Tuesday, December 22, 2009



Borne of a mother's wish for a daughter with skin as white as snow and lips as red as blood, the old chestnut gets new blood in this gorgeous gift-worthy book that makes the traditional feel fresh as fallen snow. Succinct storytelling is less Disney and more Grimm, without too much gore. The evil queen is more impressively tenacious, first trying unsuccessfully to squeeze Snow White to death in a corset and then appealing to her vanity with a deadly comb before resorting to the old poisoned apple trick. Further, Snow White is roused from her sad fate not from true love's kiss but something more along the lines of a Heimlich Maneuver, and the queen is not chased up to a mountain cliff by vengeful dwarfs, but rather implodes from her own frustration (which, considering the college try she gave to being "the fairest of all," somehow seems far more realistic). Overall, the telling never feels belabored; the author appreciates that it is necessary to move along at a fervent clip, accenting rather than distracting from the visual delight in these bindings.

While the story literally unfolds on side flaps, this book centers on layered illustrated scenes of cut paper that allow any reader to fall under Ray's magic spell. This is an unusual pop-up book. Less of a copycat of the modern movable book master Robert Sabuda (his version of L. Frank Baum's THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ is still my favorite of his many marvels, with the read-aloud pop-up COOKIE COUNT a close second). Instead, Ray frames each scene in a proscenium, taking the tack of a print version of The Grand Little Theater of Puppets, the lovely likes of which I have not seen since the PETER AND THE WOLF POP-UP illustrated by Barbara Cooney in the 1980's. This illustrator has lent her hand to many beautiful tomes (unfortunately and hair-pullingly, many are out of print, though you can still get LUGALBANDA: THE BOY WHO GOT CAUGHT UP IN A WAR and the paperback of Berlie Doherty's FAIRY TALES. You'll find in this latest the artist's recurrent motifs of trees, vines and birds, beautiful, serene-faced, almond-eyed people framed in patterns and bronze gilding. It's a fairy tale world this artist creates, and only fitting that this world, so clearly imagined and executed, should have it's third dimension. Hope there's more to come. (7 and up)

Also of interest:
One good princess deserves another. And another. And then a prince who becomes king.
BUT WHO WILL BELL THE CATS? by Cynthia Von Buhler (Houghton Mifflin) This original and haunting treatment of Aesop's fable is really two simultaneous stories that converge at rhythmic intervals, like a well-choreographed quadrille. Double-page spreads with upper and lower levels reveal the cats roaming a castle while a mouse lives in squalor. After a series of failed attempts by Mouse and his friend Bat, the resident princess shows them a kindness, inspiring the clever mouse to use the princess's birthday as the perfect diplomatic opportunity to bell the cats once and for all. A unique technique of placing illustrated cut-outs in sets of actual miniatures and then photographing them creates scenes of surprising depth and perspective. Dramatic in story and distinctive in style, this book is a stand-out. (7 and up)

PRINCESS HYACINTH: THE SURPRISING TALE OF A GIRL WHO FLOATED By Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Lane Smith (Schwartz & Wade) Created by a one-two punch combo of imaginative author (THE SHRINKING OF TREEHORN and savvy illustrator (THE STINKY CHEESE MAN AND OTHER FAIRLY STUPID TALES), we have the buoyant tale of a poor princess who is cramped in her castle for purposes of safety ("the only time she could take off her royal stuff was when she is in the palace. Then if she floated--and of course she did--she'd just float up to the ceiling and they could always get her down in the morning"). She manages to finagle a walk in the park, but abandons the crown that has been serving as a paperweight (or princessweight?) so she can go for a float amidst a balloon man's wares. When the string becomes unstrung sending the princess into the stratosphere, it is a long-admiring, red-headed kite-flyer to the rescue, and a long-desired friend is made at last. The muted, pewter-toned illustrations are sophisticated and stylized and seem almost to beg for the return of the animators of Gerald McBoing-Boing, but may take a little coaxing for attention from modern audiences. The illustrator's famous book-designer wife, Molly Leach, leaves her mark here, with signatures like font changes, eclectic placement (and even a floating sentence), very much a matter of taste as to whether it is delightful addition that underscores the text's meaning or distracting as a kind of second illustrator, but undeniably deliberate in every decision. Overall, the visual and verbal wit create a book that will give you a sugar high from one sweet read. (5 and up) It's worth mentioning that Princess Hyacinth is not the only royalty to hover; George MacDonald's melancholy parable in 1864 was later published as THE LIGHT PRINCESS illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), about a girl cursed without gravity, who learns of the unbearable heaviness of being the hard way. (11 and up)

Another oldie but greatie is THE TWELVE DANCING PRINCESSES retold by Marianna Mayer, illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft (HarperCollins), the wonderful and mysterious masterpiece about a dozen sisters who are locked in their room each night but emerge each morning with dancing shoes worn down past repair. A resourceful castle gardener manages to solve the mystery by following them into an enchanted netherworld where a grand ball is being held nightly. Craft's oil-over-watercolor interpretations of fairy tales are so especially wondrous that you'll think she paints with a wand instead of a brush. Her illustrations seem to be lit by blazing candelabra, and nobody does princesses so breathtakingly, staring back from the page pale and doelike, beneath cascading mounds of perfect curls and wrapped in billowing gowns; you can almost smell perfume. Her books are as heady and decadent as entering a castle hall; like the twelve princesses and their enamored gardener, it's hard to take leave. (8 and up)

And I can't miss the opportunity to remind you of one of my favorite children's books in the entire world, KING MATT THE FIRST by Janusz Korczak (Algonquin), about a boy king who attempts to run a country of children. Whether Matt is attempting a new reform involving the distribution of chocolate to all of his citizens, running to do battle on a war-torn front under a false name while a lifelike doll reigns in his stead, arranging for his population to attend summer camp or on a diplomatic mission to the land of the cannibals, every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. And why wouldn't it? Its author was a renowned pediatrician who ran orphanages in Poland and wrote this adventure with read-aloud in mind. When the Nazis cleared the Warsaw ghetto, Korczak suffered the same tragic fate as his charges, but his masterpiece lives on. (10 and up)

On a personal note:
Season's Greetings from the PlanetEsme Bookroom!

Goodies on the mantel. Replica of Santa's amazing pocket watch at Victorian Trading. We have the real one; Santa left it at the Bookroom, said we could keep it. Ho ho ho! It's every bit as magical as the bell in Chris Van Allsburg's THE POLAR EXPRESS. Find more treasures to display at Bayberry Cove.

Have a chocolate-covered present from the bowl and read a good book; perhaps a resounding tale of neighborly love and aggravation, OKIE DOKIE, ARTICHOKIE by Grace Lin , or the chilly and chivalrous tale, A COLD WINTER'S GOOD KNIGHT by Shelley Moore Thomas, illustrated by Jennifer Plecas (Dutton).

Curious George lights the menorah. Who knew?!

Silver Hanukkah bush to the left, covered in bags of chocolate gelt for the taking. A wintry tree is hung sparsely with cinnamon ornaments (cage contains a small frog prince); the snowman garland is draped overhead. Thanks to the beloved Liza Tursky for loan of the magic tree and help in creating the Bookroom's permanent candy mosaic.

Let it snow! Miniatures by Department 56.

A friend in a Saint Lucia candle crown serves goodies (maybe these Swedish Christmas Cookies?) to a roly poly friend. Humpty Dumpty might have fallen from a wall, but here's hoping he's more secure on a pile of books.

Many thanks to everyone who has been so supportive through donations of time, resources, artwork, awesome tchotchkes, support of my books (especially this year's resissue of EDUCATING ESMÉ and continued support of my children's backlist) and speaking opportunities which have all funded the project, and most of all your patience as programming is temporarily slowed while I am back in school concentrating on a Master's in Library Science, preparing to give my all to the upcoming children's literature training program that the PlanetEsme Bookroom will host in 2011. Meanwhile, Chicago area children's booklovers can look forward to a visit from the author Avi at the Bookroom this coming February (details to come!), and check out this inspirational pamphlet on starting your own salon in the New Year!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at www.planetesme.com.


Swati said...

I am so so green each time I read your blog - so many books!!! (which I don't have!)

Eti said...

What kind of program will you be hosting? (and how do I sign up :) the bookroom continues to grow more and more beautiful ... good luck in school!

Molly said...


I am curious as to why you are getting your MLS. I have been considering this for some time, but thought a passion for children's literature could overcome the need for formal education. What do they offer that you do not have?

Esme Raji Codell said...

Molly, what a marvelous and important question, thank you for asking!

I decided to go for the MLS for a few reasons: for one, I LOVE working as a school librarian and found it ridiculous that under No Child Left Behind and various bureaucratic snafus, I was not qualified on paper to be an elementary librarian for the Chicago Public Schools (I still think an endorsement in Language Arts should do the trick; in fact, a lot of the coursework involves the same content). Secondly, for a long time, I have been plotting an accessible training program and network for those interested in instigating change and educational equity through children's literature, but it seemed to me that I would be irresponsible in starting such a program without answering the very question you posed, and I could only answer the question honestly by participating in a program. So I sought out the very best program I could in my circumstances (UIUC LEEP program) and tried to approach it with an "empty cup," assuming, as I always do, that teachers have something to share and I would come out better for it either way. Finally, "If you don't feed the teachers, they eat the students"(Neila Connors). I was hungry, too! I'm happy to keep those neurons firing, and make the most of being in a country where a woman is free to study!

I do happen to agree with you that a passion for children's literature is an education in itself, and is a subject deserving of a rigor and focus that is rarely fully recognized or realized in a university or formal setting. On the bright side, I am learning about cataloging, preservation, and both the inspiring history and the current climate of librarianship and literacy and the new shifts towards digitization and technology. I am encountering some of the most exceptional, kind, brilliant and inventive classmates I could hope to meet. And I am learning exactly what it is I have to offer that formal programs do not, taking the time to envision ways that the worlds of librarians, teachers and enthusiasts might converge and all receive the consideration they deserve to do their best work, and look forward to sharing it through this blog and in future live retreats/intensives/programs ASAP. (Which I hope you'll be a part of! ;-)

Online Auction said...


Great information and the evil queen is more impressively tenacious, first trying unsuccessfully to squeeze Snow White to death in a corset and then appealing to her vanity with a deadly comb before resorting to the old poisoned apple trick.

James Parker.
Penny Auction

Eti said...

Any news about the Avi visit? Any details would be fantastic.

Esme Raji Codell said...

Yes, Eti, I sent a confirmation to you via just this evening to your e-mail, did you get it? This Friday, 2/5, 4:30 at the Bookroom. Hope that can work out...I'm sorry, Friday evening was the only time that could be accommodated by our special guest.


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