It is flabby and elongated / Whereas I can transform myself. / It walks all straight, / Whereas I go right and left.  / It dives into the water / Whereas I take off for Dreamland. /  It puts on wrinkles / Whereas I always remain the same /  My body and I are not alike at all /  But it is the one I prefer / Because it lends me the eyes through which I see.” (Translation as provided by ALIJA, the Argentina National Section of IBBY, in support of Isol’s nomination for the Hans Christian Andersen Award).

Mon Corps et Moi || Illustrations by Isol

from Mon Corps et Moi

The abstract drawings are the perfect complement to the text, which describes a boy’s strange, almost dissociative, relationship with his body. It’s a heady allusion to the classic philosophical dilemma, the Cartesian divide.

The next Isol/Luján co-creation is Ser y Parecer (“To Be and To Seem”), which again considers the divide between perception and reality.

Ser y Parecer || Illustrations by Isol

Ser y Parecer, SM de Ediciones, S.A. 2005

Jorge Luján was once asked why he enjoyed working with Isol. His comments about her work were insightful and revealing:

The German playwright and poet Bertold Brecht wrote that the first duty of theater is to entertain. I think that under Isol’s aesthetics lies a similar saying: Boring books are not allowed! Isol has an enormous capacity to make visible the psychology of the characters. They don’t look all alike, each one has its own personality, intentions, particular moods… Isol’s work recreates children’s thoughts and aims, in a way she reinvents childhood. Reading her books makes us understand that children have a complex and richer universe than those presented in the majority of books addressed to them. (source; emphasis added)

Ser y Parecer || Illustrations by Isol

“(My nose is tiny, and gets lost in my face), but it can smell biscuits from two blocks away!”

The theme of Ser y Parecer is self-discovery, as the narrator ponders the inconsistencies and absurdities in life.

Ser y Parecer || Illustrations by Isol

“If you wanted to get to know me, I would spin around on one foot!”

But my favorite Luján/Isol collaboration is Numeralia, not least because of the lovely, dreamlike illustrations.

Numeralia || Illustrations by Isol

Numeralia, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2007

There is an overabundance of basic, instructional books intended to help children learn how to count, yet Numeralia is certainly one of the best. As Luján writes, El 0 para aprender cómo se para un huevo (Zero is for learning how the egg came to exist).

Numeralia || Illustrations by Isol

from Numeralia

And what better way to teach children both the number eight and the concept of infinity than with a drawing of an hourglass?

Numeralia || Illustrations by Isol

“Eight is for describing how the sand slides through an hourglass”

The books that Isol has both written and illustrated are no less delightful. My two favorites are Secreto de Familia (“The Family Secret”) and El Globo (“The Balloon”) because they are both playfully subversive. In Secreto de Familia, a little girl wakes up and finds her mother in the kitchen. Only, she’s never seen her mother look quite like that before!

Secreto de Familia || Written & Illustrated by Isol

“It was like this: One day I woke up earlier than normal. And there she was, preparing breakfast before the rest of us had woken up.”

Horrified, the girl is convinced that her mother is really a porcupine. And then then girl begins to fear that when she grows up, she’ll become a porcupine, too! Of course, it’s all explained in the end.

El Globo is even more subversive. A young girl has come to dread conversations with her perpetually angry mother. One fateful day, the girl wishes that her mother would turn into a balloon. And she does!

El Globo || Written & Illustrated by Isol

“Her mother turned into a balloon and didn’t shout any more.”

There are two more of Isol’s books that I would like to share with you quickly. As usual, I’ve saved my absolute favorites for last! The first, Aroma de galletas (“Scent of cookies”) was born out of a collaboration with Spanish poet Antonio Fernández Molina. It is filled with witty couplets, amusing poems, strange anecdotes, and, of course, some of Isol’s finest illustrations. In his review of the book, Jacques Vidal-Naquet called it “an exceptional moment of reading that is beyond the ordinary.”

Aroma de galletas || Illustrations by Isol

And, finally, the best for last. I’ve seen many bloggers and writers declare that they like Isol’s illustrations for El Cuento de Auggie Wren (“Auggie Wren’s Christmas Tale”) the most. I confess that I have always been a huge fan of collage-style illustrations, not least because I imagine they must take a huge amount of time to create!

El Cuento de Auggie Wren || Illustrations by Isol

I will further confess that I didn’t bother to read the book in Spanish. But that’s ok — turns out that the story was originally published in English, and is available online here. It’s a funny little tale about photography, blindness, and Christmas, but Isol’s illustrations lend credibility to its absurdity.

El Cuento de Auggie Wren || Illustrations by Isol

El Cuento de Auggie Wren || Illustrations by Isol

El Cuento de Auggie Wren || Illustrations by Isol

There were two other books that I wanted to feature but was unable to. Luckily, both are available online elsewhere. The illustrations for the charming Tener un patito es útil (“It’s useful to have a duck”) can be viewed here, and some of the drawings from Nocturno: Dream Recipes are available on the Imaginaria website (scroll to bottom of page).

Finally, I am extremely pleased to report that no fewer than SIX of Isol’s books are available in English, all through Groundwood Books. You can purchase Beautiful Griselda, Doggy Slippers, It’s Useful to Have a Duck, Nocturne, Numeralia, and Petit, the Monster from the House of Anansi website, here.

In addition, if you live in the Chicago area, several of Isol’s books are available at the newly-opened independent bookstore Bookends & Beginnings, including Petit, the Monster and Numeralia in English, as well as “It’s Useful to Have a Duck” in Swedish and Spanish. More information on their Facebook page.

Isol is apparently already working on her next book. She is married with a baby, and has said that the theme of her next story is simply “babies.” She remarked that “It’s the oldest story in the world, but the newest one for me, and this is how I’m telling it, from this marveled and dazzled strangeness.” I am sure it will be a treat!

For more of my features on children’s literature, including a thorough review of Hans Christian Andersen award-winner Roger Mello, please click the “Children’s Literature” link in the right sidebar.


[1] Archives of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award blog, March 2013–February 2014. In particular, I referred to the following posts:
Boring Books are Not Allowed!
Isol in Sweden for Litteralund
The Award Week Begins
A Chat with Isol

[2] Leonard S. Marcus. “Northward Bound: The Picture Book Art of Isol.” The Horn Book. 13 November 2013. Persistent URL.

[3] Roxanne Harde. “Isol: Argentina, Illustrator.” Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature. Vol. 52, No. 2, April 2014. Persistent URL.

[4] Isol’s Author Page on Imaginaria, an online Argentine children’s literature magazine.

[5] Jacques Vidal-Naquet. “Lire en V. O., Livres Pour la Jeunesse en Espagnol.” La Joi Par Les Livres, IBBY France, Paris, November 2002. Translated to English by IBBY Argentina.

[6] The official announcement on the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award website.

[7] Isol’s Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Acceptance speech, available on YouTube.