Rhythm of the City

I bought Symphony City–by illustrator, graphic designer and self-proclaimed “indie rock obsessive” Amy Martin–because it is beautiful.

Unfortunately, one sentence makes for a very short post, so I’ve spent several days considering this book, working out what more there is to say. And it’s this: I love Symphony City as a work of art. As a work of story, not so much.

Symphony City‘s narrative–about a little girl lost in the city–feels incidental, a way to tie the images together. In fact, the type is so slight it nearly blends into the page, secondary to the art. I almost wonder whether the book could have been wordless, allowing readers to find their own story.

I sat with this book on a Sunday morning while listening to an NPR program about music. Trombone Shorty was being interviewed, and he talked about the street sounds of New Orleans. (As a young boy, Shorty–born Troy Evans–played trombone in the Treme neighborhood, and now, at the ripe age of 25, is a crowned prince of jazz, hip-hop and funk.) It was the perfect context in which to think about Symphony City. It got me thinking about rhythm.

I don’t think people consider rhythm in writing enough. Sometimes it’s hard to identify when not accompanied by rhyme. For me, it’s that thing that makes the written word just feel right when read out loud. It can also be a pattern that repeats. It’s often tied up in voice and tone, and all of those things we learned in Composition 101. And it can truly make or break a children’s book.

Because it is a book about music, I want Symphony City to have rhythm. And once it gets going, it does:

it comes from the street

and fills the sky

it pours in waves

through open windows

and expands

it starts as a sprout

and bursts into a forest

The pattern is repeated: The music is small, then grand, then finally altogether quiet. Which is, of course, sometimes the way symphonies work. And sometimes the way cities work too.

Martin’s illustrations have rhythm as well. When the little girl is bored at home, her world is a cardboard gray. But the world outside is full of color. Even she–in her yellow jacket–is part of the music.

The visual rhythm falls apart somewhere in the middle of the book when the pages start to feel more like individual spreads than part of a whole. At this point, the art becomes more about design, color and mood than supporting the story.

In fact, one spread stands out so much, I wonder whether it was the jumping off point for the whole book. Night has fallen, the sky is dark, but suddenly there’s a riot of color as the girl dances to the music of an electric guitar. Blazing pinks, oranges and yellows fill the sky, nearly blotting out the moon and cold of the spread before. (This image has also been turned into a poster on the inside of the dust jacket, and the circle motif is repeated on the endpapers.) It is clear that of all the music she has heard today, this is the little girl’s favorite.As I said, this book is a work of art. A lush, evocative, thoughtful work of art, right down to the use of pulpy brown paper and the golden birds on the cover. It is not a book I will read and read again, but I will most certainly revisit the pictures.

Images from Symphony City written and illustrated by Amy Martin, © 2011. Published by McSweeney’s McMullens.


Frog and Toad Are Friends

When I was a little girl, I spent summers at my grandparents’ home in Michigan. My memories of those summers are a little like a slideshow; I only have moments, not full narratives. I remember walking along railroad tracks and gathering coal like it was treasure. I remember impossibly tall sunflowers growing outside what we called The Gingerbread House. I remember Smoky, the stray cat who was so in love with my grandfather that she climbed the beams of our screened-in porch to be near him. The porch was a full story off the ground. Smoky would straddle the beam closest to my grandfather lengthwise, so that half her body pushed against the screen, and her other half dangled. Of course, Papa had no love for Smoky at all.

And I remember catching frogs. (A friend recently told me that I was more likely catching toads, since frogs seldom stray far from water, but these are my memories, and I say I was a frog-catcher.) I remember watching them in the grass before capturing them in the dome of my hand. I remember how their hopping felt in my cupped palms, and the mixture of revulsion and excitement I felt at having caught a living, squirming thing.

(I should note here that my bucolic reverie is being interrupted by a vague recollection of a favorite older cousin catching a really large toad and putting it on the toilet just before one of my elderly uncles went into the bathroom. But I digress…)

I can’t remember whether my love of frogs was at all connected to the Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel, but I so loved those stories.

On my bookshelf I have a copy of Adventures of Frog and Toad, a compilation of three books: Frog and Toad Are Friends, Frog and Toad Together and Days with Frog and Toad. What I didn’t realize when I bought this book is that my favorite Frog and Toad collection has been left out: Frog and Toad All Year. And the reason I love that particular book is “Ice Cream,” the story of what happens when Toad tries to bring two huge sticky, drippy ice cream cones through the wild woods. Do you remember the illustration of the frightening mess Toad became? And how all of the creatures fled?

Even without “Ice Cream” I still love the collection of stories in Adventures of Frog and Toad. I remember most of them from my childhood, and this blog gave me the happy excuse to reread them all.

This time around I noticed that the stories contain some really lovely writing. Take for example this from “The Letter”:

Toad was sitting on his front porch.

Frog came along and said,

“What is the matter, Toad? You are looking sad.”

“Yes,” said Toad.

“This is my sad time of day.”

And this from “A List”:

Toad put the list in his pocket.

He opened the door and walked out into the morning.

Writing for children in general is a real challenge; writing beautifully for the very young even more-so. These simple but elegant phrases show how well Lobel managed both.

There’s also a lot of humor in the Frog and Toad stories that I’m sure I missed when I was younger. My favorite moment comes in “Cookies,” a story about willpower, in which Toad has made cookies so delicious he and Frog can’t stop eating them. They try all sorts of things to stop themselves: putting the cookies in a box, tying the box with string, putting the box on a high shelf. But as Toad points out, there’s really nothing to stop them from retrieving the box, untying the string and eating the cookies. Finally, they leave the box out for the birds who are very happy to have the treats.

“Now we have no more cookies to eat,” Toad said sadly.

“Not even one.”

“Yes,” said Frog, “but we have lots and lots of will power.”

“You may keep it all, Frog,” said Toad.

“I am going home now to bake a cake.”

Of course, the real beauty these stories is what they have to say about friendship. Here’s what I’ve learned about friendship from Frog and Toad:

  1. Sometimes it’s OK to trick your friends if it’s for their own good. And yours.
  2. When your friend wants to be alone, it’s so they can think about how great you are.
  3. True friends will love you even when you’re really, really grouchy.
  4. A letter from a friend can make all the difference.
  5. If your friend says they look funny in a bathing suit, chances are, they probably do.

Images from Adventures of Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel © 2010. Published by Sandy Creek.

An Experiment in Reading and Writing

There are many books on my shelves. Some are books I’ve written, many are books I’ve edited, and just about all of them–with the exception, perhaps, of the college texts I’ve saved because they made me feel smart then and because sometimes they’re worth revisiting now–are books that I love. Most of them are books written for children that I’ve collected over the years. One or two are books from my own childhood, complete with birthday or holiday inscriptions from my mother.

This blog is dedicated to those collected books for children. If all goes according to plan, it will be a place for me to highlight and remember those books, and share them one at a time. It will also be a place to talk about children’s publishing in general, though this is a personal blog, not one connected to my professional life as an editor. This is just a place to celebrate the books I love.

And yes, the image is of my actual bookshelf.