"review" · Children's · fiction · Illustrator · juvenile lit · non-fiction · Picture book · poet-related · recommend

“The word, gentleman, is a public concern of the first importance.”

The word is dada.

Hugo Ball in costume for reciting a sound poem, 1916, Zurich.

The second time I took a course on Modern British Literature (not because I failed the first), we were again required to present some one or some thing that was contextually relevant to the life&times we were studying. I chose to present on Dada. No, I didn’t listen to Sean and wear a big lobster claw or some other ridiculously Dada Iconic costume. Conforming wasn’t the idea. Besides, I thought my slides were enough. And I wanted people to be able to leave with some concept of Dada, if not a sliver of understanding. Also, my grade depended on coherence and I looked strange enough trying to present anyway. Dada may seem fairly simple in execution, but it is not easily explained. Not when Why? is a reflexive inquiry.

Researching Dada was a lot of fun! Sean was an awesome help as he is an Artist and has learned his Art History. And as an Architect, there was more. We had the best conversations on that which led up to the movements and that which led away. And while this was great geeky fun, it was also necessary because Dada is not easy. Dadaists may seem silly, and often dismissed out of hand, but the dada were serious, “And while we put on a show of being facile, we are actually searching for the central essence of things, and are pleased if we can hide it. […] DADA is neither madness, nor wisdom, nor irony, look at me, dear bourgeois” (Tristan Tzara, in one of his 7 Dada Manifestos in 1918).

[I am by no means an expert on Dada, and I feel my grasp is fairly tenuous at best.  I thought some background was best as I read the following book a bit critically as I am not completely unfamiliar with Shelley Jackson’s subject.]


I am not writing this book to get famous but to give you some tips on living./Listen, kiddo: sometimes you stare at a black dot for an hour and nothing happens./But sometimes it gets up and walks across the floor./ I like bugs. /What I’m trying to say is, Pay attention and expect the best.~Mimi’s Dada Catifesto

Mimi’s Dada Catifesto by Shelley Jackson

Clarion Books, 2010.

hardcover, 48 pages. Picture Book, ages 6 & up

Mimi is an artistic cat in need of a human. But for a cat like her—with the soul of an artist—only an artist will do. Mr. Dada is a human who believes that art can be anything, and that anything can be art. And for a human like him—with the soul of a Dadaist—only an artistic pet will do. Sometimes, though, it takes a while for humans to see what’s right in front of them all along. So it is a good thing that Mimi is loud and silly and surprising and bold. Mimi is a Dada cat, through and through.

This charming story about staying true to yourself sparkles with playful prose and stunning mixed-media illustrations while introducing readers to the Dadaist art movement. ~Publisher’s Comments

I saw Shelley Jackson’s Mimi’s Dada Catifesto face out on a Library display. I was intrigued as to how Dada would do in a children’s picture book. However would the author/illustrator introduce the Reader to Dada, let alone explain what Dada was/is? The answer: some necessary use of oversimplification, and a marvelous “Author’s Note” at the end.

“This is a Dadaist book, and so, like the Dadaists, I borrowed from many famous works of art to make it.” If it were allowed, I think a photocopied set of pages of a first book constructed out of images and other found objects would have been brilliant. As it is, I think Shaun Tan in the construction of this book as well as Jennifer Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, which is no insult, of course.

Speaking of William Carlos Williams, while certainly regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest American Modernist Poet, I was surprised to see a poem inspired by “This Is Just to Say” in a book about Dada, especially when the poem was written in 1934 and the Dada were declared “dead” in 1923 by the Surrealists (a few of whom had been Dada). Yes, yes, I know Dada is not “dead” for plenty. It just—it is not the same. And I acknowledge the fact I am arguing with a children’s picture book**; one I am just glad someone attempted and pulled off. Who wants to dwell on the depressing historical context, let alone share it with a child? Not Shelley Jackson, and not most of the parents who wouldn’t pick up this book, and not most of the parents who would.

Jackson is looking for accessibility and this illustrated piece is that, whether the Reader is a child or adult.  In the “Author’s Note” Jackson walks the Reader back through the book, enumerating her sources, “Mimi’s art show was inspired by Marcel Duchamp, who invented the “ready-made,” “The costumes of Mr. Dada and his friend are inspired by Hugo Ball’s costumes.” A passion and a lively sense of humor lift from the text and artwork. Mimi’s Dada Catifesto is a fun book.

In addition to a narrative, an artistic cat looking to live alongside an artistic human, Jackson inserts games and activities. Count the peas on a page, host a “ready-made” exhibit, and create a poem from clipped-out words. Ideally, someone would have marked in this Library book already, have already pasted their bits of cut-out words to form a poem on the appropriate page. And then the next Reader should paste over a few words and add some at weird angles between the already there. Yes, I am very definitely tempted.



“The world was full of silly things in 1915, just like now (umbrellas! bow ties! false teeth!), but most art ignored the silliness. To the Dadaists, that was the silliest thing of all.”*

Dada is in many ways suited to the young audience Jackson is targeting. Apparently silliness abounds, from the sound poems to the costumes to the raucous performances to the indecipherability of action. The assertions that “art can be anything and anything can be art” to “They thought that when you understand something, you stop thinking about it. Not understanding is much more interesting,” to “The Dadaists made art out of everything. Pieces of newspapers, ads, junk they found on the street—even other works of art.” Jackson examples Marcel Duchamp’s 1919 parody of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, notably ignoring the added inscription and it’s coarse implication. What an exciting idea, though, right? Art within reach, Art without criticism, while being criticism. Anyone can be a dada. “Many cats are Dadaists.”

In this beautifully ambitious picture book, Shelley Jackson creates a fun introduction to Dada. She begins with beginners and pairs dadaist venues with a sweet story. Not unlike the cat, Dada is also looking for a place to belong. It is a stray beast, a bold and sassy figure, who finds the sacrifices for the sake of integrity and dignity well worth the while. Mimi is told as long as she behaves 1, 2, & 3, all will be well (i.e. purr; look cute; don’t wash your behind while they’re watching). She cannot compromise. There is something at stake. Dada was her response. Dada is her voice.

If you are looking for an unusual subject for an informative yet narrative-driven picture book, especially within the realm of Art, Mimi’s Dada Catifesto is a must. Even if you aren’t, do give Shelley Jackson marvelous little creation a chance. This one would be fun to own, collaborate with, and lend out to friends to make their own additions; then perhaps a soiree? We can deal with the historical, the political, contexts later.


*does the use of “silliness” come across as a bit saccharine to you too? that is, if you are familiar with what was going on.

**In the Author’s Note,” Jackson writes, “Nobody could agree about what Dada meant, and nobody really understood Dada—not even the Dadaists!” This could be seen as convenient, argumentatively, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I like Jackson’s boldness and ingenuity in tackling  this Art Movement, and to good review.

Do check out this review by the wonderful blog “7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast”

I mentioned I thought the “Author’s Note” very good, Jackson also includes a list of resources under “More About Dada;” books, websites, and audio cds. She includes Matthew Gale’s Dada and Surrealism (Phaidon Press, 1997) which I also found to be a brilliant resource.

>The quote in the title is the last line of Hugo Ball’s 1916 Dada Manifesto, which was read at the first public Dada soiree in Zurich on July 14, 1916. I just love the way it resonates; of course, especially in light of that which comes before it.

"review" · juvenile lit · non-fiction · Uncategorized


Knucklehead: Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories about Growing Up Scieszka

by Jon Scieszka

Viking Press, 2008.

hardcover, 106 pages. Juvenile/Non-Fiction.

Requested this from the Library after reading Melissa’s (at “Book Nut”) review; I was looking for a guaranteed laugh. Melissa writes, “It’s a sweet book, full of humor and affection,” and it truly is.

Have you ever:

–Had your brother try to sell you your own shirt?

–Made a list of all the bad words you know–for your teacher, who is a nun?

–Broken your brother’s collarbone playing football–four times?

–Tied your little brother into his bed with your dad’s ties?

Jon Scieszka has. Which is probably why Jon’s dad used to call him and his five brothers KNUCKLEHEADS.

Here is Jon’s side of the story. And here, at last, is the memoir that might answer some of the questions of how the heck does someone think up a story of a little man made of very smelly cheese. ~inside Jacket Copy

Are you curious as to what kind of childhood might inspire a writer and literary activist such as Jon Sciezska? I hope you’ve come across The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, or The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. And/or do you know Scieszka’s name as the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and his advocacy for the Reluctant Reader? He is also known for his non-profit literacy initiative for boys called Guys Read.  As the Publisher comments, “Part memoir, part scrapbook, this hilarious trip down memory lane provides a unique glimpse into the formation of a creative mind and a free spirit.” Knucklehead: Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories about Growing Up Scieszka will likely be the most amusing non-fictional work you’ll read all year. Scieszka would have the reader laugh, share in the affection he has for his family, and reassure the reader that boys given some room to be their wild and dangerous selves can have fantastic results–“a creative mind and a free spirit.” Although, I suppose not everyone is interested in such results.

I think it helps to have siblings, preferably a few male siblings; a childhood where you could run a bit wild around the neighborhood; and/or a relative who had those things and likes to share stories when reading Knuckleheads. The injection of nostalgia is sweet.  But the book wherein two chapters end with “warnings” was created with the younger audience in mind. Knucklehead is an autobiography for young readers. Will his stories inspire a bit of mayhem? I don’t know, I kind of hope so. Will it cause boys to feel better about being a boy and make them want good things for themselves? I think so.

If I had to do a report on the autobiography of a famous person in school, I would’ve loved to use Knucklehead.

Scieszka says he’s flabbergasted by his success, and feels lucky to get up every day and make up wild stories for kids.

“If the day gets really bad, I can always pull out fan mail,” he says with a laugh. “Who else gets mail where kids write to you and say, ‘Dear Mr. Scieszka, We were supposed to write to our favorite author, but Roald Dahl is dead. So I’m writing to you.’ ” ~Jon Vitale (“Jon Scieszka, A Seriously Funny ‘Knucklehead'”)*


*Jon Vitale wrote about Jon Scieszka and Knucklehead in 2008 for NPR books, “Jon Scieszka, A Seriously Funny ‘Knucklehead’.” I recommend the nicely written little article wherein Vitale writes,

Dick And Jane never made Scieszka want to read, but Dr. Seuss’s The Cat In The Hat and the funny parodies in Mad Magazine did. Later, when Scieszka was a graduate student at Columbia University, he began writing his own fiction. His heroes were Borges, Cervantes and Kafka — writers who played with language and new ways to tell stories.

After he got his degree, Scieszka brought his post-modern sensibility to a Manhattan elementary school, where he was teaching. He remembers telling the second-grade class about Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

“[I said] ‘What if a guy woke up one day and he was a bug? Wouldn’t that be weird?’ and they loved that,” Scieszka says. “And I think that was the trigger that made me think … oh man, here’s my audience. They’re just a lot shorter than I ever thought they might be.”

And I really want you to read the excerpts from Knucklehead. “Chapter 33: Car Trip” had be laughing out loud for several minutes.

"review" · comics/graphic novels · juvenile lit · non-fiction · recommend · Uncategorized · young adult lit

getting to smile

“Handsomely illustrated and cleverly written by Telgemeier, Smile is a simple, fast-paced, yet unforgettable story that will resonate with anyone who survived those tumultuous teen years. Younger readers will likely relate to Raina’s tribulations at school and home, and those who are facing the dreaded braces will certainly feel grateful they didn’t have to live through Raina’s trauma.” Chris Bolton, Powells.com review.

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

color by Stephanie Yue

Scholastic (2010)

(Tradepaper) 192 pages.

Raina just wants to be a normal sixth grader. But one night after Girl Scouts she trips and falls, severely injuring her two front teeth. What follows is a long and frustrating journey with on-again, off-again braces, surgery, embarrassing headgear, and even a retainer with fake teeth attached. And on top of all that, there’s still more to deal with: a major earthquake, boy confusion, and friends who turn out to be not so friendly.

This coming-of-age true story is sure to resonate with anyone who has ever been in middle school, and especially those who have ever had a bit of their own dental drama. ~Publisher’s Comments

When it comes to Raina Telgemeier’s Graphic Novel Smile I am late for the blogosphere party. I was only mildly interested, but when I was at the Library picking up a few Holds, I was scanning the Teen Comic Section and decided to finally give it a read.

192 pages; nice color work; easy-on-the-eyes, energetic drawing: these counteract the painful travails of our star Raina’s Dental  and Adolescent History.  I love how the use of Dental Drama makes negotiating adolescence seem less painful while still adding to the angst.

Smile is drawn from Telgemeier’s real life. It started as a comic run on the web and then the novel was born. The story follows Raina from accident to saying goodbye to her dentist years later, using Dental visits/operations as a means to carry the timeline from 6th into High School. In the meantime, there are boys and friends and finding the self and trying to maintain the self.

Smile is one of those novels built to reassure adolescents that they will survive and the experiences can have value. In any conversation on normal, it seems normal is ill-defined, or at least impossible to achieve and it isn’t fun. Raina makes the difficult decisions to be true to herself in several occasions and it does appear to work out—and yet Telgemeier does not skate over the pain in those interactions. Her drawing emotes quite effectively.

All is not angst ridden and wrenching, there is humor. I hope the young audience finds the relief in the comedy, the character’s wit lightens the weight of many difficult moments.

Telgemeier tells of her youth with all the historical markers, pop culture or otherwise. I didn’t have to check the footnote to know who Joe McIntyre was (Telgemeier is a year older than I), but the footnote was nice (109). The Earthquake sequence was an odd moment in the story. It felt awkward, and while it does serve as a historical marker on a timeline, it seemed random otherwise, like “hey, I lived through this devastation when I was young.” That link, to living through a devastation, is the only connection I can make to its service to the novel. Other transitions move more smoothly along the progression of story.

If you are familiar with the Children’s Comic shelf at your local Library you’ll recognize Telgemeier from the Babysitter’s Club graphic translations. Her style is highly accessible.

In Smile the panel format is (usual) straightforward. You’ll not see much extending beyond the frame, nor will you note many unusual changes in text. Smile as a novel is very straightforward if not simple (not in a bad way). It is as dynamic in presentation as it needs to be—effective.

Smile gets kudos for the unusual premise for a usual topic. It has an accessible style, energy, and humor. Easily handed over to girls or adult women who aren’t much into comics.


publishing recommended ages 8-12. I think it sits nicely on the Teen shelf; is certainly middle-grade as well. People with Dental Drama’s of their own will appreciate this read.

NY Times Review by Elizabeth Bird. A good and helpful review, except for the part where she compares Smile to Stitches by David Small—that was a stretch. There are others’ work that comes to mind. If you like Smile and are interested in other comics/graphic novels, let me know.

Raina Telgemeier's site. webcomic link.

art: 1-found in relation to webcomic.  2-cover, obviously. 3-promo drawing. 4-p 39. 5-left, p 31, her friends are not shy in sharing their thoughts. In Smile, it’s in color. 6-p 91. 7-p 40