April 2013


Here’s a compilation of my articles from the last month or so.

Darryl Cunningham talks HOW TO FAKE A MOON LANDING!

Jim Rugg talks SUPERMAG!

Lucy Knisley talks RELISH!

I interview Pulitzer winner Elizabeth Strout on her new novel THE BURGESS BOYS!

Elizabeth Strout

Farel Dalrymple on his Eisner-nominated webcomic IT WILL ALL HURT!
Review of local production of Oscar Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST!

NEW TOYS BLOGS:

EVERY 1980s G.I. Joe Figure on One Poster!

“MIni Comics Included” Kickstarter!

New WALKING DEAD Figures Available to Order!

New BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY Statue!

Help the Four Horsemen with Their New Kickstarter Campaign!

More New My Little Pony Toys Than You Can Handle!

Iron Man 3 Merchandise Roundup!

New Big Bang Theory Toys from Funko!

Kenner “Alien” Figures finally released 34 years later!

Patton Oswalt and Sillof’s “Faster, Empire!  Strike Strike!” Figures!

WALKING DEAD Merchandise Round-Up Including New Board Games!

New MAN OF STEEL Superman Statue from Kotobukiya!

New S.H. Figuarts Sailor Moon Figure!

New Doctor Who Toys!

New DC Comics Blind Boxed Mez-Itz!

New Play Kai Arts MAN OF STEEL Superman and General Zod Figures!

New “Pop Culture Pillage” Muppet Figures!

New Glow-in-the-Dark DC Comics Darkseid Funko!

Not toys, but still cool: BATES MOTEL’s Mike Vogel talks his character’s twist

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I always love finding some strange picture book with an odd storyline or sense of design.

This past weekend, I went to a mini-comics show at the Durham County Public Library, and found they had a nifty wall of old books for sale from the Friends of the Library.  It was a great lineup of books at like $2 apiece, and I found a number of hardcover collections of old New Yorker cartoonists that some of my cartoonist friends snapped up.

What I also found was a really, really weird 1953 children’s book called THE DAY AFTER YESTERDAY by Phyllis Rowand.

The story is nothing unusual — it’s a tale of a little girl who lives by the water with her parents and loves animals, and her parents send her to the city (read: NYC) to visit cousins and see more of the world, and she sees some sights, and then brings back some animal-themed gifts that prove to her parents that she knows how to appreciate nature.  It’s simple and possibly autobiographical.

The LOOK of the story, though, is pretty odd.

Rowand 1

It’s a strange mixture of regular and colored pencils, along with some oddly-shaped figures and these weird, wide-eyed depictions of the little girl that make her look like one of those doe-eyed children from those old paintings.

Rowand 2

I was showing this one to the talented cartoonist Ben Towle at the comics show.  He was as fascinated by it as I was — he said it was almost like “outsider art.”

Rowand 3

I emailed the Caldecott-winning children’s book illustrator David Small, of such books as IMOGENE’S ANTLERS and his graphic memoir STITCHES.

He’d never heard of this one, though he’s very knowledgeable on classic picture books.  Here’s his comments, reprinted with permission:

Zack,

This stuff is strange. She can’t draw but her designs aren’t bad. It’s the obsessive quality of the drawing –the hair, the dots on the dress– that makes them, as your friend said, almost Outsider art. The figures and animals are sacharrine, though I do like the little fat girl–probably unintentionally made fat– on her stomach in the first (best) illustration. 
Rowand 4
I looked up Rowand on Amazon — not a lot of other books to her name.  About the only note I have is that she did a book with Ruth Krauss, author of THE CARROT SEED, called BEARS — and decades later, the book was re-done with new illustrations by the great Maurice Sendak.  But nothing else on Rowand.
Rowand 5
Anyway, I have no idea what the full history is of this book, but it was a strange little volume to encounter, and there’s something oddly compelling in the offbeat quality of the illustrations.  I share the highlights now with you; judge for youself.

I’ve several deadlines pressing on me, but wanted to take time out for a brief tribute to children’s book author E.L. Konigsburg, who just passed away at age 83.  That’s a good run.
Konigsburg is best known for her 1967 Newbery Medal winner FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, about two kids who run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  It’s one of my favorites, and still a book I re-read with pleasure every few years.

It’s one of those premises that is irresistible to a kid, because it acknowledges two fundamental truths.  The first is that every kid has a fantasy of running away to have an adventure, and the second is that kids love museums.

Konigsburg was one of a number of children’s and young adult authors that rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s with books about kids in NYC, Judy Blume  and HARRIET THE SPY’s Louise Fitzhugh being another major example.  In elementary school, these books were endlessly fascinating to me.  It was such a different lifestyle described, taking the subway, living in an apartment and letting yourself in…to someone in the suburbs, it was like science fiction, some kind of alternate reality where these strange things were part of everyday life.

Plus, that’s just a great title.  For years I’ve joked about my messiness by saying “my filing system makes Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler look obsessive-compulsive.”  The cool people are the ones who get that joke.

Even at the time, I took note of the book’s odd structure — the story is told after the fact by the titular Mrs. Frankweiler, and who she is and how she comes to be involved in the narrative is one of the central mysteries, along with the secret of a statue she’s donated to the Met that the kids find fascinating.

The key to the story is that it understands why the main character of Claudia would be so fascinated with the statue, and why she’d want to run away in the first place, despite a relatively happy home life.  Claudia wants to be “different,” to have a greater sense of who she is and what she’s capable of doing.  Mrs. Frankweiler later reprimands her a bit to make the point that running away isn’t the answer and that she’s caused her family terrible worry through her actions, but you can still tell that she admires the kid’s gumption.  That and a note that the Met has beefed up security at the end of the book play as “don’t try this at home” warnings, but really, what you remember is the sheer cleverness of how Claudia and her brother Jamie survive at the Met — hiding dirty laundry in a sarcophagus, bathing in the fountain and scrimping extra coins, joining in on school tour groups to keep “learning” during their hideout.  Really, it seems not so much like running away as the ultimate vacation.

The book was filmed twice, with two Hollywood legends as Mrs. Frankweiler, as THE HIDEAWAYS in 1972 (though some editions have it under its original title) with Ingrid Bergman, and under its original title for a 1995 TV movie with Lauren Bacall.  It’s odd, considering that both actresses are heavily associated with Humphrey Bogart.  Neither completely captured the charm of the original book, and both upped the “running away is bad” message, but they have their moments.

FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER shares a quality with Konigsburg’s later books in that many have a keen ear for how children see themselves and the world around them, and how they interact with one another.  In the same year she won the Newbery for FRANKWEILER, she received the unprecedented honor of also receiving the Newbery Honor for another of her books published that year, JENNIFER, HECTATE, MACBETH, WILLIAM MCKINLEY AND ME, ELIZABETH.

Set in the suburbs, the book is based on the simple, relatable idea of a kid pretending to be weird or magic to seem more interesting and make a friend…except it tells it from the perspective of the other kid’s point of view.  The titular Jennifer has just moved to the suburbs and meets Elizabeth, who claims to be a witch and involves Jennifer in all manner of rituals that will be her “initiation.”

 It’s clear to the reader early on that Elizabeth isn’t a witch, but it’s also clear that her brashness and confidence are part of an act, and deep down she’s as lonely as Jennifer.  As a kid, I understood where both parties were coming from, and how the awkwardness of making a friend, of forming some new relationship, can make you feel like you’ve got to create the facade of some extraordinary, larger-than-life being to get the other person to want to be around you.

The moment I never forgot came near the end of the book, where Jennifer finally explains to her mother why she doesn’t want to be friends with Cynthia, the more “normal” kid the mom would prefer be Jennifer’s friend, the kind of kid who’s lovely to parents but a snob when adults aren’t around.  Jennifer’s retort to her mother is a thing of beauty:

“Mother,” I said, “If you really want to know, I’ll tell you why.  Cynthia is a phony.  I’ve known for a long time that she’s a phony.  And worse than that, she doesn’t know she’s a phony.  She believes in Cynthia.  She’s a serious phony.  And the only way I can stand her is to absolutely ignore her.”

“She believes in Cynthia” is a line that’s stayed with me for years, because it sums up so many people I knew as a kid, and have known since then — the people who believe their own hype, who create an idealized shell with nothing underneath.  If you were the kind of kid who knew and hated a Cynthia, you were in the audience for E.L. Kongisburg.

Kongisburg wrote many other great books, which I’ll touch on quickly.   They had some fantastic titles, such as JOURNEY TO AN 800 NUMBER, UP FROM JERHICO TELL, and SILENT TO THE BONE.

A few I want to particularly note are ABOUT THE B’NAI BAGELS, regarding a Jewish children’s baseball team…

(GEORGE) is a strange but fascinating volume about a brilliant young boy who talks with his “inner voice” and winds up preventing a tragedy.  It has a bit at the end talking about the state of the book’s antagonist and how he hates the main character, and leaves the note, “Hate is a hole; it can be filled, and maybe one day it will.  With gratitude.”

A PROUD TASTE FOR SCARLET AND MINIVER is an offbeat afterlife fantasy with Elanor of Aquitaine…

…and Konigsburg won a second Newbery in 1997 for THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY, which predated SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE a bit by telling the individual stories of a group of schoolkids on an academic competition team, and how their unique backgrounds qualify them to answer the difficult questions they’re posed.

File:The View from Saturday.jpg

Konigsburg’s books were often mysteries that weren’t mysteries — there were no stolen jewels or dead bodies, but twisty narratives and twisty characters that gradually revealed themselves to the reader.  They were about the endless curiosity of being a kid and trying to figure out the world around you, and where you fit into it.  And they did so with gentleness and good humor.

You can see the influence of her work in strange, subtle places, my favorite being the throwaway moment in Wes Anderson’s THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS explaining how the young Tenenbaums briefly ran away to a museum…

 On the DVD commentary, Anderson admits the homage, and it seems only appropriate.  Anderson seems like he would have been the kind of kid who really got the characters in Konigsburg’s books — kids who bring imagination and adventure to their ordinary lives, and discover something extraordinary about themselves in the process.

I can only wonder how many kids tried running away to a museum as a result of her work.  Probably more than she’d be comfortable admitting.  Well, there’s worse things to inspire.

Rest in Peace.

BONUS: A lovely series of illustrations inspired by FRANKEILER by the great comic artist and illustrator Phil McAndrew.  Check ’em out!

Wanted to write a few original posts on children’s books.  Here’s an odd tale of a SF series from the 1970s — and how its ending was changed in a different medium.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder is a multiple Newbery Honor recipient for such offbeat children’s books as THE EGYPT GAME, about children who develop an Egyptian-based club:

…and THE WITCHES OF WORM, where a young girl adopts a stray cat she becomes convinced is a witch’s familiar that’s forcing her to misbehave (cleverly, the book never resolves whether this is all in her head).

In 1970, Snyder did a book called THE CHANGELING, about the friendship between two young girls from different social circles.

Part of the story involves the girls creating an elaborate SF/fantasy world together.    Snyder later said that she based this on a game she played as a child climbing from tree to tree, trying not to touch the ground as to avoid something dangerous that lived “below the root.”

In 1975, Snyder decided to flesh out this idea, and wrote an actual novel set in this world called BELOW THE ROOT.

The story is about an alien race that lives in a system of giant trees, and whose children have psychic powers.  They encounter another group of beings that live outside teh trees on the surface, whose values conflict with their own.

The characters appeared through three books, collectively known as the Green Sky Trilogy.

In the final book in the series, the main character Raamo dies when he falls into a lake.

Kids and their parents were quite upset by this, and let Snyder know it in letters and such.

Snyder herself regretted the decision, but the book was already out, and there was no changing the ending.

A few years later, computer games had become more popular, and Snyder was contacted by a fan of her work named Dale Disharoon.

Disharoon wound up working with Snyder to develop a computer game version of BELOW THE ROOT that took place after the events of the trilogy.

Snyder herself wrote the storyline for the game, and considered it an official part of the series.

The game came out in 1984, and you can watch a full playthrough with detailed commentary starting here:

But what’s really interesting is that Snyder used the game to retroactively change the trilogy’s ending!

In the climax of the game, your character finds out that Raamo is still alive, just stuck in a subterranean cave.  You win the game by rescuing him!

I Played a Thing  Below the Root, Part 9 - YouTube

How crazy is that?  Imagine all the deceased characters from other books/films/TV shows that could be resurrected that way, by finishing a computer game!

The Green Sky Trilogy is currently out of print in hard copy form, but you can get Kindle Editions on Amazon.

If you read the original trilogy and was bummed that Raamo died at the end, hope this gives you some closure — he wound up with a stay of execution!