Monthly Archives: December 2008

Three-Toed Tracks, Three Books with the Facts

Alison Morris - December 30, 2008

Gareth’s and my search for an ideal wedding site found us at a woodsy site in New Hampshire last Sunday, enroute to Boston from Vermont. Because the place we were visiting sees relatively little action in the winter, both we and our tour guide were surprised to find that ANOTHER party had already made the rounds of the place earlier in the day. Their group, though, had made a very different impression on the place: a three-toed impression, to be more precise.

If I’d thought to put down a quarter or something to indicate scale you’d see that what appears above are the footprints of a rather large bird. At first glance we saw only one line of tracks and thought, maybe they’d been made by a heron. But no. Once we saw many, many more sets of tracks we realized that "heron" was probably not the answer to our "What left those tracks?" question. After all, when was the last time you saw herons traveling in flocks like this?

No, it appeared that there had been a rather large congregation of birds in this place, AND that they had walked approximately the same path we were walking, on rather large feet. You can see Gareth’s rather’s large feet (and tracks) in the photo below, which might allow you to make some comparisons. 

Our final guess as to the species that left these marks? Wild turkeys. (If you were thinking geese, note that the feet leaving these tracks weren’t webbed.) I later verified our suspicions using what? A children’s book, OF COURSE. (It is true, though, that you can easily find photos of turkey or heron tracks online too.)

As luck would have it, THIS is the year to spot unfamiliar animal tracks and use a children’s book to help you determine their origins. There are at least three books on animal tracks that have come out this year. All three of them are good, and two of them include the tracks of a turkey (just in case you were wondering).

My favorite of 2008’s available offerings is Jim Arnosky’s Wild Tracks! A Guide to Nature’s Footprints (Sterling, April 2008). This wonderful book actually includes life-size renditions of animal tracks on gatefold pages, so you can really get a sense of each animal’s size AND more easily compare the illustrations on the pages to the prints you find in your yard (or potential wedding site). Yes, this book includes the prints left by a turkey, in addition to those left by other birds, many reptiles, and a number of mammals, ranging in size from chipmunks to polar bears.

Who’s Been Here? A Tale in Tracks by Fran Hodkins, illustrated by Karel Hayes (Down East Books, October 2008) works for a younger audience than Jim Arnosky’s book, as it sets up a simple scenario in which three kids follow their Golden Retriever on a romp around the outskirts of town, noticing the tracks of other creatures along the way. This simple introduction to tracking would work for kids as young as preschool-age. And it will indeed introduce them to a turkey and its prints.

The most comprehensive of this year’s tracking book options is National Geographic’s Animal Tracks and Signs by Jinny Johnson. With 192 pages, this book introduces readers to the tracks and signs of over 400 different animals — in other words, it leaves a lot more than just footprints. It’s a bit less concise to use when, say, looking up the tracks of a turkey (which are NOT included in the book), but it’s the best of the options here when it comes to helping readers understand the variety of ways that animals make their marks on the environment — marks we can all find if we learn where and how to look for them.

I plan to brush up before our NEXT visit to a would-be wedding site!

One Way to Add More Windows to a Window Display

Alison Morris - December 29, 2008

I wound up starting my holiday vacation earlier than originally planned, curtailing my available time for blogging, so I’m sorry if any of you were missing my missives last week. In order to avoid the nasty weather predicted for Wednesday, Gareth and I drove north to Montpelier, Vt., late Tuesday night, where we stayed until yesterday. While in town we made the usual rounds to our favorite Montpelier stops, which include Bear Pond Books, home of wonderfully creaky wooden floors, many a fabulous tome, and (among others) the always welcoming Jane Knight, the store’s sweet and savvy children’s book buyer.

During our brief store visit on Dec. 26th, I snapped a few photos of Bear Pond’s ingenious Advent calendar-like window display (which we’d first seen during our visit to Montpelier at Thanksgiving, when it was brand-spankin’-new). The display had started with the store’s windows wrapped in white paper decorated with a woodsy winter scene, into which numbered "windows" had been cut such that one could be "opened" on each successive day in December. Behind each window sat a different book or gift item the store was recommending.

I stupidly didn’t take any photos of the windows themselves during our Thanksgiving visit, but as luck would have it you can see them in this day-after-Thanksgiving photo of me with Gareth and my parents, taken in front of Bear Pond. See the numbers behind us? Those are the numbered windows in the display that would be opened in December to reveal different gift suggestions.

Here’s how one section of those same windows looked the day after Christmas, by which time all of those little numbered panes had been opened.

I love the idea that the window looked different every day and can just imagine local kids (and adults!) stopping by just to see what treasure(s) had been revealed since their last visit.

Here are some of the children’s books and gifts that were featured in the display.

I was especially happy to see That Book Woman included in the window, as it’s one of my favorite picture books of the year.

Now a quiz to see if you’ve been paying careful attention to the images in this post: On what day in December was That Book Woman "revealed" to the Montpelier public?

Answer: December 11th. If you scroll back up to the photo of my family in front of the store, you’ll see the the patterned hemline of a woman’s skirt next to Gareth’s elbow, with a number 11 just above it, to the right. That same pattern appears at the bottom of the photo featuring That Book Woman above, so you’ve now seen that numbered "window" both open and closed.

Have you seen any really clever, not-that-hard-to-execute window displays that you would recommend we retailers try? If so, please describe them. We’re always looking for new ideas, and darn if they aren’t sometimes in short supply!

I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas

Alison Morris - December 22, 2008

As in "in the black." As in "profitable." This is the hope of all retailers every year of course, but a lot of us are crossing even more fingers and toes than usual. And for those of us in the Boston area (and many other parts of the country, I hear), this past weekend was a serious optimism damper. It was the WEEKEND BEFORE CHRISTMAS, which should have spelled retail manna, but three consecutive days of terrible winter weather saw relatively few area cash registers ringing.

All of this is making me think for the umpteenth time of the holiday message sent out this year by Roy Blount Jr., president of the Authors Guild, which has been getting a lot of circulation in bookselling circles. In case you haven’t seen it or need reminding of Roy’s increasingly-important message, I’m reprinting it here for you with an exhortation to PLEASE help us hard-working booksellers make this holiday season (and this year) a black one — especially those of us who’ve just spent three days in the white.

Holiday Message from Roy Blount Jr.:
Buy Books From Your Local Bookstore, Now

December 11, 2008. I’ve been talking to booksellers lately who report that times are hard. And local booksellers aren’t known for vast reserves of capital, so a serious dip in sales can be devastating. Booksellers don’t lose enough money, however, to receive congressional attention. A government bailout isn’t in the cards.

We don’t want bookstores to die. Authors need them, and so do neighborhoods. So let’s mount a book-buying splurge. Get your friends together, go to your local bookstore and have a book-buying party. Buy the rest of your Christmas presents, but that’s just for starters. Clear out the mysteries, wrap up the histories, beam up the science fiction! Round up the westerns, go crazy for self-help, say yes to the university press books! Get a load of those coffee-table books, fatten up on slim volumes of verse, and take a chance on romance!

There will be birthdays in the next twelve months; books keep well; they’re easy to wrap: buy those books now. Buy replacements for any books looking raggedy on your shelves. Stockpile children’s books as gifts for friends who look like they may eventually give birth. Hold off on the flat-screen TV and the GPS (they’ll be cheaper after Christmas) and buy many, many books. Then tell the grateful booksellers, who by this time will be hanging onto your legs begging you to stay and live with their cat in the stockroom: "Got to move on, folks. Got some books to write now. You see…we’re the Authors Guild."

Enjoy the holidays.

Roy Blount Jr.
President, Authors Guild

Shrinky Dinks Advance Science, Adorn Trees

Alison Morris - December 18, 2008

What do stem cell research and your holiday decorations have in common? Both could be improved with the help of a "retro" craft supply called Shrinky Dinks. I’ll leave it to Wired Science to explain the medical advances made possible by this magical plastic toy while I explain here how you can make great little ornaments or wreath decorations (or pins or necklaces or earrings or… almost anything) sporting your favorite images from books.

A few years ago when I was living alone in New Hampshire and the holidays were on the horizon, I bought myself a tiny Christmas tree then lamented the fact that I didn’t yet own any ornaments to hang on it. My solution: trace some of my favorite picture book characters onto magical shrinkable plastic, cut the characters out, punch a hole in the top of each one, stick them in the oven, and watch them curl up and harden into the perfect ornaments for my little reading-themed tree. 

Below are some examples of my Shrinky Dinks handiwork. I punched holes in the first batch so that I could turn them into ornaments. The second batch I left hole-less so that I could glue pin backs to them and make them into picturebook brooches. 

Books used for batch one (clockwise, l. to r.): Bill and Pete by Tomie dePaola; The Beautiful Butterfly by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Victoria Chess; Fishing in the Air by Sharon Creech, illustrated by Chris Raschka; The Genie in the Jar by bell hooks, illustrated by Chris Raschka; and Bootsie Barker Bites by Barbara Bottner, illustrated by Peggy Rathmann.

Books used for batch two (clockwise, l. to r.): Going Home by Eve Bunting, illustrated by David Diaz; Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams; Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes; and Hush! A Thai Lullaby by Minfong Ho.

My source for this project’s materials was originally non other than The Shrinky Dinks Book published by Klutz, which includes original designs you can trace plus the plastic onto which you do the tracing. If you plan on tracing images from books already in your home library, all you really need is the plastic + instructions (not the pages of Klutz-created designs). You can satisfy this need with the Klutz Shrinky Dinks "Extra Stuff" package or buy plastic in large quantities from the Shrinky Dinks web store.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching Shrinky Dinks perform their magical shrinking trick, you can watch the rather earnest Shrinky Dinks video that shows the stuff in action. (And, no, I am not related to Betty Morris, the inventor of Shrinky Dinks… At least, not that I’m aware.)

You don’t have to be a decent artist to do this project. Seriously! You just have to be able to trace things. If you are an artist though, go ahead and draw your own design. In either case, choose or create an image that will be the right size for your finished project once it’s shrunk down to one-third of its size. In other words, think big. If you’re tracing, note that the best images to use are ones that have a strong line and rather distinct areas of color. Images in which shades blend quite a bit are harder to trace, in general.

Another tip for choosing images: be aware that any spaces you don’t color will wind up being frosted "see through" spaces, which may not work as well if you’re making, say, a pin that will lay against a dark shirt color, against which it may look odd or the imperfections of your drawing will be more visible. Here’s my Fishing in the Air Shrinky Dink as a light-colored/lots of clear space example.

Also be aware that you can make slight variations to your traced images in order to keep them the size you need or make them a little more suited to their final uses. I changed the colors of Bootsie Barker’s dress below to make it look more Christmasy. In the Chrysanthemum Shrinky Dink above, I put a bouquet in her hand because the actual chrysanthemum on the book’s cover was too tall for my pin purposes.

Below are two examples of how my Shrinky Dink compares to the original drawing, with a quarter to give you a sense of scale!


Once you’ve chosen an image to trace, follow these simple steps to make your Shrinky Dink!

1. Take a sheet of clear Shrinky Dinks plastic and lay it rough side up on the image that you want to trace. Use tiny bits of tape to lightly adhere the sheet of plastic to the page so that you don’t accidentally move it around while you’re tracing.

2. Trace the image onto the plastic. You can use any number of different art materials to do this, but my personal favorite is colored pencils, which is what I used to create all the examples you see here.

3. Cut out your image or cut around your image in the shape you’d like the finished piece to be. If you’re going to be putting your Shrinky Dink on an ornament hook or threading anything through it, use a traditional hole punch to punch a hole in the ornament. (The hole will of course shrink down to about 1/3 its original size too, making it nice and small relative to your overall design, unless your design is tiny.)

4. See the baking how-to on the PDF of instructions from the Shrinky Dinks site. (The gist: lay your shape on tin foil or brown paper atop a cookie sheet, bake at 325 degrees for 1 to 3 minutes. But, really, read their instructions sheet for key details and helpful suggestions.) Note that watching your plastic curl is one of the most entertaining parts of this process, so you ideally want to bake your Shrinky Dinks in an oven or toaster oven with a window. Do this craft with kids and they will be AMAZED!

5. L
your Shrinky Dinks cool, then turn them into ornaments or jewelry. Voilà!

One very important note about these entertaining little craft projects. If you create ornaments or jewelry or ANY objects like this by tracing the illustrations from copyright-protected books, you CANNOT sell those objects. If you do you’ll be violating copyright law. Make them for yourself and you’re fine. Start your own Etsy store featuring such ornaments and jewelry and you’re NOT.

If you give this project a try, let me know how it goes! (Send a message to Shelftalker AT Gmail DOT com.) I hope the results make you feel as happy and satisfied as the "angel" on my own little tree:

Grandpa Potter

Alison Morris - December 17, 2008

My favorite holiday tradition in the Boston area is the annual screening of Frank Capra’s brilliant It’s a Wonderful Life at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. I go every year that I can, usually accompanied by friends Lisa DiSarro (associate marketing director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and Leo Landry (author/illustrator/bookseller/all-around-nice-guy), and IDEALLY by someone who’s never seen the film before, so that the three of us can then have the joy of being the ones to introduce them to it.

In recent years, though, the name "Potter" which I once associated first and foremost with the evil miser of Capra’s creation, is now best-known as the surname of one world-famous boy wizard, prompting me to wonder…

What DO we know about Harry’s grandfather anyway? Tell me THIS wouldn’t make for one VERY interesting family tree:

Harry Potter (son)

James Potter (father)

Henry F. Potter (grandfather)

In this photo Old Man Potter is saying "Happy New Year to you — in Azkaban!"

Quick, fan fiction writers, get to work!

(Note: If you live in the Boston area and the parodied quote by Old Man Potter above makes no sense to you, then you should be at the Brattle on Saturday, December 20th at 11 AM!)

Reading-Related Gift Ideas from Etsy

Alison Morris - December 16, 2008

Once again I’ve perused the endless book-related offerings on Etsy for you and put together a post filled with suggestions for handcrafted gifts, many of them made with recycled materials. As always I’ve linked both to individual sellers’ stores (click on the seller’s name) AND to the items themselves (click on the photo). If you click on an item but find it’s sold out, visit that seller’s store to see if they’ve listed the item again or contact them to request that they do so. Many sellers have information on their store page about the likelihood of their being able to get these gifts to you before Christmas. (Time is obviously running out!)

sells wonderful personalized bookplates, featuring vintage children’s book illustrations like this one of cavorting fairies:

And this one of three kids on a hilltop:

Luv4sams will make you a bracelet featuring your favorite words from the dictionary:

Ephemeralogie creates fun paperweights using "retro" images, many featuring readers, like this one:

But my FAVORITE find are KokoStudios‘ framed butterflies with wordy wings that are referred to as "Ex Book Worms." (Though I suppose technically they would have had to be book caterpillars.) This particular batch features text from Treasure Island.

The butterflies above would look nice hung alongside this "Bookgirl Print" by Ward Jenkins (a.k.a. Wardomatic) whose Flickr page is one of my favorite places to poke around:

ReFabulous is selling a wallet or card holder featuring Avi’s Midnight Magic:

IKCDesign features some GREAT checkbook covers made from recycled children’s book pages and such. Here’s one from A Light in the Attic:

They also sell this SUPER clever bookends made from recycled records. Here’s The Clash’s Combat Rock, repurposed:

If you like your bling to sport books, consider these earrings from laurenelgee:

I am totally enamoured with this pillow from Pillowphyte that features a stack of books in the center, bordered by fabric sporting text from Dick and Jane books:

A lot of people on Etsy sell journals made from repurposed books. TylerBender rebinds his beautifully, making them pricier than some of the others I’ve seen, but much, much nicer too. You can look at all the options currently available in his Etsy shop OR send him any hardcover book that you’d like to have rebuilt as journals like these:

ISOSC makes toys from recycled books, like this Jacob’s Ladder, made from a hardcover book called Real Estate Principles:

Illustrator Lauren Castillo (whose art graces the pages of What Happens on Wednesdays by Emily Jenkins and Buffalo Music by Tracy E. Fern, among others) has an Etsy shop where she sells prints of some lovely paintings. Here’s "Brooklyn Snow" for example:

If you’ve got a bit more money to burn, take a look at the music boxes jenkhoshbin makes out of old books! I LOVE this idea! Here’s one that was a copy of The Star Rover by Jack London in a previous life:

Remember that fun Olivia fabric I featured way back in February? Well CustomKids used those entertaining patterns to create this fabulous chef’s hat AND a matching apron!

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I know a LOT of librarians who’d love to own a print of this painting called "Penelope" by Erin McGuire, whose shop is paperbones:

Moonlightbindery has finally found a great use for old New Yorker covers — they put them on the cover of a beautiful, coptic bound journal like this one below, featuring an illustration by Dan Clowes (who’s probably best known for Ghost World).

SackReligious is one of many Etsy sellers that creates handbags made from hardcover books, like this "Crossword Clutch", which is perfect for that crossword junkie in your life.

The SackReligious store also currently features this mirror "decoupaged with excerpts from classics including Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Sherlock Holmes, A Tale of Two Cities, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Romeo & Juliet, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Time Machine."

Looking for atypical holiday decorations this year? Suspend this "book mobile" made by theshophouse from a discarded copy of The Spirit of Christmas from your ceiling then invite me over to take a look. I think this is so COOL!! 

I love the idea behind the reading-themed wreath below from SurprisetheEyes. Hmm… 

Must consider making my own variation. Perhaps with Shrinky-Dinks, which I’ll be featuring in a post later this week… Artsy-craftsy types, stay tuned!

A Review of ‘The Tale of Despereaux,’ the Movie

Alison Morris - December 15, 2008

I attended an advance screening of The Tale of Despereaux this weekend (thanks, Candlewick!) and enjoyed being there surrounded by Despereaux afficiandos and those who knew it both first and best. Illustrator Timothy Basil Ering and his wife were seated one row in front of me, and it was a sincere joy to hear Tim’s WHOOP! of joy when the opening credits began rolling and "The Tale of Despereaux" appeared on the screen. How amazing it must be to breathe life into a writer’s characters then later watch them stand up and speak, literally.

Overall I would say I enjoyed this movie, though I wouldn’t say I "loved" it. If I was to give it a letter grade, I’d say it’s… a B minus, hovering dangerously close to a C plus. What follows are my reasons, though note that there are a few spoilers here!! If you haven’t read the book or you don’t want to know what happens in the movie, you might want to stop reading.


Things that worked well in this movie:

1. The animation is wonderful. Visually this film is lush. I took notes while I was watching and many of them wound up being about the textures of things I saw and admired — the heavy brocade fabrics that appear throughout the castle, the fur and whiskers of the mice, everything and anything METAL. I thought the animals looked far more realistic than the people, but not to a point that was distracting. On the whole I thought the style of animation chosen for this film was the perfect choice for this particular story.

2. The movie is surprisingly faithful to the book. Events happen in a different order and have been, in some cases, "embellished" quite a bit. And there are a few characters in the movie who didn’t exist in the book or who are portrayed quite differently. (Roscuro is a much more sympathetic and feeling character in the film, for example.) But at the heart of it, this movie really did follow the same basic story as the book, and (more importantly I think) it tries, quite admirably, to capture the real "spirit" of the book. I don’t think it was wholly successful in the latter regard, but I give it lots of points for trying.

3. It doesn’t feel especially "Hollywood." I expected a Disneyfication of Despereaux here — a cutesy, feel-good romp about a small mouse with a big heart who embarks on a very BIG adventure. But (refer to point #2 here), that’s not what this is. If anything, I would argue that a little bit more "Hollywoodization" would have been welcome in places, just to keep things moving at a faster clip and to keep the story from feeling incredibly dark, which it did at times. Still, I like that this movie isn’t a happy-go-lucky version of an emotionally complex story.

4. The cast is good. I am often distracted by celebrity voices in animated films, because I’m too good at matching voices to faces — I can too easily picture each actor standing behind a microphone reading their lines. In this case, though, the actors seemed VERY well-matched to the characters they were portraying, especially William H. Macy as Despereaux’s father and Dustin Hoffman as Roscuro. Though I was a *bit* disappointed at first that Roscuro didn’t have the rich Italian accent that he does in Graeme Malcolm’s utterly SUPERB reading of the book on audio. You can listen to a clip of the audio right here:

5. Some of the "embellishments" work beautifully. The world inhabited by the mice is a fully realized world with houses and buildings and matchstick lanterns, populated by lots and lots of mice wearing fabulous costumes reminicent of Flemish paintings. (The frilly collars and tall hats worn by the Council of Elders are one of my favorite costuming choices!) Likewise the dungeon world inhabited by the rats is a visual feast — detailed and elaborate and breathtaking when you see it for the first time, lit by flickering firelight and peopled with dingy creatures who gamble and cavort and eat, eat, eat, eat, eat. Other movie-created touches that I love: at one point a piece of jewelry worn by the princess saves the day in two critical and clever ways; and the walls of Despereaux’s house have been papered over with pages of books — words are some of the the first things he sees with his open-way-too-early-for-a-normal-mouse eyes.

And then there’s the scene in which Despereaux walks across the pages of an open book, reading its words (which are often several times the length of his body) when he is meant to be eating. The scenes of this mouse on this book are STUNNING, visually. They’re cut with deliberately choppy animations of what Despereaux is imagining as he reads the story — his mental images are of himself as a human knight rescuing a princess, slaying a dragon, carousing with his fellow knights, in a style that’s very reminiscent of Gustaf Tenggren’s illustrations for King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

6. Despereaux is adorable. And lovable. And admirable. And heroic. And everything that you want the hero of a children’s movie (and book!) to be. His first appearance in the film occurs surprisingly far into the film (see below), but the audience around me literally gasped and cooed with delight when a tiny baby mouse with ENORMOUS ears and big eyes appeared on the screen, staring up at the adult mice shake their heads in bewilderment at how odd he is.

7. The key messages of the book are not lost in the movie. They’re incorporated in some very poignant scenes and they’re voiced by the narrator who (in a voiceover) is "telling" us the story. Before Despereaux’s first on-screen appearance we are told, "If you know anything about fairy tales you know that a hero doesn’t appear until the world really needs one." The themes of being brave, being kind, and being forgiving recur throughout the story, in often subtle ways that reinforce these messages. When Despereaux meets with the Thread Master the scene is brief because Despereaux fearlessly launches himself into the darkness (bravery). Roscuro shows Despereaux his greatest treature — the chink in his ceiling through which he can get let in some light (kindness). And there’s a sequence of apologies at the end that is truly lovely (forgiveness).

Things that don’t work so well:

1. The story is too complicated for a children’s movie. There were a number of young children in the theater while I was watching and it was VERY apparent to me that their attention had lagged even before we’d come to the film’s second half. One of the things I love most about the BOOK The Tale of Despereaux is the number of characters whose stories become intertwined in the overall adventure that stars this lovable little mouse. But Kate DiCamillo has plenty of pages to get us there, unlike a movie that has less than two hours in which to accomplish
much. In the MOVIE The Tale of Despereaux the stories that intertwine with Despereaux’s tale ultimately seemed like a distraction from the central plot line. Each time we moved away from our big-eared star I wanted him back again. And sometimes we just left him for far, far too long. Odd as this sounds, I think the movie would have worked better had most of the side tangents/characters been left out. It would have worked fine without Miggery Sow, for example, who really doesn’t play a big part here. It would have been fine with Roscuro making fewer or briefer appearances, or (better still) the chef being given less screen time.

2. It’s too scary for young kids. I watched 4 and 5 year-olds file in to see this G-rated movie and felt relatively unconcerned (see positive point #3) until we were shown a preview for Coraline! (Cue nervous whining on the part of the 4.5 year-old behind me, for which I don’t blame him.) Fantastic as Coraline looks to be, it is not for the very young or the relatively young and quite faint-hearted. I was not at all surprised to hear said 4.5 year-old state emphatically, "I don’t want to see the button eyes movie!" when the Coraline trailer was done, but thought he’d be better off once Despereaux… started. Not so.

In what seemed at first like a clever twist, the story begins with Roscuro’s arrival on board a ship that’s sailing into Dor on Soup Day, an annual event in which everyone in the kingdom rejoices to learn what incredible soup king’s chef has prepared this year. (SPOILER ALERT!!) From the chandelier over the royal table, a very lovable and soup-loving Roscuro swoons and PLOP! He lands in the Queen’s soup. She dies. The king outlaws soup and banishes rats. He and the princess both grieve. And Roscuro, who has just been chased by suits of armor, falls through a hole in the kitchen floor and plummets into darkness. At which point the 4.5 year-old behind me starts crying, which is sort of understandable, because we did just see a woman die and we don’t yet know if that friendly rat is dead or not and… That’s a lot to take in during the movie’s first 15 or 20 minutes.

The scariest thing about this movie, though, is one of the things that is the most visually elaborate . In the rats’ below-ground world there is an enormous arena where the rats all gather to watch Coliseum-like "games," which don’t exist in the book and (I think) probably shouldn’t exist in the movie. The first happens immediately after Despereaux’s arrival in the dungeon. One minute we see rats grabbing him, the next minute we see him in the middle of an arena that is overflowing with beady-eyed rats chanting "MOUSE! MOUSE! MOUSE!" until Despereaux’s competition arrives (an enormous cat hampered by a chain so that it can’t launch itself into the crowd and gorge on its captors) at which point the rats begin chanting "EAT! EAT! EAT!" (Scaaaaary.) Scarier still is when this same arena scene is repeated at the end of the movie (BIIIIIIIIIIIIIIG SPOILER ALERT!!!) when the rats wheel a prone Princess Pea into the arena, strapped to a flat cart that nearly covers the diameter of the arena floor. The rats hungrily await the sound of the gong that will announce their opportunity to… eat her.

Yep. This is NOT a good choice for your 4.5 year-old!!

More importantly, these arena scenes bring a level of violence to the story that I don’t think needs to be there. There is darkness in the book. There is evil and deep sorrow and scary stuff, and that’s all fine. Somehow the threat of violence on this level, though, feels… base or "crude" relative to the sophistication of the story’s emotional content. 

2. "Show to me my babies!" Despereaux’s mother is one of my favorite characters in the book and without a doubt my favorite voice done by Graeme Malcolm on the audio. (Listen to it! Her French accent is magnifique!) Her strong will and superb one-liners are completely missing from this movie, though, as she’s relegated to the role of "insignificant character," given no unique personality, and overshadowed by her husband. Bummer. Women and girls actually play little part in this movie at all, come to think of it. The Princess Pea is lovely and noble and nice but she also seems rather helpless. She just isn’t given enough screen time to seem three-dimensional, making it seem oddly jarring and out of character when we finally arrive at a scene in which she’s cruel to Mig, whom we’ve barely come to know at all.

3. For a story that moves at a jerky pace, the whole thing wraps up MUCH too quickly. If you’re going to incorporate all these different characters and their perspectives, that’s fine. But then you’d better do them to completion. Instead, Mig’s story (as I’ve already mentioned) seems extraneous and unnecessary, because she’s given too small a part to play and we know too little about her. Her happy ending, then, feels nice but not especially redemptive. She has a sudden change of heart in much the same way that the Princess does in multiple places and Roscuro does and… You get the idea. The only character whose actions always seem understandable and whose reactions don’t seem overly quick or jarring are Despereaux’s. I came away feeling like I just wish this story had been his from start to finish. Tell the others’ perspectives in a different film, or at least in a different way. I think all ages of the movie’s audience would have been better satisfied by a film in which we meet this little mouse and follow his unlikely adventures all the way to the climax of his dramatic story, without all the diversions along the way.

In summary…

You’ll note that I have twice as many positives as negatives listed here. That’s why the film manages to score in the "B" range rather than the "C." for me. Visually I thought this movie was fantastic. But its continuity and pacing were not up to snuff. Take your 7 year-old to see it, but (please, for the sake of those sitting near you) leave your 4.5 year-old at home!

Sentences, Santa and Pynchon! Oh My!

Alison Morris - December 11, 2008

I have only the faintest memory of learning to diagram sentences in elementary school, no memory of what grade I was in at the time, and no recollection of just how to draw those branching pictures now. (I could never have written the book Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences.) But I do remember LIKING the sentence-diagramming process as a kid. I enjoyed the orderliness of drawing those twig-like lines sprouting one from the other, then filling them with words like birds come home to roost.

I was less keen on Venn diagrams when we learned to construct those, but I think maybe it’s just because we were never shown, in our classes, all the fun ways you could apply them to less didactic topics in your life. Jessica Hagy’s recent book Indexed is filled with entertaining diagrams (some Venn, some not) that are a lot more fun than anything I ever drew in school, as are the diagrams you’ll find on her blog Here’s a holiday-themed example:

Below is a snarky but rather entertaining Venn Diagram that I’ve seen on a few t-shirts of late. (If you like it you can order one of your own from Diesel Sweeties.)

Maybe it’s because I’m having a particularly stressful couple of weeks and my desk at work is a disaster, but right now I am VERY taken with the orderliness of diagrams like these, and I seem to be bumping into them with increasing frequency.

One of my favorite comics artists is Kevin Huizenga, whose book Curses occupies a place of honor on Gareth’s and my heavily-laden bookshelves. Kevin Huizenga is himself skilled at sentence diagramming. I know this because a small section of his recent mini-comic Or Else #5 is given over to this very subject. (You can see one frame of it here.) When I was perusing Kevin’s blog earlier this week, I read a short post he wrote about the diagrams writer Caleb Crain drew while reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. (See example below.)

I think I might lose my mind long before I completed such an exercise, but still…? The prospect is oddly appealing. Or at least, it might be if I were reading and diagramming any book BUT Gravity’s Rainbow, which I have not read but (based on what I know of it) I have no desire to. 

(One more Kevin Huizenga note: for a good laugh, get your hands on a copy of Untitled, which is his mini-comic featuring nothing but ideas for titles, which are in many cases hysterically funny, and WELL worth the $1.50 you’ll pay for the privilege of reading them.)

When Gareth is beginning to think through a story’s adaptation as a graphic novel, he fills sketchbook pages with thumbnails, imagining the flow of the story, the composition of the frames.  (You can see a few small examples on the book sketches page of his website — click on the images labeled as Beowulf Thumbnails.) There’s something very neat and clean about the appearance of all these little boxes, lined up on beside the other, with a collective story to tell.

I myself am a list-maker. It’s how I organize my day, my ideas, my responsibilities, my thoughts about things. The books I’m reading often contain makeshift bookmarks that are lists of my comments or thoughts or observations on my reading up to that page — these lists become helpful resources later when I’ve finished the book and attempt to write up an actual book review.

But how about you? Do you keep tracking of your reading, your writing, or any other verbal concepts in ways as visual as any of these? Do you have a favorite way of diagramming the world? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Or (better still) send me an example. (ShelfTalker AT Gmail DOT com.)

Make a Wish, Send a Card, Get Lost

Alison Morris - December 10, 2008

I received an e-mail from author/illustrator Debra Frasier yesterday in which she explained the following: 

"The Make-A-Wish Foundation has invited Janell Cannon, Eric Carle, Ian Falconer, David Kirk, Ida Pearle, my dear friend, Lauren Stringer (see her new book: Snow, with Cynthia Rylant), and me to create e-cards for holiday sending. One click takes you to an array of illustrations to send, and a donation is made by E! Network to the foundation. The scenes are LOVELY. Visit and send a few today!"

It’s nice to see that sending someone a (virtual) piece of children’s book art can also punt a little money to a good charitable cause!

As a side note, I second Debra’s suggestion that everyone see Snow by Cynthia Rylant and Lauren Stringer. I’m a big fan, as is Paul O. Zelinsky, judging from his recent review of the book for the NYTBR.

I also received a message yesterday from Oliver Jeffers, whose note made me VERY jealous of those of you on the "other" side of the Atlantic! Here’s what Oliver had to say:

"My second book Lost and Found has been adapted into a short animated film. Though I had my hand in things during development and production, the true heroes are Philip Hunt and the animation crew over at Studio AKA. Narrated by Jim Broadbent and with an original music score by Max Richter, it all came together with pretty amazing results. It will be shown on Channel 4 in the UK at 2.30pm on Christmas Eve, and again at 12.30pm on Boxing Day. For everyone not in the UK or Ireland, you’ll have to wait a bit longer."