Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Best Books from 2014 not from 2014

Now's the time of year when all the "best of" lists come around. I don't recall if I've ever done one myself. At least not publicly. I usually keep this sort of thing to myself or in private conversations. Seems like the right thing to do. But this year, I read some incredible books. I read some incredible books that came out in 2014, of course. But I also read some incredible books that did not come out in 2014.

So in the interest in doing something different, I've decided to make a list of the best books I discovered in 2014. The ones that did not come out in 2014.

Flora and Tiger by Eric Carle, published by Philomel in 1997

Early this year, I lucked upon the spine of this Eric Carle book in the nonfiction section of my local public library. I was a little confused as to why a book by Carle was wedged in there, so of course I slid it off the shelf. And I’m glad I did. Turns out this book—that looks much like one of his picture books, but with smaller bits of art and longer bits of text—is Carle’s answer to the question many of us picture book makers continually tolerate throughout a career. Question being, “do you think you’ll ever make a real book?” Real, of course, meaning something for grown-ups, not kids. [sigh] Anyway, I love that he did this and I love that he did it like he did it. It’s 19 true, short (long by picture book standards) slice-of-life autobiographical stories from the picture book master himself, from various times of his childhood and adult life. 

I have long admired Carle’s work and I love this peek into his world. The writing is clever, poignant, precise, and fulfilling. The art is as stylish and charming and accomplished as anything he’s done and accompanies the stories impeccably. Other than the length of text and subject matter throughout, everything about it—fittingly so—feels like a picture book. The size, shape, illustrations, and design. Wonderful.

My Side of the Car written by Kate Feiffer, illustrated Jules Feiffer, published by Candlewick in 2011

Jules Feiffer is one of those Old Guard, Real Deal, Bulletproof Pen and Ink Illustrators. I love how he just goes for it with his drawing. He is clearly not afraid of much when it comes to hitting pen, pencil, etc to paper. I have immense respect for that attitude. I have immense jealousy over it. This book is drawn up-to-perfect-snuff by the great Mr. Feiffer and it is just-right written by his own daughter Kate. And that, in itself, grabs me. 

But backing up, and to be perfectly honest, I had seen the cover of this book bouncing around online when it first was released. But I am not always on top of things, so it ended up being one of those books I mentally set aside with all good intentions of eventually checking out. But then more books are released on top of it, and time goes by, you forget, and that’s that. Such is the life of a book. Luckily, this was another great happenstance at my local library. Thumbing through the new (-ish) picture book section, there it was again, allowing me to rediscover it. Thankfully so. The story is sweet, funny, and just the right amount of weird. A little girl wants to go to the zoo with her dad, and they do, but it starts raining. Only it never starts raining on her side of the car. So on they go. And by the time you get to the sweetly satisfying ending and then through it, you are rewarded with a short back and forth conversation between the Feiffers about how this story is based on a true story—a childhood one that took place with Kate and Dad. Much here reminds me—in the best way—of one of those perfect days I’ve shared with my own daughter. Which is not to say that I’m always a sucker for a daughter and dad book. But I am a sucker for one done well.

Wild by Emily Hughes, published by Flying Eye Books in 2013 (US edition)

I am not terribly sharp when it comes to regurgitation of historical facts and anecdotes. Throughout school, I memorized just enough of that to skate by, much of which was promptly forgotten when I was released into adulthood. Perhaps you learned the story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron? I may have. I may have forgotten it. Essentially, in 1800 a boy was found alone, in the woods in Aveyron, France. Presumably abandoned at a very young age, and he had somehow survived for his many years alone. He was about 12 years old when he was found and he was… well, totally wild. Once he was discovered, people attempted to assimilate him into civilized society with mixed results. I don’t know if I learned this in school, but I did learn about it in Mordecai Gerstein’s incredible picture book The Wild Boy which I discovered a couple of years ago. Later, specifically earlier this year, I read a version of this same story in Wild. I suppose it’s one that’s been told and retold and adapted many times over. But in Wild the feral child story (with a twist at the end) is accompanied by absolutely triumphant drawing. 

The cover alone is reason enough to buy the book sight unseen. Which is what I did. 

Seasons and Mr. Gumpy's Motor Car By John Burningham, published by Jonathan Cape in 1969, published by HarperCollins in 1976 (US edition), respectively

What the great John Burningham has contributed to art and illustration and picture books (and also to my own obliterated perception of all the above after discovering his work) is very much immeasurable.  I could go on about how utterly fearless his work is (and I have), but I won’t.

But backing up for just a minute… Whenever I’m fascinated by an artist or an illustrator, I don’t typically go out and consume every book or image by this person as quickly as possible. Because: a) financially speaking, it is not ok for me to do that; and b) I prefer to consume a bit here and a bit there, taking in and digesting reasonable amounts at a time. I prefer to luck upon one of said artist’s books someplace, somewhere, sometime completely unexpectedly. On a library shelf, in a bookstore, in a used book sale, etc. That’s how I seem to work.

This year, I picked up two out of print (I think?) Burningham titles.

I first heard about Seasons at my artist’s group. When Burningham came up in conversation, someone noted he had been hunting a copy of this book for a while. I hadn’t even heard of it. So that, coupled with the fact that it sounded difficult to find, made me want it all the worse. Eventually I got lucky and found a pretty well worn copy online for cheap. There’s not much story or even text to this book. Each season of the year is introduced very simply. “Spring is…” with a handful of scene-setting words to describe each changing time of year. All of which, it seems, take place on and around one sprawling, rural plot of land. And for the lack of text here, we are treated to an explosive range of dense, layered, rich Burningham illustration.

Just a few weeks ago, I found for sale a beat up library copy of Mr. Gumpy’s Motor Car. One that was taken out of circulation and put up for sale in my local library’s used book room. I have to say, a beat up library picture book is sometimes so much more interesting to own than a pristine never-been-touched copy. How many children and parents and picture book enthusiasts have pored over and grabbed and twisted, turned, laughed over, cried over, smelled and ripped theses very pages? It sure looks like a lot. This sort of picture book patina will only make a Burningham book that much better.

Like many of his books there are weirdly perfect juxtapositions of strangeness and tenderness. The art is both classic and groundbreaking. There are moments of absolute awkwardness alongside ones of absolute finesse.

Mr. Gumpy and his children and animal friends squeeze into his car for a lovely drive across the countryside. There is a moment of conflict with rain, mud, and the arguing of the pushing and then the pushing of Gumpy’s mud-stuck car. It gets hot, they go for a swim. They go home.

“Good-bye,” said Mr. Gumpy. “Come for a drive another day.”

And I don’t mind if I do.

Frog and Toad are Friends, Frog and Toad Together, Frog and Toad All Year, published by HarperCollins in 1970, 1971, 1976, respectively

I’m pretty embarrassed to admit to this, but… 2014 will henceforth be known as the year I read Frog and Toad. For the first time. I love Arnold Lobel and have slowly, over the years, been digesting his great picture books. He is, in fact, one of my favorites. Frog and Toad are, in fact, one of my wife’s childhood favorites. So I don’t know why or how I could have not read Frog and Toad for shamefully this long in life. Taken for granted maybe? Forgot I’d never read them maybe? But now I have. And I’m much better off because of it. 

These books are every bit as perfect as I’d always heard them to be. Pitch perfect, top to bottom. Not a line out of place. You know the rest. You’ve all read them. If only I’d gotten to them sooner.

Words and Pictures and Beyond the Page by Quentin Blake, published in 2000 and 2012 by Jonathan Cape, respectively

There has been a lot of Quentin Blake moving through our house this year. It started when my wife decided to begin reading to our daughter some Roald Dahl books before bedtime. Our girl is 6, so not all Dahl is appropriate, but she did get to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. Both of which were, by choice, the (later) Quentin Blake editions. I was then inspired to read The Witches, a Dahl/Blake book I’d never gotten around to. At which point I was hooked—or shall I say rehooked—on the drawings of Sir Quentin. Blake is one of those true blue pen and inkers who is so good at what he’s doing and has been for so long, that you almost forget just how good he really, really is. You take the work for granted. For shame.

Shortly thereafter came my birthday. I used a Powell’s gift certificate to snap up these two Quentin Blake art books I’d had on a “wish I had that” list for a long, long time.

Words and Pictures follows Blake’s career and pen from early beginnings all the way to the year 2000. Much of this volume focuses on his incredible and evolving book work. 

Beyond the Page picks up with Blake’s art after 2000 and carries us up to when it was published, in 2012. This book showcases many of his exhibits and art installations through Europe where he created many original drawings that were displayed on museum, gallery, and even hospital walls. And other fun side projects like postage stamp and greeting card illustration. (Bonus: the endsheets are a peek into QB's blissfully chaotic studio.)

The text and descriptions throughout both volumes were entirely written by Blake himself, in a wonderfully charming, wonderfully humble tone. It seems impossible to say, but I love his work even more having read what he has to say about it. I found we shared many of the same processes and idiosyncrasies in the way we approach our drawing. I loved reading about his influences and outside study and art-making that had little to nothing to do with the world of children's books. These two books fascinated me. And they would fascinate any other Quentin Blake lover. And they would surely make Quentin Blake lovers of the rest of them too.

Micheal Rosen’s Sad Book written by Michael Rosen, Illustrated by Quentin Blake, published by Candlewick in 2005 (US edition)

And I could not come away from those two QB books without hunting down several of the picture books mentioned within. Some of them I knew and loved already. But some I was fortunate enough to seek out and experience for the very first time. One of these was Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. My favorite book of the year.

How do you take the ultimate soul-crushing life experience and write something beautiful and brilliant and… soulful out of it? How do you illustrate it? Point blank, a child died suddenly and unexpectedly. Specifically, British poet and author Michael Rosen’s teenage son Eddie died suddenly and unexpectedly. Rosen completely opens up his heart about it, revealing himself and his memories and his despair, and ultimately the beginning bit of perseverance and hope at the end. Where one must begin to rebuild—unfathomable as it seems—after something so horribly tragic has happened.

This is lemonade-from-lemons picture book making at its finest and in the absolute best and absolute worst way. It is—in my estimation—unparalleled. It is honest, graceful, shattering. Rosen and Blake, they broke my heart into a thousand little pieces. And they somehow managed to put it back together again. 


Ed Spicer said...

Matt, so thrilled to see Michael Rosen's Sad Book in this post! It is an important book that I have shared with many counselors and teachers.

Matthew Cordell said...

Hey, Ed, thanks for checking this out! I was deeply moved by this book. I'm so glad to hear you know it and that you've been able to use it in that capacity.

Oscar Solis said...

Excellent blog post. I think Seasons by John Burningham is an amazing book. It's beautifully illustrated (as an aside I've always felt that John Burningham paints some of the best sun's and winter scenes).

The Quentin Blake books are fantastic. I'm always amazed at how influential his style is.

A question: are you familiar with the work of Robert Andrew Parker?

Great blog and just want to mention that Hello, Hello is wonderful.

Matthew Cordell said...

Oscar, thanks much for the kind words and for stopping by the blog here! Glad to hear we are digging the same stuff. I had not heard of Robert Andrew Parker, just did a quick internet search. Amazing! Also scrolled through your blog too, really enjoyed looking at your stuff.

Aijung Kim said...

Hi Matthew, I just listened to your wonderful interview on the Lets Get Busy Podcast. Very moving stuff. I look forward to checking out your books! I really love what I've seen on your blog and website. "Wish" sounds quite amazing, and it was powerful to hear your story behind it,

Thanks for this great list of books. Besides the Frog and Toad series (Arnold Lobel is also one of my favorites!) I have not read any of the featured books. Wild is on my wish list, but like you I can't always allow myself to buy all the books I want, and my library system is sorely lacking. I agree that I've overlooked the greatness of Quentin Blake's work, as well as many other of the loose pen-and-inkers out here. In fact, even though I've always loved children's illustration, I think that I've underestimated all of them until recently. I think I've been suckered in by beautiful drawings, but never looked closely enough to understand the importance of why those drawings worked. It's amazing that there is always so much more to see and discover.

Unknown said...

Arnold Lobel's daughter collaborated on the Broadway show, "A Year With Frog And Toad" several years ago; it's stupendous and very true to the tone and content of the books. (Imagine Broadway-calibre children's theatre.) I don't know if your daughter is young enough to enjoy it, but it's often performed by schools and community theaters. Also, are you familiar with "Gwendolyn, The Miracle Hen", by the great Edward Sorrel? I've had my copy since I was little, and I can look at the illustrations and still find new details. I think that's the definition of a masterpiece. I plan to attend Imagine the Possibilities (I'm a former PDS Parent). I'll bring it if you want to see my copy. :)

Unknown said...

Correction: Edward Sorel!

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How did you go about receiving your book awards? I.m a childrens book author and I need a little coaching. Rebecca Barrett. The Christmas Santa Was Sick

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