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Archive for June, 2011

I NEEEED a Pet!

I was digging through boxes in my basement when I came across 10 or so diaries I kept as a child. While there were plenty of interesting entries about which boy I loved which week and what punishment my parents had handed down most recently, I had to laugh when I read this one:

I was 9 years old, and I had been begging my parents for a dog for about as long as I had been able to talk. At that writing, my youngest sister was only 7 months old and, as I recall, I was little more than a handful myself. As an adult, I can now sympathize with my parents’ reluctance to add any more chaos to our brood, but at the time, I thought they were the WORST PARENTS EVER!

Jackson, the star of Angela McAllister’s “Monster Pet,” is in the same boat.

It seems the plight of the pet-deprived child is universal.

Jackson isn’t satisfied with his parents’ responses:

“Get a worm out of the garden,” said Dad.

“Why not bring home the class rabbit for the weekend?” suggested Mom.

Jackson wants something big and wild and exciting!

In an act of concession, Jackson’s parents, as did mine, bring home a hamster. An unimpressed Jackson names the rodent Monster. Unfortunately, the adorable little guy doesn’t live up to his name.

Monster won’t fetch or climb trees with Jackson. He has no interest in learning how to roar and he won’t touch Jackson’s offerings of bones. As children tend to do, Jackson loses interest in his pet, forgetting to feed Monster, refill his water or freshen his cage.

Monster is left to fend for himself. He busts out of his cage, landing in a bag of hamster food, where he happily gorges himself, growing big and wild and exciting.

 “Wow!” said Jackson. “That’s the sort of pet I want!”

But Monster has other ideas in mind.

The tables turned, Jackson finds himself the neglected one. Monster commandeers the skateboard and forgets to clean Jackson, change his water or give him fresh bedding. The boy sits bored and lonely in the shed until he hears a voice:

His mother’s call to breakfast wakes Jackson from his startling dream. With fresh perspective, he rushes to the shed, scoops up his hamster and extends a peace offering: a handful of food and a more appropriate name.

The moral is simple: Pets have feelings, too. McAllister gets her message across by inviting readers to imagine themselves in Monster’s place, just where Jackson found himself in his dream. This point and other valuable lessons in pet ownership are often difficult to impress upon a child. The book serves as a good forewarning for a child begging for a pet as well as a gentle reminder for a child who may be neglecting the caretaking of a pet already in the home.

Artistically, the illustrations are basic, but I do enjoy Charlotte Middleton’s use of saturated primary colors and unique collage elements. Handmade papers and burlap give texture to Monster’s coat, the bedding in the hamster cage and the feed bag. Middleton also uses graphic patterns to create Jackson’s playful airplane pajamas and his mother’s wild gardening pants.  Actual photos of animals Jackson deems “wild and exciting” are scattered throughout the book. And I particularly enjoy Middleton’s creative use of shadows as a storytelling component.

I imagine there are stacks of other pet-related books available in the children’s book market, but McAllister’s really hit the nail on the head with all too many parallels to my own childhood experiences. Jackson and I even chose the same name for our beloved furballs: Fluffy (I know, about as creative as a dog named Fido).

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After a chilly and rainy Memorial Day weekend, I think I can say (knock on wood) Iowa has fully and finally emerged this week from what felt like six straight months of gray overcast. If I hadn’t been born and raised here, if my parents and in-laws didn’t both live here, this winter and dismal spring would have been enough to send me packing for Arizona. I may just have to settle for a light therapy lamp next winter.

Meanwhile, I’m soaking up every minute of our long-awaited summer. The brilliant blue skies and cotton-candy clouds look as though Monet painted them. And those cumulus beauties bring to mind childhood afternoons spent seeking out animal shapes in the sky.

The ability to see such images in ordinary phenomena is referred to as pareidolia (think the Virgin Mary’s face in the grilled cheese sandwich). It’s a skill I’m having fun teaching my 3-year-old, Eloise. My nearly-30-year-old imagination is not quite as supple as it once was, but I was still able to spot a Scottish terrier and a snail the other afternoon.

Thankfully, I also have Rhode Montijo’s “Cloud Boy” as a visual aid. The book, beautifully simple in both word and design, offers an imaginative explanation for how the clouds get their menagerie of shapes.

In a gentle palette of sky blue and cloud white with shades of charcoal gray, Montijo conjures up a lonely little cloud boy, who lives high in the sky and longingly watches the fun of children playing on the earth below. His solitude is broken one day by a wandering butterfly, and the fleeting visit gives the cloud boy a wonderful idea. He gathers the fluff of a nearby cloud and fashions his very own butterfly. Inspired, he shapes the clouds around him into creations big and small – boats, turtles, swans, whales – and sends them off into the sky for the children below to see.

At its most basic level, the book encourages a child to take an imaginative look at the clouds above. Other picture-book greats have also explored this cherished childhood pastime. Eric Carle used his unique paper-collage style in “Little Cloud,” a book about a cloud that entertains itself by changing its shape to recognizable forms. A 1947 classic by Charles G. Shaw, “It Looked Like Spilt Milk,” is a cloud-based Rorschach test of sorts.

But Montijo’s rendition holds its own. His lovely monochromatic color palette and charming protagonist make this book stand out. The succinct text moves quickly enough to hold the attention of even the youngest readers, and the book itself is the perfect petite size to tuck in a bag for an afternoon at the park. Always a fan of artistry in the endpapers, I adore that Montijo has offered the young reader a cloud-spotting guide of sorts: the front pages display generic puffy clouds but the back pages show those clouds transformed into ducks, birds, fish and the like.

The book’s dust jacket indicates that “Cloud Boy” also offers a deeper theme, serving as an allegory for the life of an artist. Viewed in this light, Montijo’s story suggests that artists like himself often exist in lonely isolation. On the flipside, I believe “Cloud Boy” also exhibits the artist’s rare power to create beauty and enjoyment both for himself and his audience. It’s this exact power that drew Montijo to an artist’s life. On his website, he recalls the moment he first read Crockett Johnson’s “Harold and the Purple Crayon” and knew that he would become an artist one day:

“If he [Harold] wanted to reach high he would draw a set of steps with his magical purple crayon and climb them. If he wanted to roam the seas, he would simply draw himself a boat. The story of one who could draw their own adventures left a lasting impression on me.”

Montijo did, in fact, establish a successful career for himself in art. The bulk of his previously work has been in comics, but the tone and look of these cartoons were dark and often violent. The 2006 publication of “Cloud Boy” marked Montijo’s debut in children’s literature and a drastic lightening of the subject and aesthetic of his work.

On his website, Montijo wrote: “I kept putting off my biggest dream – creating children’s books. I was scared that publishers wouldn’t like my stories or drawings. Then, a few years back, I was in a car accident. I’m OK now, but when it happened, I realized that tomorrow wasn’t promised. I figured out that I was the only one keeping me from achieving my dreams. As soon as I healed up, I put a few stories together and visited New York. Lots of places said, ‘No thank you’ but I didn’t give up.”

Following the success of “Cloud Boy,” Simon & Schuster also published Montijo’s “The Halloween Kid” in August of 2010. Keeping with his distinctive use of color (this time appropriate shades of orange, black and white), the book employs cowboy-esque language to follow the adventures of a boy determined to save Halloween from TP-crazy mummies, pumpkin-sucking vampires and goodie goblins. I typically steer clear of holiday-themed books (the stories are usually bland), but I’ll be adding this one to my girls’ treat bags this fall.

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