Sunday, July 24, 2016

Isn't Pig Won't Naughty?
by Richard Scarry

My brain hurts.

Isn’t Pig Won’t Naughty?

How can I answer when I don't even understand the question.

Last time I saw contractions this close together, Heidi was about to pop out.

I know the words, but together they make about as much sense as a bad translation. Or the phrase “humorous Adam Sandler movie”.

I feel as bewildered as the Springfield Elementary students when Principal Skinner tells them to “stand down”.

Isn’t Pig Won’t Naughty?

To be fair to one of the most beloved names in children’s picture books, this was not actually written by Richard Scarry. Or else it was a hell of an achievement, because he’d been dead for 16 years when it was published in 2010. I'll have to do Scarry justice and review an original at some point.

The Richard Scarry Corporation produced this, one in a set of board books designed for real littlies like Heidi. She loves to sit and turn the pages and although she’s getting strong, she can’t possibly rip them. So there’s that to be said for Isn’t Pig Won’t Naughty?

And there is also this: the title got me to read the book. (Oh yeah, and, um, Heidi too). I had to work out what the hell was going on.

It turns out it’s the story of two brothers named Pig Will and Pig Won’t. Why don’t they share a surname? I dunno, I guess they’re like Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez.

Pig Will is the good brother, like Emilio, and says "I will" to everything his parents ask, including putting on a hat when he plays in the snow. Pig Won’t is a bit of a dick and says "I won't" to everything, and ends up with white powder all over his face and nose. Like Charlie.

As a result, he catches a cold and learns his lesson. So, in the end ...

Though it's Pig Won't's wont to say "won't" and Pig Will's will to say "will", Pig Won't says he won't say "won't" anymore. Like Pig Will, Pig Won’t will say “will”, and won't say “won’t”. Pig Will will will Pig Won't on, but then Pig Won't won't be Pig Won’t anymore, will he? He’ll be Pig Will too, won't he? Pig Won't will just need to be willing, or else he won't succeed, will he?

Next time I think I’ll choose something easier to understand. Ulysses, maybe.

Monday, July 18, 2016

by Graeme Base

I always knew Graeme Base was good, but it was a touch of divine inspiration that really made me praise him. Tucked away in the bottom right corner of Animalia’s D page, just below a dachshund, you can see the corner of a piece of paper. Most of it runs off the page, but you can read “1 Thou shalt have no”. Clearly it’s the beginning of the Ten Commandments. Why is it on the D page? Because the Ten Commandments are also known as the Decalogue.

Disappointed as I was that baby Heidi failed to appreciate this nuance – she didn’t seem to pick the dodecahedron either, but then Maggie Simpson struggled with that one too – I had to admire Graeme Base. It is so rare to find a picture book that has something for everyone, but he achieves it. On that page alone, little kids can point to a dog or a dragon, older children can pick out dynamite or Doctor Who, and adults can feel smug at identifying the hard stuff.

Like the Decalogue. Or the crab (decapod, get it?). Or the inscription of 6th June, 1944 (D-Day, you with me?). Or the framed picture of a man looking nervously up at a sword hovering above his head. Alphabet books are a dime a dozen – hey, this D game is easy – but usually this page would feature a dog or a duck, or another dull cliché. But a depiction of Damocles in an alphabet book for kids? Now you’ve got my vote.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. As a kid, I spent hour upon hour poring over another Base classic, The Eleventh Hour. Even after I knew whodunit I was still searching for the rest of the hidden clues that pointed to the culprit who ate all the food for Horace the Elephant’s birthday party. It’s possible that Graeme Base contributed more to my lifelong love of crime and mystery novels than any other author. He himself was inspired by Agatha Christie.

The Eleventh Hour was full of puzzles, codes, hints, riddles, poetry and games, all wrapped up in the guise of a children’s book. And there was even a cricket match. What was not to love? Most of all, it was a work of art, like all of Graeme Base’s books. To call him merely an author is a bit like calling Paul McCartney just a singer. True, his words brilliantly add to the atmosphere, but his trademarks are those rich, dense, colourful illustrations.

So much time goes into them. Years, in some cases. In fact, you know what else he could have drawn on Animalia’s D page? Daniel Day-Lewis, an artist of similarly complete immersion. Typically, several years pass between Daniel Day-Lewis roles, because he chooses carefully and researches thoroughly. That’s how I think of Graeme Base. He might only release one book every three or four years, but it will always be quality. (Enid Blyton spat out 33 books in 1949 alone, just saying).

Animalia was first published in 1986, three years before The Eleventh Hour. But I spent far less time with Animalia as a kid, mostly because we didn’t own a copy. I recall it from school, or borrowing it from the library, but I remembered only the essence of the book, not the detail. And what detail there is. Each page has a few alliterative words to describe the illustration – “Diabolical dragons daintily devouring delicious delicacies” – but there is so much more to the pictures.

In his introductory poem, Base challenges the reader:

“For many things are ‘of a kind’
And those with keenest eyes will find
A thousand things, or maybe more –
It’s up to you to keep the score”

I haven’t counted, but a thousand wouldn’t surprise me. And on every page, there is something for everyone. Including a hidden picture of the author himself as a boy – it’s like a Where’s Wally in a book that’s already full of challenges. Kids can turn browsing Animalia into a competition. Who can identify the most things? And with references from mythology, mathematics, music, and minutiae of all kinds, it is a trivia lover’s dream.

There is barely a blank space in Animalia. I flashed back to Mr Scally’s classic time-filler during art class when I was in Prep. When we were drawing, he told us we could leave no white space at all. I used to use my yellow crayon to colour in any blank space behind my house or tree or whatever, and said I was drawing "air". If only I’d had Graeme Base’s imagination. And talent.

I read an interview with Base in which he described his love of problem solving. How am I going to create this picture so it is appealing but also conveys this information? He does so by providing illustrations that are truly luxurious, giving more bang for your buck than almost any other author. You can come back to Animalia time after time after time and always spot something new.

His approach to “X” is particularly praiseworthy. Xylophones are the ultimate cliché in children’s alphabet books. You won’t find one in Animalia; it is so conspicuously absent that it seems as though Base decided a xylophone was too easy (though there is a glockenspiel on the G page). Instead you will find the semaphore and sign language symbols for X, and the words – “Rex Fox Fixing Six Saxophones” – are ingeniously depicted in a mirror so the X comes first.

As an aside, Base in the same interview also described his own inquisitive nature. This quote did not surprise me at all, given his obvious attention to detail:

“If the toaster breaks here, I don’t buy another toaster; I take it apart and find out what’s wrong with it. How can I fix it? It’s not being cheap. It’s just wanting to know. I think I have an enquiring mind.”

He said his ideal dinner party guests would be Bill Bryson, Stephen Hawking, and someone else whose name escapes me but who apparently was dead in any case. Bill Bryson is my all-time favourite writer, Stephen Hawking the world’s finest brain, and Graeme Base in a league of his own as a children’s author and illustrator. Can I please have the fourth place at that table?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

by Don Freeman

Recently, I was rummaging through the picture story books at my parents’ house, looking for nostalgic reads to share with Heidi. Some I was actively seeking: the Berenstain Bears, a few Shirley Hughes classics, some Little Golden Books. Some I had completely forgotten, books I hadn’t thought about in 30 years. One of those was Corduroy.

As soon as I saw the cover, it all came flooding back. The little teddy bear locked in a department store overnight, trying to pull his missing ‘button’ off a mattress. The security guard who finds him and takes him back down the escalator to the toy section. And the little girl who saves up money in her piggy bank to buy Corduroy the Bear.

But there was one thing that I didn’t remember, something I only noticed upon rereading the book for the first time in three decades: Lisa, the little girl who buys Corduroy the Bear, is black. And I realised that there was a very good reason I didn’t recall this: because I never noticed in the first place. When I was four, five, six years old, Lisa wasn’t a black kid. She was just a kid.

And it made me think about children and parenthood. When it comes to knowledge and values, babies are blank slates. Nobody is born with built-in notions of race or religion, of superiority or inferiority, of similarity or difference. Watch the way babies or toddlers interact. They don’t know if their little friend is a different race unless their parents tell them.

This is of course all very obvious, but given recent world events it is worth reflecting that everything we know and believe is learnt. We learn from our parents, from our friends, from the world around us, from TV, from books. Some picture books teach equality in a beautiful way – Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox was one such example we read recently.

Others, like Corduroy, do so more subtly. I’m not even sure if the author-illustrator Don Freeman, who was white, meant for his book to be anything other than an adorable story. But there are messages in its pages.

When Lisa first sees Corduroy in the store and looks into his bright eyes, she wants to buy him. Her mother is dismissive: “He doesn’t look new. He’s lost the button to one of his shoulder straps”. Note that it was only the adult in the situation who ascribed a negative connotation to his appearance. Poor, innocent Corduroy didn’t know he’d lost his button. Neither did Lisa.

It is worth noting that Corduroy was written in the USA in the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination (1968), and that for young African-American readers it provided valuable positive reinforcement. Consider this excerpt from a Goodreads reader review:

It was the first book I ever read that had a lead character that looked like me. (And no, I don't mean the bear.) The little Black girl ... was well groomed and cared for, and SO nice. People out there who've always had characters in books and magazines who look like them won't 'get it'. The significance will be lost on them I fear. But it's instances like that that help establish a child's self-esteem and community worth.

None of this would mean much if Corduroy was a run-of-the-mill story, read once or twice and tossed aside. It is certainly not that. In our house it was well-loved and well-worn. Not just in our house. The New York Public Library, the National Education Association, the School Library Journal, they all have Corduroy in their respective lists of the top 100 children’s books of all time.

What is it about that little bear and his story that is so adorable? The green overalls, the expressive face, the innocence of the great big world around him – he’s just like a toddler. And the premise plays to a sense of child-like adventure. I know I wasn’t the only kid to dream of the freedom that would come with being in a big store overnight.

There are so many memorable pages imprinted on my mind: Corduroy stepping tentatively onto the escalator. Corduroy trying to pull a button off a mattress because he thought it belonged to his overalls. The nightwatchman searching with his flashlight. And my favourite: the white pillow and sheets with only Corduroy’s tiny, fuzzy ears sticking up to reveal his hiding place.

It is at turns charming, sad, sweet and tender. At its core is the notion of innocence. Corduroy thinks the escalator is a mountain, the furnishings department is a palace. He sees something small and round on a mattress and assumes it must be his missing button. When Lisa takes him home, there is a little Corduroy-sized bed next to her own, just waiting for him. “This must be a home,” he says. “I know I’ve always wanted a home”

Rereading it nearly 50 years after publication, Corduroy is also a window into an era. Just look at the styles seen in the department store: the saleslady’s beehive hairdo and cat’s eye glasses, the classy hat and coat combination worn by Lisa’s mother, the 1960s lamps in the bedding emporium. Some older books don’t stand the test of time, but Corduroy deserves to be a retro classic.

Part of that is due to the pictures, which are pieces of art that would not look out of place framed on a nursery wall. The use of bright colours for the busy department store during the day, the limited palette at night, the way every character’s eyes tell a story. Freeman was 60 when he produced Corduroy, and it was the result of a lifetime of observing the human character.

As a young man he made money playing trumpet in a dance band, working at nightclubs and weddings. He used to wander the streets of New York City with his sketch pads, recording the sights and characters of the city. One night he lost his trumpet on the subway, and decided to make a living from his artwork instead. Broadway and circus performers were frequent subjects.

He died in 1978, ten years after Corduroy was released. Freeman wrote and illustrated something like 20 children’s books, including a sequel called A Pocket for Corduroy. That title rings a bell; I think I must have read it as a kid as well. Perhaps I’ll stumble across it one day. For now, I’m so glad I rediscovered the original.