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.

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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).  

 

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!

A Marvelous South African YA Novel: ‘Dreaming of Light’ by Jayne Bauling

You’re probably tired of hearing me mention that I spent 2 months in South Africa in 2011. Well anyway, I did, and I have a lingering infatuation with the country. So when I spotted the little paperback Dreaming of Light among the pile of IBBY 2014 Honour List books, I knew instinctively that I was going to have to read it. And I am so, so glad that I did.

Dreaming of Light by Jayne Bauling

Dreaming of Light is a mere 111 pages, but it’s richer than some novels twice or even three times that length. When I was nearly finished with the book, I read the brief author bio pasted within the front cover and was completely unsurprised to learn that Jayne Bauling is a well-known poet. The prose in Dreaming of Light is so simple, light, and beautiful that I knew no one except a poet could have spun those gossamer phrases. Fitting, then, that it was included on the 2014 IBBY Honour List for the quality of its writing.

Mostly I think about light, especially the sun’s light, but also all the other sorts of light there are. The light you get when you’re up there and outside at night — the white brightness from a big moon, or the thin smile of light when it still has to grow. The bristly points of light from stars, whole masses of them clustered close together, growing into a swirling spill like milk dropped in water. (p. 16)

The novel is narrated by an 18-year-old boy, a foreign zama zama from Swaziland (that itty, bitty, country just to the right of South Africa that people always seem to forget exists). Like the other illegal immigrants from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho, as well as desperately poor South Africans eager for any work they can find, Regile Dlamini is more or less a slave, a disposable zama zama, known only by that derogative Zulu term used to describe the unfortunate men and boys who toil below the Earth’s surface in previously shuttered mines.

It troubles me when people make noise underground. These rock tunnels have their own sounds, the creaks and groans as troubling as explosions or the roar of rockfall. I imagine men’s noise competing against the earth’s voice, and the earth resenting it, and shifting to punish us. (p. 24)

When I started this book, I assumed that it was set 40, 50, even 60 years ago during South Africa’s mining boom. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It seems that illegal mining has been on the rise in South Africa as recently as the past few years. An article in Bloomberg describes how an estimated 14,000 workers spend months at a time below the Earth’s surface, working to extract ever-more-difficult-to-find gold in mines that were long ago declared too dangerous to work in. This criminal industry generates $6 billion Rand a year, which explains why people are willing to break through the thick slabs of concrete covering mine entrances, force young men and boys recruited illegally from neighboring countries down into the shafts, and refuse to let them re-surface until months afterwards. As you can imagine, many of the workers die from being forced to live underground for weeks, either from exhaustion, poor nutrition, tunnel collapses, or carbon monoxide poisoning.

A substantial percentage of the workers toiling in the mines are children. Bauling’s conflicted hero Regile Dlamini is only 18, yet he has hardened far beyond his years. It is only with the arrival of a hopeful Mozambican boy, Taiba Nhaca, and his small friend, Aires, that the last traces of humanity are awakened within Regile.

Taiba waxes lyrical about the legendary Spike Maphosa, a former South African zama zama who allegedly escaped from the mine in which he was forced to work. Now Spike spends his time working to liberate other children from the same fate. Regile no longer believes that Spike Maphosa exists; indeed, neither do any of the other boys in the mine — except for Taiba. Eventually, Taibi wears through Regile’s tough exterior, reawakening the small kernel of kindness lodged deep within Regile’s largely hopeless existence.

Bauling has remarked that although her YA novels are quite dark, she suspects that they are helpful for children and teenagers facing many of the challenges discussed in her books:

I think teens want and possibly need to read about people their own age facing the same challenges as they do. It’s a way of knowing they’re not alone, and while my stories can be quite dark, I believe they also offer a spark of hope. (source: interview from For Books’ Sake)

The plot of Dreaming of Light might seem farfetched, exaggerated, blown out of proportion, but sadly it isn’t at all. It’s hard to imagine that level of desperation and greed unless you’ve seen it yourself — not that I really have; I’ve just come closer to observing it than some people, I suppose. One would think that by 2014, child trafficking for illegal and often fatal mine work wouldn’t be happening in South Africa, but it is. And perhaps most tragically, there doesn’t seem to be much compassion toward the illegal immigrants who flee even worse economic conditions in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, and elsewhere for a chance at something like prosperity in the relative powerhouse that is South Africa. Just have a look at some of those comments on the Bloomberg article. Racism and xenophobia, that. I remember that when I was in South Africa, people always warned me to be on the lookout for “dangerous Nigerians,” who were supposedly criminal by nature. (I bumped into one at the beach. He wanted my phone number.)

Back to the book. As I’ve said before, it’s beautifully written. Here are a few more of my favorite passages:

Telling someone things about myself gives me a wrong feeling, as if some other person is using my voice, speaking through my mouth. (p. 14)

As if we aren’t facing enough dangers here, forcing the angry earth to give us its gold. (p. 30)

‘It’s a story like smoke, I think. No one can catch it because there’s nothing there. It changes all the time.’ (p. 31)

Will he have turned mad, lost his mind? Become a creature of the darkness? He must belong to the earth after so long. Maybe he won’t want to come out. Won’t want to leave the mine. (p. 43)

I lie on the mattress and stare up at the sky I haven’t seen for so long. The trails of massed stars look like swirls of foam. (p. 61)

‘His hope is in you, Regile.’ Katekani’s voice drops into such thoughts like the first plop of rain into the dust and the end of the dry season. (p. 95)

I don’t want to give away the ending, but suffice it to say that a few tears may have been shed. I was so relieved on Regile’s behalf; I never wanted him to have to go back down into the mine, ever again.

Dreaming of Light is undoubtedly a dark story, not least because everything that is described in the book is actually happening in South Africa. This is one of those rare cases in which I would advise sticking with the recommended age, 12+. It’s almost universally adored on Goodreads, and it is a quick, simple, moving — and ultimately, hopeful — read. Jayne Bauling has a newfound admirer in me. I hope to read many more of her YA novels, starting with E Eights and Stepping Solo.

Overall rating: 5/5