Monday, February 02, 2015

Hey wait, I thought I hated clowns!

The Farmer and the ClownThe Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Published by Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2014)

Okay, I have to get this out front - I really dislike clowns. I’ve always found them creepy and not a bit funny. But with this sweet and touching picture book, author/illustrator Marla Frazee has just but a small dent in my opinion of clowns. The little clown in her wordless picture book, who gets separated from his family when he falls off of their circus train, is probably the cutest clown ever. His simple makeup consists of a plain white face, a relatively small red nose and a painted-on smile. When he’s found and taken home by a stern-looking farmer and washes off his make-up, we see underneath a worried and sad expression - the look of a lost child.

This book is all about finding a home, learning to feel at home, and the very essence of what home is. It could just as easily be the story of a refugee taken in by strangers, or about the adoption of a child. However you want to look at it, it’s a sweet and charming book. Considering that this is a wordless book, the author does a wonderful job of developing her characters. The farmer starts off seeming very stern and no-nonsense. Just from the expressions the author/illustrator has given him, we can see he is completely perplexed by this strange little person in a clown suit. But after the little clown washes off his make-up, we see from the farmer's facial expression that he is concerned about this lost child who he has brought into his home. Over the course of just a few pages, we see the farmer, while trying to make the sad child smile, loosen up and develop an affectionate bond with this little person. Along the way, each of the characters learns something new from the other. The farmer teaches the little clown how to milk a cow, while the little clown teaches the farmer how to juggle eggs. The farmer appears to be learning that all work and no play can make for a very dull existence. Marla Frazee conveys so much feeling and understanding in her illustrations with just changes in the body language of her characters and their facial expressions. This book is a great example of how to tell a complex story with no accompanying text.

I love how Frazee has used a limited color palette for her delightful illustrations. The farmer seems to exist in a world of soft sepia browns and charcoal grays. The little clown, dressed in reds and yellows brings color into the farmer’s drab existence. The clown’s suit really pops against the monochromatic backgrounds. More color is brought into the story when the circus train returns, bringing greens, blues, soft purples and oranges into the palette. At the end of this story, I had the feeling that the farmer had been changed forever by the little stranger who briefly became part of his life. And of course, without giving away the ending, the last illustration shows that the farmer’s adventures may not be quite over.

This book brought a smile to my face (the first time any clown has ever done that!) and I found it sweet and touching. I highly recommend this one!

Illustration by Marla Frazee. The farmer approaches the little clown who has fallen from the circus train.

Illustration by Marla Frazee. Underneath his make-up, the clown is a sad, lost child.

Illustration by Marla Frazee. The Farmer tries his hand at juggling and the clown helps the farmer in the fields.

Illustration by Marla Frazee. A happy reunion, but the story is not quite over yet.




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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dory Will Leave You With a Smile

Dory FantasmagoryDory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The narrator of this funny and fast-paced story is six-year-old Dory (appropriately nicknamed Rascal) who has an active imagination and fills her days attempting to get her older siblings to play with her, conspiring with her imaginary monster friends, and trying to figure out ways to vanquish the child-snatching Mrs Gobble Gracker (an imaginary being her older siblings invent to try and scare Dory into being good). This is a cute book and author/illustrator Abby Hanlon successfully gives the reader a glimpse into the mind of a 6-year-old, reminding us of what it was like when fantasy and reality were intertwined and play was an integral part of our lives. With its profuse black and white illustrations, the book at times reads like a graphic novel and in fact many of the charming drawings have integrated dialogue bubbles. The illustrations, by the way, are delightful, filled with expression, action and funny details. This is a fast read and one that I think will delight young children and anyone who wants to relive those special years of childhood when playtime was ruled by imagination.

Illustration by Abby Hanlon. Dory is the cute little character on the far right

Illustration by Abby Hanlon. 

An example of how illustrator Abby Hanlon integrates comic book style word balloons into her illustrations
Illustration by Abby Hanlon. Dory gets a shot while on visit to the doctor.

Don't worry, the intended target of the dart is the imaginary Mrs. Gobble Gracker. Illustration by Abby Hanlon.


While on a time-out, Dory imagines her family is enjoying popcorn with her nemesis, Mrs. Gobble Gracker. Illustration by Abby Hanlon


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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mistress Masham's Repose





Mistress Masham's ReposeMistress Masham's Repose by T.H. White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maria is shown the tiny livestock
illustration by Fritz Eichenberg
The premise of Mistress Masham’s Repose is a clever one - the travels of Lemuel Gulliver described in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” actually took place and some Lilliputians, captured on a later expedition, have escaped and have been hiding out and living in exile on a rundown English estate.  For over a century, they have managed to avoid detection by living inside of a garden folly. Their secret comes close to being exposed when they are discovered by Maria, a young girl living on her ancestor’s estate. For me, the best parts of the book were in White’s descriptions of how the tiny Lilliputians are forced to cope in a land of gigantic threats. The writing is often somewhat dense, but filled with humor and White shines in describing the foibles of his characters. The character of Maria is not always likable but White uses her to show how a little power can corrupt even a person with the best of intentions. As is often the case, the villains of the story are often the most interesting characters and White has created a devious pair in the characters of Maria’s governess, Miss Brown and Mr. Hater, a greedy Vicar. There is a lot of suspense created when these two conniving schemers discover the existence of the Lilliputians and plot ways to make a fortune off of them. They even discuss murdering Maria if it should become necessary to achieve their gains. White fills the book with doses of English humor (which may go over the heads of some younger readers) and frequently goes off on rather esoteric tangents, which I felt slowed down the narrative. If it weren’t for these esoteric and wordy asides, I probably would have given this book 5 stars. All in all, it’s an enjoyable read, especially if you’re in the mood for a story rooted in a classic of English literature. If you can, make sure and find an edition that contains the fantastic illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg. His amazing pen and ink work perfectly captures the humor and drama in White's story.

All illustrations are by Fritz Eichenberg and were scanned from a 1946 copy of Mistress Masham's Repose by T.H. White, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons.

The book has recently been reprinted by The New York Review Children's Collection.


Click on the illustrations to see them larger.

Miss Brown and Mr. Hater poke a captured Lilliput

Miss Brown discovers the People in Maria's room
The Professor and the People try to figure out
a way to release Maria from the dungeon


Some of the dangers faced by a
person who is only six inches tall.


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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Color Palettes of Vincente Minnelli

Bells Are Ringing (1960)

I recently became aware of a Tumblr blog titled "Wes Anderson Palettes," a visual examination of the color palettes that predominate in the films of director Wes Anderson. Being a visual artist, and always on the look out for interesting color palettes, I was fascinated by the blog, but I was also reminded of another director, Vincente Minnelli, who as a visual stylist, also used color in a very stylized way. For those of you unfamiliar with Minnelli, other than as the father of Liza, Vincente Minnelli was one of the top directors at MGM from the mid 1940s through the early 1960s. Before entering the world of motion pictures, Minnelli was a set and costume designer and before that, he was a window dresser for Marshall Field's department store in Chicago. After directing several well received revues, Minnelli was offered a contract at MGM where, in 1943, he directed his first motion picture, "Cabin in the Sky." That was followed by "Meet Me in St. Louis," in 1944 and a whole slew of other musicals such as "Yolanda and the Thief" (1945), "The Pirate" (1948),"An American in Paris," (1951), "The Band Wagon" (1953), "Brigadoon" (1954), and "Gigi" (1958). Besides musicals, he also directed comedies and melodramas such as "The Clock" (1945), "Lust for Life" (1956) "Tea and Sympathy" (1956), "Home from the Hill" (1960) and "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" (1963).

Growing up, my family had a black and white television. It wasn't until I was almost out of high school that my parents finally splurged and bought a color TV set. Up until that time, my experience of Minnelli's films had been on a small black and white screen. My imagination had to fill in the colors. When I first had the opportunity to see some of Hollywood's classic films in color, it was an eye-opener. The technicolor films from the forties, fifties and early sixties, didn't look a thing like the films that were currently playing in theaters. Instead of looking like "real" life, these classic films looked they had drifted on to the screen out of a carefully designed dream.

I think even a casual movie-goer watching a Minnelli film will notice the impeccable design choices that went into the art direction, set design, costumes and overall look of his films. I think the first time I became aware of this in one of Minnelli's films was when I was in college and had an opportunity to see his wide-screen drama "Tea and Sympathy," on a big screen. Right away I noticed the color harmonies in each scene. It almost seemed as if the whole movie was designed to compliment star Deborah Kerr's red hair.

Whether or not Minnelli was responsible for all of the design choices in his films, I don't know. He did have frequent collaborators in the likes of Art Director/Production Designers E. Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons, George W. Davis, F. Keogh Gleason, Edwin B. Willis and others. Many of these people worked on the films that are pictured in the examples below. But considering the fact that Minnelli's background was in set design, and as a particular film's director he was in charge of the picture, I would venture to guess that he had a great deal of input into the look of a film. Minnelli has been criticized by some as a director who put style before substance in his films. I suppose there are those who are saying the same thing about Wes Anderson's films. 

In 1968, critic Andrew Sarris said this about Vincente Minnelli:

"If he has a fatal flaw as an artist, it his his naïve belief that style can invariably transcend substance and that our way of looking at the world is more important than the world itself. Critic-film-makers like Godard and Truffaut pay lip service to these doctrines, but they don't really believe them. Only Minnelli believes implicitly in the power of his camera to transform trash into art, and corn into caviar. Minnelli believes more in beauty than art."

Below are a few examples of some of the beautiful color palettes from the films of Vincente Minnelli. I put these together from various still images that I found on the internet. In each case I tried to select the colors that I felt dominated a particular scene. You can click on the images to see them larger.

An American in Paris (1951)
An American in Paris (1951)
An American in Paris (1951)

An American in Paris (1951)
The Band Wagon (1953)
The Band Wagon (1953) 
The Band Wagon (1953)
The Band Wagon (1953)

Brigadoon (1954)

Brigadoon (1954)

Brigadoon (1954)
Brigadoon (1954)

Bells Are Ringing (1960)

Bells Are Ringing (1960)
Tea and Sympathy (1956)
Tea and Sympathy (1956)
Home from the Hill (1960)
Home from the Hill (1960)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

My Favorite Picture Book of 2013

Mr. Tiger Goes WildMr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first became aware of author/illustrator Peter Brown with his lovely picture book from 2009, “The Curious Garden.” I’ve followed his output ever since and with his latest book, “Mr. Tiger Goes Wild,” he has become one of my favorite author/illustrators. Using minimal text in combination with his wonderfully mid-century style illustrations, Brown manages to tell a surprisingly complex tale of bucking the norm and being true to oneself. Mr. Tiger lives in a society of animals that dress in human clothes, walk upright and are rigidly formal in their polite behavior. But for Mr. Tiger, always being prim and proper is a boring way to live. One day, he has a wild idea - he decides to walk on all fours! Right away he feels better, but when he decides to shed his clothes and run wild, his friends lose their patience and ask him to take his wild behavior to the wilderness. Without spoiling the ending, I will say that I found the resolution of this fun tale to be a delightful surprise.
illustration by Peter Brown from "Mr. Tiger Goes Wild"

The double-page spread where Mr. Tiger decides to shed his clothes is ingenious in its design and simplicity. A large public fountain forms the center of the two-page design (see last image at bottom). On the left page we see Mr. Tiger diving into one side of the fountain fully clothed. On the right page, we see Mr. Tiger emerging from the other side of the fountain but this time, without his clothes. Then we notice his clothes floating on the water. Turning the page, we see Mr. Tiger, standing on all fours, without a stitch of clothing to hide his magnificent striped coat. There is no text, words are unnecessary. His stance and the smile on his face tell us everything we need to know - Mr. Tiger has at last discovered his own true nature.

In this beautifully designed and humorous book, Brown presents the reader with a thought-provoking array of concepts - the stagnation of conformity, the joy in being different, respect for the rights of others, and making compromises. I highly recommend this book, definitely my favorite picture book of 2013!


detail from Peter Brown's "Mr. Tiger Goes Wild."


Double-page spread from "Mr. Tiger Goes Wild."






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