Weekly Readings VIII




Welcome back to Weekly Readings!

For those new here, Weekly Readings is when your lit. rat reviews picture books I’ve read here and there.

While T.A.A. focuses on animal stories, we do give humans their due now and again…

This week, as you might guess from the image above, your lit. rat’s heart is alive with the sound of music, as I review a quartet of books inspired by movies, music and dance. 

  The Pelican Chorus

The Pelican Chorus (and Other Nonsense)

by Edward Lear

Illustrated by Fred Marcelino

Publisher: Balzer + Bray (An Imprint of HarperCollins)

Pub. Date: April 29th, 1998

While most picture books tend to be some are just plain unbridled fun! The Late and Great Fred Marcelino breathed new life into his artistic take on a medley of prose and poetry by author Edward Lear (not sure if he’s related to Norman Lear, one of the “Godfathers” of sitcoms).   


I’ve had a serious crush on Marcelino’s illustration style for years. If he were alive today, I’d do whatever human possibly to work with him on a project of mine.



His style is both classic yet with a level of modern flair that’s hard to come by when much of modern illustration and animation has moved to digital plane or CG animation is taking precedence over classic 2D hand-drawn animation, and my stance is there should ALWAYS be room for both.


While I respect that computers can make shading and certain other techniques easier to do, I appreciate when the illustrator honors the tactile mediums and keeps them alive in some way.  


Maybe it’s because I’m a non-illustrator author (who wishes he were an illustrator) that I feel so strongly about this, but I do feel an added visceral connection to an illustrated book.


Be it a picture book or a graphic novel where I know that there’s still that level of organic tactile feel that someone made this by hand, even if they do the final art digitally on a tablet or the computer, there’s that level on handmade warmth that still shines through even if part or all of the final book is created digitally.  

Fred was one of those illustrators that mostly illustrate the books of other authors, whereas most illustrators today are also authors who write and illustrate their own books.

I, Crocodile

(Check out our first “Weekly Readings” for my review of “I, Crocodile” which Fred wrote and illustrated) There are also authors who only illustrate their own books. My stories matched with his masterful illustration would’ve been amazing.  


Thankfully, there are still many fine illustrators in the world, but Fred will be missed.


I never got to know him outside the work he left behind, but thankfully the books he did illustrate (Including Tor Seilder’s novel, “A Rat’s Tale” which is one of my favorite books and was the inspiration for my upcoming debut novel “Gabriel“) are here for us today.


From funny, to poignant, and back to funny again, The Pelican Chorus is as much the creation of Fred Marcelino as Edward Lear, as like with his illustration work on “Puss in Boots” and Tor Seilder’s version of “The Steadfast Tin Solider”, Fred was able to put his own spin on a medley of prose and poetry that was first written and published long before his time. It reminds me a lot of the best picture book collaborations today such as Axel Scheffler and Julia Donaldson (The Gruffalo, The Highway Rat, and The Scarecrow Wedding) whom we profiled during our Picture Month 2013 celebration, and husband-wife team Helen and Thomas Docherty (The Snatchabook).  


When Pigasso Met Mootisse

When Pigasso met Mootisse

by Nina Laden

Publisher: Chronicle Books (@ChronicleBooks | @ChronicleKids)

Pub. Date: July 1st, 1998


How do you get readers who love fiction interested in nonfiction? Take famous folk from history and give them a fantastical fauna face-lift, of course!


Well, in the case of “When Pigasso Met Mootisse” this format works well and gives us a fun vehicle to discover how two folks from different walks of life and ways of doing things, can find common ground, and mutual respect.


This book also has the benefit of doing for art history what “The Magic School Bus” does for the sciences: Mix in the fantastical to engage the reader in the factual.  


Just like the DC vs. Marvel in the comics space, Mario vs. Sonic in the ’90s era of video games, and most recently the sizable shift from hand-drawn 2D animation to CG on both the big and small screen, there were and still are fierce rivalries in the world of fine art, and the real-life Picasso and Matisse had just as fierce an off and on battle as their animal alter-egos.


I was way into art history as a kid, and while I’ve not mined the world from a historical perspective in some time, whenever I come across books about visual artists such as painters, sculptors and niche craftsmen and women in a book I’m always delighted. One thing I LOVE about this book is that they bring together two artists, one more well known and often parodied, with a talent that’s perhaps more under the radar to an American audience.


While Pablo Picasso is well known for his arguably “Childlike” approach to his painting, Henri Emile Benoît Matisse is lesser known to the west for his more traditional approach, though he too was chided for his work being too radical yet stuffy for his time, in that respect he was as much of an misfit in the art world as Picasso, 11 years his junior.


Nina Laden uses her own angular and offbeat style to capture the essence of her subject artists turned fictional characters, and in doing so brings to light one of the numerous “Odd Couple” stories of the 20th century.


The book’s end pages also includes a brief overview of the real life origins and interactions of the artist duo who despite their rivalry, and vastly opposite worldview and art styles, were overall good friends to the end of their days, with one outliving the other.


In fact, the great Picasso vs. Matisse rivalry wasn’t so much between the artists themselves, but the rabid fans of one against the other, and I thought the fandom feuds among readers today was bad…


All in all, this a book any fan of visual arts should check out, and if you’re already a fan (though hopefully just shy of homicidal as the fanboys and girls of their time) of one or both, you’ll be in for a treat.   Mary Had A Little Ham

Mary Had A Little Ham

by Margie Palatini

Illustrated by Guy Francis

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion


Pub. Date: September 2nd, 2003


Even the shyest souls among us have at times dreamed of life in the spotlight, even your lit. rat likes to pretend he’s a famous actor or performer of some kind.


In some ways my upcoming podcast imitative “T.A.A. FM” will give me the chance to in some small way live that fantasy, but with my voice more so than my face, but more on that later, now onto the review…


As the title suggests, this is a retelling of the vintage nursery rhyme “Mary Had A Little Lamb” but recast to star a pig by the name of Stanley Snoutowski who leaves his home on the farm to chase the siren song of stardom.


Illustrator Guy Francis left nothing to chance, using every page spread from cover to cover, crease to corner, and dedication to end papers, to invoke the spirit of Old Hollywood at it’s best.


While also depicting the lows of our swine-tastic protagonist on his way from humble beginnings to the big time, part of which is chronicled via the old school snail mail between, and his girl, named, you guessed it–Mary, alongside Margie’s spare but effective prose.


My friend Swinebert Glockchester (of Swinebert and Dempsey fame) has a dad who worked in the movies as an actor, and when I shared the story with him, he said-


“This pig fits my Pa to a T, when he was just getting started in show business. Hope Dempsey and me do as well with our endeavors.”  


You will, S.B. I’ll do my best to make sure of that. Classic movie buffs and starry eyed thespians alike will find much humor and unabashed optimism abound in “Mary Had A Little Ham.” On that note: Here’s looking at you, Stanley!



Ballerino Nate Cover 2

Ballerino Nate

by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Illustrated by R.W. Alley

Publisher: Dial

Pub. Date: March 16th, 2006

Don’t laugh, but “The Literary Rat” in his preschool days once wanted to be a ballet dancer, though I lacked the discipline and stick-to-it factor I’ve learned to develop for writing over time, but I’m all for boys who dare to defy “gender norms” with wild abandon.


This is one of those books that I would’ve loved to read when I first became enchanted by the ballet, and while it may not have kept me on the ballet path, I would’ve had this as literary empowerment armor whenever some chauvinist lad or lass says “That’s only for GIRLS!”   Well, I wouldn’t have used the word “Chauvinist” at age 4, of course.   But by age 9, to use a retro tween play on words: For sure! (That was the beginning of my “I Love Lucy” obsession), but that’s a whole other story…


Nate, like any sensible nonconformist, has no qualms disagreeing with his “Know-it-All” big brother who by contrast is more “Tom Sawyer” than “Baryshnikov” [buhrish-ni-kawf], but at times can’t help but wonder “Is he right?”


Would I have to wear a tutu?

Do I have to wear pink even though I’m a boy?

Can boys even be “Ballerinas” at all?


Well, the latter’s kind of true, but NOT how you think, and I’ll let the book show that to not spoil the pathos!


The illustration style is appropriately traditional, hand-drawn watercolors has charm to spare, and accents the movement and grace that any serious dancer (ballet or otherwise) can relate to, and also gives readers with self-proclaimed “Two Left Feet” syndrome a glimpse into the art and practice of dance in general, and ballet in particular.


It’s very hard to talk about this book without another famous ballet student in the fantastical fauna universe, but rest assured, this book while great for both genders gives those nontraditional boys something they can quickly identify with.   While gender doesn’t solely define our identity as it once did (In some parts of the world, anyway…), parental baggage aside, it does play a part, and this book honors that, without stereotyping, and at the same time doesn’t shy away from the questions (be they spoken or unspoken) even the most progressive and open-minded families ask at times.


This is in many ways “Angelina Ballerina” for boys, only we have anthropomorphic dogs (and/or wolves, it’s not quite specific either way) instead of mice, but here it’s the youngest in the family that takes center stage.


Sadly, unlike the mouselet star with big dreams, this seems to be a one and done, but what a wonderful and worthy one and done it is!


If you’ve got a ballet fan of the male persuasion, tell him I said “BRAVO!” and to give him this book.


He’ll thank you for it, if not in words, in his actions when one day he too could be a Supremo Ballerino, just like Nate. Ballet Men UNITE!

Check out my fan book trailer for Ballerino Nate!

For Parents: Check out the blog “My Son Can Dance” to hear one mother’s journey (author and writing coach, Nina Amir) to her (now grown) son who went from ballet school to turning pro in the field.

If your dancing lad’s seriously into ballet, you’ll find a mix of tips, memoir, and info parents or other caregivers can use to keep their ballerino-in-training  (Yes, “Ballerino” is the male equivalent to “Ballerina” for female ballet dancers, just as the title suggests) on pointe, and empowered to stay the course, despite the gender bias and discriminate folks who don’t “Get it.”


Violet's Music

Violet’s Music

by Angela Johnson

Illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith

Publisher: Dial

Pub. Date: January 5th, 2004

While we focus on animal stories on T.A.A., we occasionally let humans in on the fun, and this week is one of those times, but I have a certain “pride” to thank for my learning of this title-

I first discovered this book via the PBS series “Between the Lions” that stars a suburban pride of lions who live in a library where you learn the ins and outs of early literacy and the pleasure of read-aloud time. 

I adored that show, even though it debuted LONG after I learned my ABCs and how to read on my own, and while I wasn’t yet the ravenous reader I would go on to be , this did make books cool in a way I didn’t experience in school.

It’s kind of like “The Electric Company” (the Old School 70s version more so than the newer version) but with a fantastical fauna bent.

Laura Huliska-Beith’s patchwork watercolor illustrations nicely reflect Violet’s “Go Your Own Way” vibe, and author Angela Johnson really brings a lyrical flair a story like this demands

When I first had the theme of this “Weekly Readings” in mind, I immediately thought of this book alongside the others I recently read and reviewed above, and recently read it again for this review.

While I heard this book read on the show cited above, I certainly didn’t have it memorized! So I checked it out from the libary and read it again. Happy to report it still holds up. 

As musicians well know, it’s HARD to capture the feels and flows of music, which an art form that depends on sounds that’s hard to infer via prose.

Some stories using poetic forms like various rhyme scheme or certain meter or rhythm almost mimic a singer-songwriter or lyricists’ process.

This book also does something RARE for picture books, the title character actually ages over the course of the story, from rattle-shaking babe in the cradle to emergent tween rocking a REAL guitar. Rock on, Violet, Rock on…

That’s it for Weekly Readings. Check us next time!

NOTE FROM THE LITERARY RAT: If my ramblings convinced you to buy one or more of the books mentioned above, please support T.A.A. by clicking on the affiliate cover images above or links within the review(s).

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