Hitch Your Wagon to a Star: Recent Children Books
Shaun Tan, Aldous Huxley, Charlie Russell, Diego Rivera
May is the month for commencement speeches where, typically, graduates are encouraged to “Hitch their wagon to a star.” While those words are meant to inspire ambition, I want to hijack that phrase for another purpose because it provides an apt description for a group of children’s books published in 2011–a number of offerings that attach themselves to prior successes.
Lost and Found
By Shaun Tan
Scholastic: $21.99 (hardcover)
Shaun Tan is a genuine star, and I have previously praised his work. Since then, this young Australian artist has gone on to win an Academy Award (for Best Short Animated Film) and the Astrid Lindgren Award (sometimes called the Nobel Prize for Children’s Literature). The wagon that was recently attached to his star is the book “Lost and Found,” a collection of three graphic novels published previously in Australia but not widely known here. Those who liked Tan’s “The Arrival” and “Tales from Outer Suburbia,” young adults and others keen on graphic novels, will love these.
The first, “The Red Tree,” seems an early experiment in Tan’s signature combination of magical realism and art nouveau. While not a picture book, it is still not quite a graphic novel since it lacks an overarching narrative. Instead, this seems a notebook of drawings or, as Tan himself describes them, meditations on a feeling–in this case, alienation and displacement. I am partial to one where a huge trout seems to menacingly float over a downtown.
On the other hand, “The Lost Thing,” the second in the series, does have a coherent narrative; in fact, this is the story that was made into Tan’s Academy-Award-Winning animated short (see below) . It is an account of an “objet trouvé” [a found object], a creature that might have been imagined by Salvador Dali or Hieronymous Bosch, a kind of huge and living metal teapot with worm-like tentacles. Throughout the story, the curious thing is how no one seems to pay much attention to this conspicuous oddity–except for the young boy who takes it home.
John Marsden supplies the words to the final story, “The Rabbits,” which tells about the settling of Australia from the perspective of its indigenous peoples; in mythic language, we are told how the Rabbit People took over a continent already occupied by others. For this legend, Tan provides weird scifi and steampunk drawings that seem to show events as if unfolding before the baffled eyes of the bush people; at the same time, the exotic foreignness of the pictures universalizes this archetypal story of colonization. I’d say it’s my favorite of the three graphic novellas found in “Lost and Found.”
The Crows of Pearblossom
By Aldous Huxley; illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Abram Books: $16.95 (hardcover)
Here, illustrator Sophie Blackall hitches her wagon to a story by a world famous author: Aldous Huxley, the British novelist perhaps best known for his dystopian classic “Brave New World.” Before the outbreak of World War II, Huxley relocated to California’s Mojave Desert where, in 1944, he presented his six-year-old niece Olivia with a children’s story. “The Crows of Pearblossom” relates how Mrs. Crow is troubled by an egg-gobbling rattlesnake who lives at the base of her tree and how her husband and Old Man Owl solve the problem by tricking the serpent. Out of print since it was first published in 1967, the story is now available again thanks to Sophie Blackall and her illustrations: vivid color drawings and amusingly conceived scenes that wonderfully shorten the distance between readers and her in-your-face subjects.
Charlie Russell: Tale-Telling Cowboy Artist
By Lois V. Harris
Pelican Publishing: $16.99 (hardcover)
In this book, Lois V. Harris hitches what I guess is her chuck wagon to the star of Charlie Russell. A cowboy artist, Russell is represented here by a sampling of his recognizable sketches of settlers, Indians, broncos, buffalos, and warriors. Harris attaches a biography to this museum catalog, telling of a young man who came to Montana and stayed. A near dead ringer for Will Rogers, the young Russell earned his keep in the saddle and sketched on the side, but by middle age his reputation for capturing Western Americana was such that he could mosey off the trail to set up a studio in Great Falls and marry. Of course, in accounting for my enthusiasm for this book, I should admit that I have already written about how I am a sucker for cowboy stories and how my grandfather was friends with Charlie Russell.
Diego Rivera: His World and Ours
By Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams Books: $16.95 (hardcover)
For a long time, Latino children’s books seem to have been stuck in a cookie-cutter “folklorico” style. In “Diego Rivera,” Duncan Tonatiuh makes a departure by using well known figures by painter Diego Rivera (where personae from ancient Mayan and Aztec murals were reshaped by Rivera and his modernist sensibility) and then goes them one better by reshaping them once more into figures for children. In his second departure, Tonatiuh then takes scenarios from Rivera’s well known paintings and reimagines them in contemporary times: so, for example, Rivera’s early twentieth-century scene of four factory workers on a production line gets re-envisioned (in visually similar terms) as four kids at computer terminals in a school library. This is twice clever. As its title suggests, the book hitches its wagon to Rivera’s star and offers an homage to the famous Mexican muralist. But this offering goes one step further: It shows that Tonatiuh has brilliance enough to unhitch his wagon and go off on his own.