Sunday, September 26, 2010

ARROW TO THE SUN by Gerald McDermott

Arrow to the Sun is a 1974 children's book by Gerald McDermott, adapted from Pueblo Indian myth. Here, the son of the Lord of the Sun strives to find and be accepted by his father.

The story is straightforward, as these folktales go. On its own, it's largely unremarkable. But McDermott's illustrations are mind-blowing. 

Done in gouache and ink, the art features thick curves and right angles in a somewhat abstract style that's  reminiscent of Pueblo art (it's also reminiscent of Atari 2600 graphics). McDermott's judiciously limited use of color heightens the art by drawing the focus to its texture and focusing on the mood of the story.

Arrow to the Sun is a fine children's book with some of the most spectacular illustrations ever; it's certainly McDermott's best work.


Friday, September 24, 2010


At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror collects H. P. Lovecraft’s eponymous novella (originally published in 1936) and three short stories: “The Shunned House” (1937), “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933), and “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1920).

In At the Mountains of Madness, an Antarctic survey team discovers the ruins of an ancient city, whose creators have conveniently left an easily-deciphered complete history of their civilization illustrated on the walls. This is one of Lovecraft’s later works, and in it, he substantially demythologizes his Cthulhu mythos, which previously had often featured a supernatural focus but here receives a rather thorough science fiction explanation.  

If you’ve read any quantity of Lovecraft before, you’ll find this novella fairly predictable. And if you’ve read a lot of Lovecraft, you realize you can’t go anywhere in his world without stumbling over some infestation of trans-worldly evil.

This is one of Lovecraft’s longer works, and it’s a bit of a slow builder, although it does pick up nicely as it goes. Lovecraft’s strength here is the usual one: atmosphere. Because of its isolation and severe environment, Antarctica lends itself particularly well to horror, and on top of that Lovecraft does a great job of depicting the atmosphere of the lost city.

The three short stories here have considerably more in common with one another than with Mountains, and they feel like padding to make this volume book-length (Additionally, this volume’s stupid cover has nothing to do with any of the stories within). But briefly, “The Shunned House” takes too long to get going and falls somewhat flat once it does, “The Dreams in the Witch-House,” something of a thematic bridge between the other two stories, is a disjointed mess, and “The Statement of Randolph Carter” is a vintage second-hand account of lurking horrors.

At the Mountains of Madness is hardly Lovecraft’s best story, but it may be some of the best atmosphere he’s ever done. I recommend the novella, whether you get it with extra mediocre stories or not.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

THE STONECUTTER by Gerald McDermott

The Stonecutter is a 1975 retelling of a Japanese folk tale by Gerald McDermott. The story, which features themes of being content with one’s situation in life and being careful what one wishes for is simple, yet deeply profound.

But what makes this book amazing is McDermott’s art, which is nothing short of phenomenal. Here, McDermott has formed his illustrations as collages made from paper colored with gouache; this gives them a rich visual texture. The characters and environments are done in the blocky, somewhat abstract style McDermott excels at, and which spark the imagination. In all, the art is similar to his prior work on the outstanding Arrow to the Sun.

McDermott is a king of illustration, and his art is rarely more spectacular than it is here. It makes The Stonecutter a wonder.



Japanese Children’s Stories from Silver Bells is a 1952 collection of stories from Tomikazu Matsui’s Hiroshima-based children’s magazine Silver Bells, which was exported to the United States, and which featured stories from around the world. Most of the stories here are adapted from Japanese folktales; all are by Japanese authors and illustrators.

The book’s target audience is children between the ages of four and nine, and that seems about right. The stories are all short and simple, although there will be some words you’ll have to define for your kid (and maybe for yourself) – “wen,” for example.

All the stories are fully illustrated (most in full color), in a variety of media, including watercolors and oil pastels. The introduction declares these illustrations to be “noteworthy for their Japanese flavor, serving as an introduction to the remarkable knack the Japanese artist has always possessed in the realms of line, color and form” (p. 3). That may be overstating things a bit, but most of them are definitively Japanese in style, and they are a strength of this book.

Japanese Children’s Stories from Silver Bells is an endearing little book, with quality stories and illustrations.  


P.S. You can learn more about Tomikazu Matsui and the impressive work he did with Silver Bells here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

ANANSI THE SPIDER MAN by Philip M. Sherlock

Anansi the Spider Man is a 1954 collection of folk tales by Philip M. Sherlock, who gathered them in Jamaica. They all feature the spider Anansi, a trickster of West African and West Indian folklore, and his dealings with the other animals.

Not surprisingly, then, every story features somebody trying to trick somebody else. Since Anansi gets conned nearly as much as he gets over on others, the reader never gets too fed up with him, and, on the whole, these stories are rather charming.

Marcia Brown provides the illustrations, which are simple pen-and-ink affairs. They’re a little bit rough, and are reminiscent of Jules Feiffer’s work on The Phantom Tollbooth.

On the whole, Anansi the Spider Man is a solid and entertaining collection of folktales.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Wembi, the Singer of Stories is a 1959 collection of twenty-five African folktales gathered by Alice D. Cobble during the twenty-five years she was a missionary in the Belgian Congo. It is illustrated by Doris Hallas.

The stories here mostly center around animals, and they’re always decent but never amazing. Many of these stories feature shockingly bizarre turns of events, which I can only chalk up to a cultural divide between African and Western culture. In some of these stories, the protagonist does something horrible to somebody else, and is lauded for it; in one, the protagonist, having committed no transgression, gets eaten, and that’s the end.

Cobble’s Wembi frame is in many cases more interesting than the tales Wembi tells. Here the reader will learn about many of the practices and traditions of the native Congolese, and about the concerns and issues of a shift toward Western culture.

Halas’s illustrations are relatively few; they are best described as adequate and unremarkable. I found the cover design, which is not by Halas, considerably more impressive.

Wembi, the Singer of Stories is a nice little look into Central African culture, even if its stories are just so-so.


Saturday, September 11, 2010


Aesop’s Fables is a collection of well over a hundred fables (at least), most featuring animals, attributed to the ancient Greek slave and storyteller Aesop (it is doubtful that he wrote them all, and some people question whether he existed at all, but we really aren’t here to debate authorship). There are dozens of English collections and versions of these stories, and, as the ancient, “profusely illustrated” version I have doesn’t include full publication information, I will be reviewing generally.

Adults who were once well-read children will be familiar with the best-known fables: “The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs,” “Belling the Cat,” “The Fox and the Grapes,” “The Lion and the Mouse,” “The Milkmaid and Her Pail,” “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” and so on. These fables teach common-sense lessons like “one good turn deserves another” and “a friend in need is a friend in deed” (rather than “indeed,” which is a separate moral). It’s worth mentioning that if you analyze large numbers of these fables, you’ll find they often offer contradictory advice (a solid argument for Aesop being a content aggregator rather than the sole independent author, by the way).

But before you go running out to recapture that childhood wonder, know that the version you get makes all the difference. Some renditions of these fables are so brief and spare (yes, fables are succinct by nature, but my copy reads like it’s full of fable summaries) that you might as well just be reading a list of morals (and depending on where you read a given fable, it may have different morals; this makes more sense if you know the morals were tacked on later).

In my experience, the best versions of Aesopica have been created when other authors have taken these fables and fleshed them out a bit, and in doing so, breathed some life and personality into them (in other words, I prefer stories to fables). This has largely occurred in illustrated versions for  smaller children. No matter what you’ve got, though, every fable is short: nearly all of them are less than a page no matter how you format, and some are only one paragraph, so they’re quite easy to get through regardless.

So much from these fables is clich├ęd, tired, and worn out, and it’s even more so if you watch a lot of TV and film, where writers crib liberally from Aesop to try to get cheap significance and a feel-good moment at the ending. Well, shame on them, but even so, it’s hard to call yourself well-read if you don’t have at least a basic knowledge of Aesop’s better-known fables, particularly since many of their hackneyed principles have filtered into our language as idioms (e.g. “wolf in sheep’s clothing”).

The moral of the story is this: a good version of Aesop’s Fables is a worthy addition to any library; a poor one might not be worth bothering with.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Grover and the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum is a Sesame Street-themed 1974 Random House Book for Young Readers written by Norman Stiles and Daniel Wilcox and illustrated by Joe Mathieu. The title gives you a pretty good idea of the plot, as Grover visits galleries like “The Things You See in the Sky Room” and the “Things That Can Make You Fall Hall,” and a great deal of silliness ensues.

Not only have the book’s creators made the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum an immersive place (which is pretty impressive for a book with only thirty-two pages), they’ve also worked in a number of delightfully clever gags in keeping with the wit that the Sesame Street TV program displayed in the seventies and eighties, before it got dumbed down and Elmo-fied.

This is a great book for little kids, whether they’ve been exposed to Sesame Street (or good Sesame Street) or not. Grover speaks in word balloons, and his dialogue plus the museum’s signs comprise nearly all the text in the book (there’s still plenty, though, since Grover, being Grover, never shuts up). And every scene on every page is loaded with visuals.

Grover and the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum was one of my favorite books when I was a little kid, and I still love it. If you have small children, or if you miss those halcyon days when Sesame Street was good, you’re going to have a hard time doing better than this.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka (1936), translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir, collects fifteen of Kafka’s stories, including his most famous, “The Metamorphosis.”

Kafka is, for the most part, doing his own thing with his writing. In other words, he wrote for himself rather than for any particular reader or audience; this is why he’s often considered one of the more influential writers of the twentieth century, but it may also be why many of his stories weren’t published during his lifetime.

Kafka’s absurdist, existentialist style demands analysis and begs interpretation. Kafka’s work offers an astounding depth of opportunity for critical interpretation, but if you can’t be bothered to put in the effort, you aren’t going to get much of anything out of his stories (a highlight here for the read-for-enjoyment crowd is “The Hunger Artist,” one of Kafka’s more coherent tales).  

Many of Kafka’s tales are little more than  philosophical essays dressed up as stories, and the reader who is not of an academically literary mindset should be readily forgiven for finding many of these stories horribly boring and.

If you’re looking for unique, groundbreaking writing full of potential for academic analysis and literary interpretation, Kafka is exactly what you want. If you’re reading for enjoyment, you could scarcely do worse. In short, Kafka’s not for everybody, and he’s not for me.