Happy New Year!  Thought I would get a few recommendations down as I got back to work.

These are some picture books that are so weird and wonderful and crazy that adults can enjoy them as well.  There’s tons of books like these out there, but these are a few of my favorites.

First, a recent one:

This is a really cool book by Matt Furie, whose artwork is colorful, surreal and kind of creepy…but overall, very gentle.

It’s a simple tale about a frog and a rat who go for a nighttime bike ride, meet up with some weird creatures who turn out to be friends, and then they all head to the beach together.

Night Riders 2

Furie does some crazy-detailed pages with creatures lurking in every corner, but despite the seeming threat of danger, the book is more about revealing all sorts of wonders around every corner, and will make you smile more than once.

Night Riders 1

The book is part of a new line from McSweeneys called “McMullins,” which combines reprints of lesser-known picture books with new ones by alternative cartoonists.  You can buy THE NIGHT RIDERS, which is on sale half-off, here.

And (self-promotion) you can check out an interview I did with Furie on the book here.

I also recommend BENNY’S BRIGADE, an adorable tale of a tiny walrus illustrated by the great cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt.

You can check it out and order copies here.  

Another recent picture book I liked was Precious Little, an Australian story about a little circus girl who attempts a dangerous stunt that is a metaphor for following your dreams.   The book is filled with crazy-detailed colorful images, and even some glitter on the cover.

Here’s a little trailer for it.

A lot of the better-known picture books go on by me — I love Mo Willems, obviously, but a lot of the more popular books are just off my radar.  I do love Jon Klassen’s “Hat” books, though — I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat.

Both are hilariously deadpan stories about stolen hats, and what happens to those who steal them.

There’s a slightly mixed message in both books, but I love the expressive, minimalist images and prose, and both made me laugh out loud.  Both are also fun reads for kids because they involve the reader being one step ahead of the characters telling the story.

Here’s a trailer for the first book.

A book I just randomly found on the discount rack at a children’s bookshop was McFig and McFly: A Tale of Jealousy, Revenge and Death (With a Happy Ending) by Henrik Drescher.

This is your typical “two rival neighbors try to outdo each other’s houses” story, with the bonus that the increasingly-tall houses get more and more colorful, detailed and surreal, leading to a fold-out page with a hilariously dark punchline.  But as I said, there’s a happy ending — and a nice point about not obsessing over material possessions.  If you click the Amazon link above, the book is available at a good discount.

I want to save my thoughts on some older children’s books for another post, but a few quick ones here!

Tove Jansson’s Moomin books are hugely popular all over the world, but they’ve just gotten a major push in the U.S. in the last few years, with reprints of both the original chapter books and her comic strips with the characters.

Two particularly cool reprints are some picture books Jansson did in the 1950s, which have just recently been reprinted in the U.S.

The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My takes Moomin, the hippo-like hero, on a quest to find Little My, with every double-page spread leading into the next through cleverly-hidden die-cut holes in each right-hand page.  It’s spooky but ultimately comforting, with a joyous combination of black-and-white figures with colorful backgrounds.

Jansson takes these themes even further with her other Moomin picture book, Who Will Comfort Toffle?: A Tale of Moominvalley, where a painfully shy, anxious character must ultimately pull himself out of his isolation to save another who could be his friend.  It’s a sweet metaphor and the art gets amazingly detailed, climaxing in a gorgeous water parade with the characters in boats.

They’re a great entry point for young readers into the Moomin series, and I also recommend the recent color collections of storylines from the Moomin comics by Drawn & Quarterly.

Some books from the 1980s I want to recommend are by the team of Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski.  They are WEEEEEIIIIIIIRRRRRDDDDD, but good.

Louis the Fish  is an oddball tale about a young man who is expected to take over his family’s butcher shop, but prefers to hang around fish.  This leads to a very surreal dream where everyone around him turns into angry fish, and an equally surreal (but happy) ending).

It is one of the most New York picture books I’ve ever experienced — very based in the concept of the old neighborhood and family businesses, but in a way that kids from anywhere can find relateable.

I remember watching this on READING RAINBOW (where it was narrated by Vincent Gardenia from LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) and thinking this was the most utterly weirdo book I had ever seen on the show.  Here’s the episode (with updated contemporary credits) below.

Another Yorinks/Egielski collaboration won the Caldecott — Hey, Al, an equally-surreal tale of an exhausted janitor and his dog friend who are lured to a luxurious island in the sky by a colorful bird, only to find it has its price.  Again, there’s a happy and sweet ending, but not before the story’s drawn from everything from Pinocchio’s Paradise Island to the myth of Icarus to John Milton with its last line, “Paradise lost is sometimes heaven found.”

Here’s a short adaptation of the book below.

I’ll have some more books to talk about in the future — I could devote a whole post to Mark Stamaty’s stuff!

Let me know if you enjoyed these.


Combining a couple of my obsessions for an explanatory post…

Was at a bookstore tonight and saw they had a new edition of the book THE IRON GIANT by Ted Hughes.

Doesn’t look a whole lot like Brad Bird’s amazing animated movie from 1999, does it?

Gather round children, I’ll explain this to the best of my ability.

THE IRON GIANT was originally published in England as THE IRON MAN in 1968.

It was a very simple story Hughes, the British Poet Laureate, created for his children after the death of their mother, THE BELL JAR author Sylvia Plath.

When the book was published in the US, Marvel Comics already had Iron Man coming out as a comic, so the book was re-titled THE IRON GIANT.  Here’s the cover to the first US edition.

The book tells the story of a giant iron being that appears from nowhere, feeds on scrap metal, befriends a boy named Hogarth…and helps save the world from a giant “Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon” that is actually there to help bring about world peace.

You probably don’t remember that from the film.

The history actually gets a little stranger here!

In the 1980s, Pete Townshend of The Who turned the story into a rock opera, which featured vocals from the likes of John Lee Hooker and Nina Simone, which followed the original novel’s story.

A few years after that, in 1995, Ted Hughes wrote a SEQUEL called THE IRON WOMAN, which had chilling wood-cut illustrations by Barry Moser.

This features the same characters from before, but is more of an environmentally-themed story about an Iron Woman that rises up out of a swamp and takes a horrifying revenge on some polluting bureaucratic fat-cats.

Meanwhile, Warner Brothers decided to make a film of Pete Townshend’s album, which again, was based off the original novel.

They gave the project to Brad Bird, who was coming off a run on THE SIMPSONS and a number of other acclaimed animated projects for TV.

Bird was given heavy creative control, and after Warner Brothers cut their feature animation department following the failure of the musical QUEST FOR CAMELOT, he found himself with a fair amount of creative freedom on a reduced budget…

…actually convinced Warner Brothers to let him cut Townshend’s songs and turn the story into a period Cold War piece.

Townshend still received a producer credit on the final film, and was reportedly cool with the cuts.

The film’s release prompted a reprint of the original novel in time for its anniversary…

This was the version I read, though I remember thinking, “Hmm, I didn’t see any Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon in the trailer…”

The book was reprinted in the US under its original name in 2005, with no mention of the film on the cover:

Hughes himself died in late 1998.  I have no idea if he saw the film, but according to Warner Brothers’ web site for the feature, he read and enjoyed the script very much.

THE IRON GIANT film fared very poorly at the box office, with bad promotion and a crowded marketplace blamed.  But it got great reviews, and has since earned a loyal following on TV and DVD, even running in marathon on Cartoon Network at one point.

It also inspired some fun toys from Trendmasters, including my favorite, this “Utlimate Iron Giant” that can eat junk pieces.

(It also had the voice of Vin Diesel, who voiced the giant after PITCH BLACK and before THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS)

I’ll have to give this latest version of the book a look — it apparently has fold-outs and die-cuts in its illustrations, and I’m all about that!

So now you know the strange history of THE IRON GIANT.  THE IRON WOMAN, though, remains more or less stuck in her swamp.

Had such a good reception to the blogs about obscure toys that I’m going to try some more original pieces on a few of my other passions, and see if this leads anywhere.

The first series is going to be about children’s books, and I want to do a few posts going over some of the ones that I just find weird, or uncomfortable.

Today: Racism, yay!

I found this really nice late 1960s edition of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY at, of all places, an estate sale I spontaneously visited (everything was overpriced that was of interest, including a lovely collection of Beatrix Potter-inspired miniatures).  It was one of the versions with the original illustrations by Joseph Schindelman, and I was infatuated with the cover, which combined the pen-and-ink artwork with this crazy colorful backdrop.

I couldn’t find a full version online (didn’t get that copy), but here’s the best pic I could Google:

More Googling led to my finding a blog about the original African depiction of the Oompa-Loompas, and also the use of stereotyped Africans in the Doctor Doolittle books:

Not Exactly the Tiny Orange Men of Legend, Eh?

Ohhhh, lordy.

The Oompa-Loompas appeared this way in the first version of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY in 1964.  By the early 1970s, they had prompted some complaint and were re-rendered like this (again, taken from the piece linked above):

I suppose that’s better.

The Oompa-Loompas were part of a major problem you had in a lot of 20th century children’s stories: They were racist as hell.

Black people were a major part of African society, but this was the height of “separate but equal,” remember.  So when blacks were in movies/radio/etc., they usually talked like “Yes, massah.”

And when they were depicted in cartoons and illustrations…oh lordy.  Big eyes, big lips, and more of the awful dialect.

This wasn’t just America — British children’s stories did this a lot, with a famous example being the Golliwog, who’s even appeared in THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN:



And then there was Doctor Dolittle.
As the piece linked earlier indicates, there were some AWFUL stereotyped depictions of Africans in the Dolittle books.  The most infamous example is from the first book, THE STORY OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE, where the African prince Bumpo helps the doctor escape his tribe…after the doctor bleaches his face white, so he might seem appealing to a white woman he previously frightened.
It’s no surprise that almost every reprint of this book either cuts or alters this chapter (one version has the doctor help the prince look like a lion, which is only barely better).  A major illustrator I speak with sometimes says he was offered a chance to illustrate a new edition of the book a few years back, but refused based on this content, even after the publisher said it would be cut.
I had a weird thing about the Dolittle censorship; when that awful Eddie Murphy movie came out, I was 18 and fondly remembered several Dolittle books from childhood  and spent some time tracking down the ones I’d missed, including DOCTOR DOLITTLE IN THE MOON.  I was irate at the prospect of censorship, particularly the idea that whole chapters had been cut out of some editions, along with non-racist but lovely illos included in the cut chapters.
Of course I wound up never finishing most of the books I tracked down, and also found that the problem with many of those books was that they were overlong and digressive, and probably needed to be cut.  But I still have them; thought of selling them a few years ago, and Mom said not to, as she viewed them as a symbol of what I could achieve when I really focused on something.  The adventure behind getting all of them is their legacy, for the most part.
Anyway, it is fascinating how many great books are marred by the presence of the institutionalized racism of the 20th century and before.  And it’s many of the great masters as well!  An early Tintin book has been under much fire for this reason, TINTIN IN THE CONGO, which was only recently ruled as not racist by a Belgian court.
 Will Eisner, the great master of comics, long expressed his embarrassment for giving his character the Spirit an inarticulate, big-lipped black sidekick, Ebony White.
Captain Marvel(who sold 1.5 million comics twice a month at his peak)  had a black friend named “Steamboat” who spoke in a similar dialect, which allegedly caused an African-American group to protest Fawcett Comics.  Even some of the Disney comics had big-eyed, big-lipped natives/African-Americans who were all “Sho’!”
As a kid, I found this way of talking hilarious whenever I encountered it and occasionally did imitations that were shot down by my parents.  It wasn’t that I found the characters stupid for being black; it was simply I thought the way of talking sounded funny in and of itself.  Hell, I encountered something similar when Robert Downey Jr. did that character in TROPIC THUNDER a few years ago.  It’s just easy to forget the real ugliness that comes from those kinds of depictions, and what they can encourage in small-minded people.
Rarely is there anything as misguided as the prince wanting a formula to turn himself white in the first Dooittle book, though…!
Weirdly, “Little Black Sambo” was not what I recalled as a racist story — I think the version I saw depicted Sambo as more Pacific Asian, and I think the “black” was made to refer to his black hair in the story.  I could be wrong, though.  Memory is like that.
The thing is, all the books and comics I named above are some of my favorite things from childhood.  They’re groundbreaking works by groundbreaking writers and artists, and have many, many aspects that are still funny and touching and exciting and hold widespread appeal for kids today.
It’s just a very disheartening thing to realize that, as products of their eras, they reflect some of the ugliness and ignorance of those times as well.
I’ll do another post soon that will be a bit more upbeat and focus on some cool illustrators, and then I have an idea for one for books that are just WEIRD.