Slovenian Cats, or, Why Blogging is Amazing

Original Cat Print by Alenka Sottler

A few months ago, I put together a feature on the Slovene children’s book illustrator Alenka Sottler as part of my series on the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Awards. Like the other children’s literature posts that I do from time to time, the feature was well-received and a few people shared the link on Facebook. Nothing much happened for the next several months, until, one day, a notification from WordPress appeared on my phone. I glanced at it hurriedly, saw the name “Alenka Sottler,” and dismissed it as a fluke — it was early in the morning, I needed a strong cup of coffee, and I was, of course, already late for work. When I returned to the comment later in the day, I could scarcely believe it: Alenka Sottler herself had found my blog.

Dear Alina!
First and foremost, I would like to thank you for your interesting comment on illustrators and my work. I read your text… a while ago and I wanted to add a note but it wasn’t until now that I found the time to send you a few words regarding the ‘digital illustration’ in my book The Emperor and the Rose…  It is a book of modern fairy tales through a woman’s perspective and narrated by using old-fashioned language… by the way, the cat that you like so much is a magic animal in the book. He helps a prince to win a princess. If you would want to have a print of this illustration I would gladly send you one, just let me know the address.
Kind regards from your almost a namesake,
Alenka Sottler

I promptly sent her an email thanking her for the kind words and extremely generous offer to send me an original print of the cat, whose named, I learned, was Motz. After a quick email exchange with Alenka’s assistant, the address was confirmed, and the cat print shipped off.

In the meantime, I moved to New Zealand. It had been 8 months since the original blog post, 4 months since Alenka left the comment, and 4 weeks since I had heard from her assistant. Sure enough, though, Motz the magical kitty arrived in Ohio, U.S.A. in late November after a long overseas journey. I asked to be emailed a photo of the print, which is what I posted above. Although I’ll be gallivanting across New Zealand for the foreseeable future, and it may be another year before I see the illustration in person, it hardly diminishes the beauty of the exchange.

Sottler print, side-by-side comparison

I went back to my original post to compare the two images side-by-side. Motz, as he appears in Sottler’s book “The Emperor and the Rose,” (left), has deep and thoughtful brown eyes, is stenciled slightly darker, and has more of a cool, blue-gray tone. In contrast, Motz, as he appears in the print, (right), has subtly sharper eyes, lending him an intelligent and mischievous expression, and is set against a yellow background. It’s fascinating to see that the grid-like pattern originally extended across the entire sheet of paper, and was probably digitally removed in post-processing. It’s an archaeological remnant, a rare clue about Sottler’s illustration technique, that demonstrates visually the process as Sottler described it: “I made illustrations on cotton cloth with tartan pattern used in the sixties by Slovenian housewives for making bed linens. This cloth pattern is very similar to knitting. In addition, digital images of our time are ‘cubic’ as well.” Traces of the old, blended with modern elements, an artistic fusion that provides classic fairytales with a unique subtext.

So, let’s retrace the steps. A library assistant, enamored with a pile of beautifully illustrated children’s books, decides to write about them on her blog. A Slovene artist, hard at work, reads the post while “perched in a wooden cottage situated on the slope of a mountain range.” Compliments are exchanged, a promise is made, and a magical cat delivered halfway across the world. It doesn’t get much lovelier than that.

I dearly hope that I get to meet Alenka Sottler in person at the 2016 IBBY World Congress in Auckland.

Children’s Book Starter Collection

A few months ago, a friend of mine from high school announced on Facebook that she was expecting. Not being accustomed to this kind of event, I sent her a slightly panicky congratulations message and asked if there was anything I could send her as a baby gift. Toys? Clothes? Bottles? No, she was all covered. And then she remembered that I write about children’s literature from time to time here on this blog. I took my assignment very seriously and spent the next few weeks pulling together a set of books that I hoped her kid could appreciate from infancy to his pre-teen years.

Although I feature some downright strange authors and illustrators on this blog, I didn’t want to include any frightening or potentially upsetting books. Instead, I looked for great illustrations, humor, and a sense of timelessness — after all, many of the best children’s books are beloved by many a generation.

#1 – We Love Each Other by Yusuke Yonezu

We Love Each Other cover

We Love Each Other image

My first pick was a simple cardboard cutout book by Japanese illustrator Yusuke Yonezu. Brightly colored animals rendered in geometric shapes end up being each other’s complements — as you turn the pages, the animals appear to hug. It’s delightful, cheerful, and contains subtle spatial cognition lessons. Best of all, the cardboard is durable and the “story” short, making it appropriate for pre-readers.

#2 – The Pigeon Needs a Bath! by Mo Willems

Pigeon needs a bath, cover

Pigeon needs a bath, image

Mo Willems is one of the best and most famous picture book authors out there, and his pigeon series is regarded with acclaim by parents and kids alike. In this version, a dusty pigeon isn’t looking forward to bath time, but of course eventually concedes that bubble baths are lots of fun. The pigeon’s snarky dialogue is both humorous and realistic, mimicking the attitude of kids who hate bath time with a passion.

#3 – Little Bird by Germano Zullo and Albertine

Little Bird, cover

Little Bird, image 2

Out of all of the illustrators I featured as part of my series on the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award, Albertine was by far the “crowd favorite.” Her witty illustrations, rife with color, cheerfully sly humor, and minute detail, enchanted many of the adult readers of my blog. Albertine and her husband Germano Zullo have produced several award-winning books together, and of those available in English, Little Bird was my favorite. It is simultaneously simple and profound, an exquisitely expressed demonstration of the importance of kindness, friendship, and awareness.

#4 – The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

The Dark, cover

The Dark, image 2

Politics and that unfortunate YA series aside, Lemony Snicket (a.k.a., Daniel Handler), in tandem with talented illustrator Jon Klassen, has managed to produce a surprisingly wonderful children’s book. A small boy named Lazlo sometimes finds himself afraid of the dark, but, as it turns out, the dark wants nothing except to be friends with Lazlo. The concept is clever, but it’s really the minimal yet almost velveteen illustrations that make this book special.

#5 – Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers

Lost and Found, cover

Lost and Found, image 2

Lost and Found, image 1

This might be The Most Adorable Picture Book Of All Time. After all, what’s more endearing than a lonely penguin who just wants a friend? This book is the equivalent of a basket of fluffy puppies, a dandelion crown, and a dozen freshly baked blueberry muffins. It could not be any sweeter, any more lovingly illustrated, or have a better message.

#6 – The Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

Wizard of Oz illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

Wizard of Oz, cyclone | illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

Putting together this gift set gave me the excuse I needed to order this incredible book. After seeing it featured on Brain Pickings, hearing that it was tragically out of print, and then magically finding it in stock on Amazon, I was determined to see the fairy-like illustrations in person. I genuinely think that this would make a wonderful gift for just about anyone regardless of age or gender, especially since it contains the full, not abridged, version of L. Frank Baum’s classic text. Just look at these gorgeous, creative, and mystical illustrations. I admit I was sad I had to give this book away!

Wizard of Oz, Tin Man | illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

Wizard of Oz, crows | illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

Wizard of Oz, wizard is common man | illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

Wizard of Oz, witch melting | illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

Wizard of Oz, Dorothy flies home | illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

Feel free to share any other iconic children’s books of which you are aware in the comments section below.

Disclaimer: Please note that the links used above are Amazon affiliate links. This means that if you purchase one of the books after following a link from this site, I will make a small commission. If you are not comfortable with this, simply open another browser window and search for the book on Amazon (or elsewhere).  

 

Three Books about Death for Children

Death is not one of those topics that’s easy to talk about. Luckily, three uber-talented children’s book authors have tackled the subject beautifully & calmly.

For the youngest ones: Death, Duck, and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch
(recommended for ages 7 and under)

Death, Duck, and the Tulip, cover

Although I haven’t read the English edition, I still adore this book. The illustrations are charming, simple, and tender, and from what I can tell, so is the text. The storyline is basic: death befriends a duck, accompanies her throughout life, and eventually mourns her passing.

Death, Duck, and the Tulip, image 4

Although his head is a skull, Death looks childlike and even friendly thanks to his short stature and checkered outfit. He and Duck hold a series of basic philosophical conversations which seem to reassure Duck that Death is the natural complement to life.

Death, Duck, and the Tulip, image 2

I should mention that although Wolf Erlbruch was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 2006 for his lifelong contributions to children’s literature, Death, Duck, and the Tulip, which was published three years later in 2009, is probably his most acclaimed book. Not everyone would consider it a book for children. Guardian writer Meg Rosoff compared Erlbruch’s thematic focus and tone to those of Shaun Tan, a well regarded, but controversial, children’s books author. Personally, the sparse, existential approach to death and life in Erlbruch’s picture book reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot. 

Death, Duck, and the Tulip, image 6

For a more thorough review of Death, Duck, and the Tulip, check out LightLit’s blog.

For the slightly older ones: Can you Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark
(recommended for ages 8-12)

Can You Whistle, Johanna - cover

This book had me crying for a good 15 minutes. It is achingly sad, sweet, and lovely all at the same time. Like many of the best books, it has been received not without controversy outside of its country of origin, Sweden. It deals frankly with the issue of death; in this book, death is not a metaphorical relationship between an animal and an abstraction, but rather affects a young boy profoundly.

Can You Whistle, Johanna - adopting the grandfather

Berra is jealous because his friend Uffe has a grandfather, and he does not. Uffe suggests that Berra could easily “adopt” a grandfather at the nearby senior citizens’ home. This is precisely what they do.

…[W]e both go in and Berra hands [the old man] the flower.
‘There you go, Grandfather,’ he says.
The old man looks first at the flower, and then at Berra. He starts scratching his thin white hair.
‘What?’ he asks, ‘Am I your grandfather?’
‘Yes,’ Berra says with a smile. ‘And now here I am. It sort of hasn’t been possible for me to come see you before.’
The old man gives Berra a hug.
‘Look at how big you’ve gotten!’ he says, and rubs his eyes with his knuckles. ‘How old are you now?’
‘Seven,’ says Berra.
‘Well, I’ll be darned,’ says the old man. ‘Here I was feeling all alone, and then you come along.’

The elderly man, Nils, happily becomes Berra’s grandfather. He flies kites with Berra and Uffe, invites them to drink coffee, and, best of all, teaches Berra how to whistle. The book is complex in that it not only deals with death in a loving and comprehensible way, but also demonstrates that the deepest familial relationships are not necessarily biological. The process of adopting a grandfather may seem simple, but it’s actually quite profound: both Berra and Nils were in need of a specific kind of fulfillment, and they selected the familial equivalent to describe their intergenerational friendship.

Predictably, Nils grows increasingly senile and finds it difficult to complete everyday tasks. His appreciation of and affection for Berra never wanes, though.

Can You Whistle, Johanna - grandfather's birthday

When the ending inevitably arrives, Berra is crushed. But he is nonetheless enriched by the experience of getting to know his not-so-pretend grandfather. The ultimate lesson is less about how to cope with death, and more about the realization that the more a person is mourned, the greater an effect they had on their loved ones while they were alive.

For the even older ones: Harvey: How I Became Invisible by Hervé Bouchard and Janice Nadeau
(recommended for ages 11+)

Harvey by Herve Bouchard and Janice Nadeau

A slow, bleak zooming in, moving from gray, snow-swept landscape to a huddle of small houses, a dusty car, a small boy on a bike. So begins Harvey, narrated, in diary-like form, by a boy of the same name. We are briefly introduced to Harvey’s brother, Cantin, with whom Harvey has a resentful relationship — Cantin is young, but significantly taller, and Harvey hates being small. Harvey’s mother, on the other hand, has an antagonistic relationship with the weather and a fondness for damning everything.

Harvey - bike

“But this time of first spring is also the time for the races in the gutters. And it’s also the time when Cantin and I lost our Father Bouillon. And it’s the time when I became invisible. So there are lots of things to tell.”

Harvey recounts his father’s death with a soft sadness, a lonely detachment, almost as though he is watching himself move through the events instead of being present to witness them. The somber illustrations, cast in a muted color palette of browns, light blues, and ochre, underline the sorrowful text, as does the shape of the text itself. The handwriting is deliberately neat, in all caps, with occasional eraser marks that show how Harvey struggled to tell the story. A bell-shaped priest offers little comfort; all of the neighbors shamefully watch as Harvey’s father is rolled away in an ambulance.

Harvey - ambulance

The illustrations almost seem like they are fading away before your eyes, much like Harvey’s happiness. Their house is no longer a house, but a black box in which the three unhappy residents — mother, Harvey, and brother — are doomed to wait out their sorrow. Harvey further conveys his hopelessness through a retelling of the film The Incredible Shrinking Man. Just as Scott Carey shrinks in the movie, so does Harvey’s sense of self shrink in the face of the tragedy. While attending his father’s wake, Harvey disappears within the pain. Late at night, the memory of his past life keeps Harvey awake.

Harvey - bed

Is this an uplifting book? No. But it’s very simple. And sometimes, when talking about something as empty as death, simple is all that you can deal with. The book doesn’t end on a false note of happiness, nor does it suggest that happiness is the natural state to which Harvey should return. Instead, the story ends in the middle of Harvey’s sadness, a powerful argument for the utility of mourning. Furthermore, the book is completely devoid of condescension, a quality that, by itself, marks it as a work of quiet dignity, a seemingly private story to which even I could relate.

Full biographical details:

Ages 7 and under: Death, Duck, and the Tulip written and illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch. Translated from the German by Catherine Chidgey. Available in English from Gecko Press

Ages 8-12: Can You Whistle, Johanna? written by Ulf Stark and illustrated by Anna Höglund. Translated from the Swedish by Julia Marshall. Available in English from Gecko Press.

Ages 11 and up: Harvey: How I Became Invisible written by Hervé Bouchard and illustrated by Janice Nadeau. Translated from the French by Helen Mixter. Available in English from Groundwood Books.

 

 

Published in Bookbird!

Bookbird

Work on this article began nearly three years ago, in September 2011, when I was starting my junior year in college. Craziness! The research/publishing cycle really does take as long as they say.

I’ve alluded to this article on my “About” page, and it’s still hard to believe that it’s finally here. I like to think that since Bookbird is one of the top international children’s literature journals (it really is; there aren’t that many of them!), that my inclusion in the magazine legitimizes all of those children’s literature posts I like to do. See? I’m not just some random person on the Internet posting stuff about children’s literature left & right. I’m a real, published (article) author!

Article in Bookbird

The article, which is around 3,500 words long if I remember correctly, is entitled “María Elena Walsh and the Art of Subversive Children’s Literature.” In the essay, I argue that Walsh, probably the most famous of all of Argentina’s children’s book authors, was a Lewis Carroll figure in her home country. Her subversive books for children challenged all sorts of societal norms and undermined the dictatorial government.

To be honest, I haven’t read my article since I submitted the final version back in September last year (!!), so I’m not sure whether I would be embarrassed by it at this point. I hope not. I remember thinking that I had some good analysis in there, particularly towards the ending!

Article in Bookbird

Writing the article was a challenge, but a welcome one. My mentor, Jeff, encouraged me from the very beginning of my research project to consider submitting an article to a scholarly journal. I’m not sure if he actually expected it to happen (it’s quite rare for undergraduates, especially those outside of the sciences, to get published!), but I took his word for it. And may I just say that most professors don’t give their students/research assistants enough credit. I was very lucky to find a mentor who took me even more seriously than I took myself!

My research on María Elena took me to the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany, and to Buenos Aires itself — Walsh’s home city. Perhaps even more important than those fabulous trips was the permanent installation of a lifelong appreciation for children’s literature. It’s one of those genres/subjects that people tend to overlook or consider worthless. All I can say is that much of the artwork in picture books, and much of the writing in children’s/YA books, far exceeds the pithy offerings churned out for adults.

Unfortunately, the article isn’t open access just yet. You can download the PDF from Project Muse if you have access via your institution. If you can’t download the PDF, however, just contact me and I’ll see what I can do. I also have an extremely lengthy bibliography on Walsh that I compiled for my senior honor’s thesis. It’s a bit of a researcher’s bonanza, if I’m being honest!

In addition, if any of you are curious to hear more about the details involved in researching, writing, and submitting an article for publication, let me know and I’ll see if I can’t whip something up.

As for this blog, I’ve got a couple of very good children’s literature posts coming up soon, if I do say so myself!