Saturday, November 8, 2008

come on now, new york times

In their Children's Books special issue for the fall, the New York Times has a slide show of the top 10 illustrations from picture books of the year. Excited to see some stunning imagery, I clicked on the slide show...

...only to be met with kinda crappy photos of open books where you can hardly see the pictures.

It looks like somebody just laid the books down on a black tablecloth and took a picture of them, not caring that some kind of light is reflecting off the glossy paper and making it impossible to see what the illustrations look like.

Really, New York Times? That is the best you can do?

So I guess if we want to know which are really the best illlustrations from this year, we will have to go out and look at the books ourselves.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

the charming, delightful, mysterious benedict society

When was the last time you found a book to be not just good or engrossing but actually charming?

I found Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society beguiled my socks off. And how did it do this?

Let's see...with secret agents, morse code, trickery, puzzlery, mysterious heroes, plucky orphans, villains with totalitarian ambitions, and just about every other awesome thing you could imagine...including rare plants!

The illustrations by Carson Ellis really bump this one up a notch: She only does chapter title pages in the book, not full-page illustrations, but close enough, so that the chapter titles illustrate scenes from each chapter. Her whimsical, detailed style really fits the whimsical, detailed prose.

We can only hope that as companies tighten their publishing budgets, they won't cut illustrating budgets for books such as this one, which really deserve them.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

in which the poetry show soothes my aching heart

While I wait for my next installment of Twilight to come, I have to find some way to entertain myself online a little more riveting than watching my SPL holds page. Fortunately The Poetry Show has stepped in to fill this gap.

Embedding these little videos in this blog is beyond my technical skill, but I urge you to watch and let

Langston Hughes

Gertrude Stein

Federico García Lorca

fill your heart with joy.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Tasha Tudor, Psalms and Corgis--Oh My!

Well folkses, I forgot to mention (blown away by Owl's loving portrayal of Tasha Tudor) that I came across a little Tudor treasure at a Fourth of July fair in Nashville, Indiana, right before Owl betook herself from the Wolery and I stalked out of the Emerald City for Onion Town. What did I chance to behold but a first edition of Tasha Tudor's illustrated The Lord Is My Shepherd, the twenty third psalm, published by Philomel in 1980. And...Tudor had signed the book and sketched a little coterie of corgis sitting around in a circle! In Tudor's depiction of the famous psalm, a little girl moves through a country landscape accompanied by her faithful corgi. One little weirdness: at one point in "the valley of the shadow of death," girl and dog walk through a ramshackle cemetery, and what has Tudor done? She's placed her headstone, engraved with "T. Tudor" and artfully obscured dates, alongside the path! Wooo! Just in time for Halloween, folkses. The best part of this bargain: the book was priced at $15.00 and the seller described it to me as "cute" and was surprised when I recognized the illustrator. He didn't know what he had, and what with him being a dealer, I didn't enlighten him. Reader, I bought it, and may rejoice a little over my find, even from Onion Town.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Twilight, part deux

So Owl is quite right that her transparent colleague might like to weigh in on the vampire phenomenon. Ever since Stephenie Meyer's tastefully designed books started popping up in airport kiosks and the grocery aisle, the vampire novel for teenyboppers has been growing its ranks with cheaper versions of same, even hauling oldies out of retirement for a new audience. I'm thinking specifically of L.J. Smith's cult series favorites, The Vampire Diaries and The Secret Circle (a coven of teen witches in New Salem), favorites of mine from kittenhood newly re-released with less trashy covers, more convenient for reading on public transportation. If you're anything like I, sometimes you feel ashamed of what the whooping-cough woman in the shiny gold ball cap thinks of your taste in literature.

But what, you ask, is so appealing about Meyer's books, besides the obvious Dateline answers (Bella's the average teenage girl with no money, no fancy clothes, totally within reach of her readership, and yet she lands a beautiful boy who happens to be a real (rich) gentleman)? I'll tell you--Twilight's Bella Cullen nee Swan is a poor imitation, but I think a legitimate descendant, of Jane Eyre. And by this I mean: This is NOT a remake, folks, just a few parallels in terms of appeal. I have included, for your dining pleasure, a cover of the great Bronte novel, featuring the portrait of Miss Charlotte herself. The comparisons between author and character have been discussed by those smarter than your favorite talking feline, but look at those eyes! Don't they snap!

In Jane Eyre we get a Gothic novel that's actually literature and not mere sensational drivel,* with our "plain Jane" first person narrator who knows she can't be a real temptation to the man of her dreams. In both books the male leads are conveniently named Edward, though Jane fans will immediately go to Edward Fairfax's surname and title, Rochester, for their hero. Another key criterion: both men have one big deal-breaker secret. Anywho, here's poor little Jane Eyre: short, a governess, the lowest form of female life in a Gothic romance after the toothless washerwoman, and then there's Bella Swan, clumsy as a drunk, whiny as a toddler, a decent cook, and average across the board without siblings or real parental figures, unless you count her excruciatingly dim dad and mother. Also, Bella and Jane are both brunettes. Shocker.

How could that appeal? If Jane's not pretty, and Bella's nothing special, they must be smart, right? Or at least driven by the strength of their convictions.

Twilight's a bit iffy on the literature category (as my friend Owl put it) Since Edward Cullen is a vampire, and cute to boot, he can have his pick of the litter, but he initially wants Bella because...she smells really good. Like a lavender-honey duck breast, or mussels in curried french fries. Like, real good. Rochester picks Jane because she's the physical antithesis of his tall dark secret--a crazy wife in the attic, big as a grizzly bear--and because Jane's got smarts, spirit, and a very small wardrobe. He likes that she doesn't like expensive presents.

The real trick with the "I" narrator is figuring out how well our heroines recognize their own beauties and deficiencies. When she looks in the mirror, Jane sees, in the words of Daniel Plainview, Oil Man, "nothing worth liking." She's realistic about her physical appearance to the point of self-insult. We know she can't be beautiful, or she'd hear about it from her friends. They remain silent on this point. It's Rochester who loves her sane steadiness, her neat hair, her slight figure. Edward Cullen also enjoys Bella's truculent low opinion of herself, though he believes she is beautiful. Bella doesn't like presents either, but in a much more annoying way than Jane, who refuses on grounds of absurdity. Dressing Jane up would be ridiculous because of her plainness, her poverty, and would suggest that our heroine doesn't know her place in society. Bella protests gifts because she likes to ruin other people's fun. I guess. Meyer never really goes into this part of Bella's disposition. Edward likes that Bella's not showy, which he takes for modesty, and that she's not scared of his rock-like, no dent, chilly physique (pure, snuggly alabaster, ladies). Rochester, as we know, is a name linguistically rooted in 'rock', and Bronte's description of him draws out all the harsh and unflattering lines jagged rocks are famous for before they hit the rock polisher. Jane repeatedly tells Rochester the truth of his looks (not flattering) and his behavior (too fond and forward), despite her position as his employee. Edward is a polished stone--Rochester remains in the rough all his life, and even gets rougher.

More to come on the unwinding Eyre/Swan theory (or not--yawn).

* The Glass Cat loves sensational drivel in, you know, its place.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

the twilight mystique: part 1

What a long strange summer it’s been. Having forsaken my cozy Wolery for a new perch in the Emerald City (which, as anyone will tell you, is no place for owls) I’m once again able to turn my predator’s eye to the field of children’s literature. And what have I found?

Turns out owls can’t hold a candle to everyone’s favorite nocturnal predator, the Vampire. Unlike owls, Vampires are further than ever from the endangered species list. And Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series is on the forefront of this trend. I’ve only read one and a half books in the series, and on the prose level, Meyer is no J. K. Rowling, though she spins a good tale. So why are her books so popular?

To be honest, I’m just not that into vampires. I’ll leave it to the Glass Cat to explain why they’re so awesome.

But as soon as I started into Twilight, I got all excited about one part of the book—not normally what catches my eye in a teen romance—the setting.

See, it turns out I passed through Forks, Washington—Twilight heroine Bella Swan’s hometown—just a couple weeks ago, on my way to go backpacking in the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park. Forks is truly remote. It’s hours from anywhere, and the trees, where they haven’t been cut down, are absolutely enormous. Some of those trees 500 years old, older than Dracula, maybe even older than the idea of vampires.

As I was hiking along the Hoh river trail, before I had read any of the Twilight books, before I knew they were set in Washington, I kept thinking “This is the kind of forest that would make you believe in magic. This is the kind of forest where a witch could pop out from behind a tree.”

An old-growth forest is totally different from a forest that got logged a hundred years ago. There are more spaces between the trees, more clearings, more variety. And when you stand among those trees, give you the feeling of how puny and small you are as a human (see above photo), which is exactly the feeling Bella gets when hanging around with Edward Cullen.

Maybe part of the reason these books are popular is the same reason I went backpacking—a desire to experience something mysterious and ancient—whether it’s an unimaginably old forest or a hot makeout session with your undead boyfriend. When Bella kisses Edward’s undead lips, she’s kissing something that existed before she was born, in a time she couldn’t imagine. And when I leaned against the trunk of a 500-year-old Sitka spruce, I touched something that was alive before any of my ancestors came to this country. Something older than I can imagine.

There’s other elements of the book that seem nostalgic to me, too, but I’ll get to that later.

This theory is slightly ruined by the fact that Stephenie Meyer hadn’t been to Forks when she wrote Twilight. She just picked Forks by googling the rainiest place in America.

If you go out to Forks, you can take a Twilight tour, where fans have mapped the fictional story onto the real landscape. The Seattle Times has a great story about it here. If I went back out to Forks now, I’d see it with totally different eyes.

And one postscript: Bella Cullen sounds a lot like Bella Coola, a mythical and remote town in British Columbia, where, according to friends who used to live there, there are lots of grizzly bears. Bet some vampires live there, too.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

book covers: sometimes new is good, too

I recently fell in love at first sight with the redesigned Puffin Classics series. The Book Design Review noted them back in March, but they're being promoted as summer reading, which I think is sharp. Who wouldn't want to carry this copy of The Secret Garden to the pool? It's the perfect swimsuit accessory.

Also, these books are priced at $4.99. Why children's lit should be cheaper than grown-up lit, I can't imagine. But the price is right.

I wish the designer who did these would redesign some grown-up classics. I have faith he/she could even entice me to read Moby-Dick.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Tasha Tudor: It is healthful to sleep in a featherbed with your nose pointing north

Today we mourn the death of Tasha Tudor, an amazing illustrator who illustrated over 100 books, according to her New York Times obituary. The obit also has more on her unconventional, original life; the title of this post is advice she gave to the Times in 1977.

Aside from her classic illustrations for The Secret Garden, one of my favorites is A Brighter Garden, poems of Emily Dickinson with lush, green illustrations by Tudor. Who could ask for a better author/illustrator combo?

Although I have to say I'd love to see Maurice Sendak take a crack at Dickinson.

And, she's not a children's writer, but we also mourn the death of wonderful poet Aleda Shirley.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Robert McCloskey: New England Dreamin' (for Mom)

As the weather gets more hospitable in the middle region of the country, I know that our days in Indiana are numbered. After this warm, breezy May, Indiana will hand us a sticky and oppressive June. But I'm ready for it, because I've got Central Air and Robert McCloskey's classic picture books: rural and urban New England in the 1950s, all around me, and a carton of blueberries chilling in the fridge. It may just be a coincidence (my mother and our heroine share the same name), but my mother's favorite of these is Blueberries for Sal, the story of little berry-eating Sal and her mother, who find a thrill out berry-picking on Blueberry Hill. The thrill is a mother bear and her cub, also out for berries, and what ensues is a sweet little comedy, McCloskey-style.

How different for the Twenty-First Century Adult Reader, who, if she did not grow up with the McCloskey world, is mentally preparing herself for a bloodbath a la "Grizzly Man." When did surprising a mother bear and cub become a cute adventure? Back in the 50s, when bears didn't wander around half-cocked on behalf of their cubs, and the humans weren't so crazy either. I guess that's what it was like. I have Robert McCloskey to tell me so, and the message is reinforced in other books too, like in my favorite, One Morning in Maine, when young Sal has grown a few inches and now has acquired a little sister named Jane. Sal loses a tooth while out digging clams with her father and has a discussion about teeth and baby teeth; she meets a seal and a loon, and rows to Buck's Harbor with her father and Jane to refill the milk bottles and get the boat engine fixed. Why is this charming? Boat repair and a tooth lost in the mud?

The soul of each story is McCloskey's illustrations.
Blueberries for Sal has a color palate of dull yellow and rich blueberry ink, and the page-by-page illustrations in pencil/charcoal give the feel of constant movement. McCloskey draws wind, and the sea ripples where a seal has just submerged his head, with such immediacy, so beautifully, that the pictures enhance the story but never steal it. This is especially true in the way-famous Make Way for Ducklings. Make Way is set on a little island in the Charles River and in Boston's Public Garden, and follows two anxious Mallard parents on their quest for the best spot to build a nest. What follows is the birth and raising of the Mallard ducklings in busy downtown Boston; the title is taken from the genial policeman who halts traffic for the queue of ducklings following their mother.
Lord love a duck, how I love New England, Central Air, clams, berries, and Mr. McCloskey, too.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

If the Name is (Barbro) Lindgren, the Books Will Be Fabulous

One thing I love about the old book hunt is the way a long-forgotten illustration or character will re-emerge, leaving me absolutely baffled. "Baffled" is not an expression that looks good on me, so when it happens I start with Amazon, move on to Abe, and have gone as far as Google's image finder. Recently I'd been having trouble with the tale of the bad baby, a title that should belong to Beatrix Potter. I searched everywhere; all I remembered was a disobedient, highly mobile baby falling into a toilet and beating up on the dog. You'd be surprised (I mean, really) at the crap "bad baby" turns up on Google. Or maybe you wouldn't. Here it is, the fruit of my searching...The Wild Baby by Barbro Lindgren, illustrated by Eva Eriksson. There are several other titles, The Wild Baby Goes to Sea and The Wild Baby Gets a Puppy**For those interested in collecting, the Wild Baby series is out of print and the title book is currently going for high prices in online sales.

Barbro Lindgren and Eva Eriksson also did a "Sam" series, still in print, with titles including Sam's Cookie, Sam's Potty, Sam's Ball, Sam's Bath, Sam's Teddy Bear. Sam is tres cute and has the same line-drawn, watercolored artwork as the Wild Baby, and if the names were the same we might assume Sam is the wild one grown into toddler-hood. If you have any of these books, hold on to them. Yawn.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Millions of Cats and Total Book Lust

My late night browsing revealed this wonderful post from the Children's Picturebook Blog about how to tell if you have a first edition of Wanda Gág's Millions of Cats or not. They estimate its worth at about $4000. Now I am suddenly salivating over this book. (Do owls salivate?) The blog authors write:

The historical importance of the book is underappreciated by the general public, however not so within the bibliophile hobby, as the steep market value will attest. The book is still in print today, which is quite remarkable for a children’s picturebook. How many other picturebooks from the 1920’s are still in print today?

For those of us who can't spring for the first edition, I still recommend it for building your library or your child's library. It's a classic story with fine woodcut (I think?) illustrations - imagine a million cats eating all the grass off a hill! You have to see it to believe it.

Classic Illustrators: Lois Lenski

I'm a huge fan of line art in chapter books - those little drawings that go along with the story, interspersed in the chapters. It's too bad that these illustrators don't often get as much recognition as picture book artists. Surely they have as much to do with how a reader imagines a story as anyone! Just think of Pauline Bayne's line art for the Narnia books. Those books have been through many sets of hideous covers, but fortunately there are editions in print that use Baynes's covers as well.

But the illustrator that really got me thinking about this topic is Lois Lenski. She did the interior art for the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace, as well as writing and illustrating many books on her own. I love the whimsical folk-art quality of her drawings. Here's one of Betsy, Tacy, and Tib:

The series are about a group of girls growing up in small-town Minnesota in the early part of the twentieth century. They're classics of the Midwest (Lenski was from Ohio) as well as just all-round classic books. And who doesn't love a series where the main girl wants to be a writer? If Anne of Green Gables got in a fight with's hard to say who'd win.

Lenski also did the cover illustrations for the original books, which the currently in-print editions of the books have completely abandoned:

Not only do the girls in the new series look like grown-up American Girl dolls, they're playing "he loves me, he loves me not." How boring and sweetly Victorian is that? By contrast, Lenski's illustrations conveys the sense of adventure and imagination that the characters in the books actually have. Hmmph. Maybe I'll up and join The Betsy-Tacy Society after all.

Fortunately the in print editions of the Betsy-Tacy books continue to use Lenski's line art in the interior.

And keep your eye out for the old editions and first editions of these books. They're starting to be worth quite a bit.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Books We Love (the Frances books), part 1

Books We Love will be an ongoing service as Owl and the Glass Cat do their utmost to bring you back in touch with the classics you've grown to forget. You don't need to have children to appreciate these books--well written, beautifully illustrated, & funny!

Owl finds the phrase "second childhood" particularly offensive to both children and the elderly, and she respectfully suggests that it be banished from the language. Here at Owl and the Glass Cat Review, we believe that second, third and fourth childhood are all potential stages of development.
Tribute: Best Friends for Frances
The Frances books, written by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban (with the exception of Bedtime for Frances, illus. by Garth Williams), are delightful. All of them. And the badgers look so friendly! Absolutely. In Best Friends for Frances, our heroine is disappointed when her best friend Albert fails to invite her out on his "wandering day," which involves "throwing stones at telephone poles. A little frog work maybe. Walking on fences. Whistling with grass blades," and a spectacular lunch. In response, Frances takes her little sister Gloria out on an absolutely terrific-sounding picnic equipped for egg tosses, frog jumping contests and a veritable feast hauled in a little red wagon. Frances and Gloria march out carrying a sign that reads "Best Friends Outing. No Boys," but Frances relents when Albert apologizes and promises to not to exclude her again. Albert and Frances are great eaters, here and in Bread and Jam for Frances. Check out Lillian Hoban's many drawings of hard boiled eggs in eggcups, accompanied by multiple (even cardboard!) salt shakers.

A Baby Sister for Frances
A Bargain for Frances
A Birthday for Frances
Bread and Jam for Frances
Bedtime for Frances
Best Friends for Frances

The Hobans' full oeuvre may be chronicled later, but here's a special, advance shout out to Lillian Hoban's masterpiece Arthur's Honey Bear. The Arthur books are charming, too, and Arthur the Chimpanzee is so cute and sweet-faced in Hoban's crayon(like) drawings. This story is resonant with another classic, though not a Hoban book, called Ira Sleeps Over. Boys and their bears. Girls who are badgers. The Glass Cat may take a nap now, but first, please admire her lovely pink brains. Audibly. That's it. Good night.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Hoot hoot for free books!

So I forgot that I won free books on the internet, until they arrived in the mail today. I entered a promotional contest from The Brown Bookshelf, a fine blog on, for, and by African-American children's authors. They sent me not one, but TWOOO hardcover picture books:

Snowball by Nina Crews: Illustrated in a cut-and-paste photo-collage-looking style, it reminds me of Ezra Jack Keats' classic The Snowy Day, but with real people.

When the Horses Ride By
by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist: A book of anti-war poems with mixed media collage illustrations--looks like paint, pen-and-ink, and photocopies. I really like the illustrations in this one; they feature kids from all around the world and wars from all around the world. It's a heavy subject, but the illustrations and text deal with it lightly in a way that feels honest and authentic. Probably you're not going to be collecting a whole library of picture books about war and peace, but the illustrations make this one worth it.

I'm definitely holding onto these and will probably pass them on to my future niece/nephew!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

And Owl will also post on this blog

I live in a tree in the Hundred Acre Wood.

Coming soon to an internet near you

Don't throw those children's books away or put them out for a garage sale! We'll help you tell heirlooms from junk.

We'll also review children's books--old and new--by the best illustrators and writers. We have an eye for overlooked classics. There's some great art and literature hidden between those skinny spines...

Got a question or trying to hunt down a children's classic? Contact us and we'll do our best!