Books for Graduates (Books Featuring Graduation Speeches)

I can really only remember two graduation speeches in my life: my own at my high school graduation, and Ted Turner's at my college graduation.

Believe me, I'm not bragging when I say that I think my own was the better of the two.

I'm not suggesting that mine was good, mind you -- it was well-structured, generally grammatically correct, and included a semi-funny line or two -- but I sincerely doubt anyone in attendance remembers the substance of my speech.  (They might remember that I delivered it two separate times about an hour apart, but that's an entirely different story.)

But Turner's -- that one was awful.  Even twenty years later, his brief, rambling, speech is remembered as being the opposite of inspiring.

At some point a few years back, I became slightly interested in graduation speeches turned into books.  I think the inspiration was probably David Foster Wallace's "This Is Water" speech delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, which was subsequently turned into a book, quite possibly the first example of a single graduation speech turned into a book, or at least a 21st century speech.  (More on the Wallace book below.)  So I picked up one or two copies of books inspired by graduation speeches each year, and now I'm here with an entire post worth of them.  And since many of the children who were the first "readers" of the site -- or at least the beneficiaries -- are reaching graduation age, at least on the high school level, I thought it'd be a good time to compile some thoughts in that regard.

Now, I'm not obsessed with graduation speeches, so I encourage those of you who are to spend several hours (or days) among the speeches collected by NPR, or even longer reviewing the speeches at Graduation Wisdom, which I have come to think of as the Zooglobble for graduation speeches.  (Maybe it's the other way around.)

But if I had one simple observation from reading the books I'll discuss below is that graduation speeches can be basically grouped into 2 types: those that suggest what to do, and those that suggest how to be (or think).  There's nothing that particularly makes one approach better than the other, but I think it's fair to say that during the more than a decade of running this site, when it comes to kids music, I have a preference for being over doing, for songs that suggest a way of moving through the world and interacting with others rather than lessons to be learned (especially in concrete tasks).  Again, it's personal preference, but I think that preference applies to these books as well.  I think the advice on how to be is much more likely to be remembered down the line than advice on what to do.

For each book I've provided some details, a brief thesis statement, its applicability to high school students, and some comments.  I would note that sometimes what might make for a good speech delivered in person might not make for as engrossing an experience when read in a book several years later and disconnected from the personal experience.  As many fans of music can attest, the live experience can be substantially different from the recorded experience, and that, I'm guessing, goes for graduation speeches as well.  (I've also provided an Amazon affiliate link in case any of the comments inspire you to purchase a copy for your own family or neighborhood graduate-to-be.)

Without further ado then, let's jump in.

(Last updated May 2018)


 Very Good Lives cover

Very Good Lives cover

Book:  Very Good Lives (The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination)

Author:  J. K. Rowling

Thesis: Failure helps you know your strengths; imagination lets you empathize with others.

OK for high schoolers?: Yes

Comments: Rowling is, by an order of magnitude, the most famous author on this list.  When she makes indirect references to Harry Potter, she makes them secure in the knowledge that the vast majority of her audience (Harvard in 2008, and the rest of the world) will catch them.  (In person, I suspect those lines went over great, while they feel a little cheesy on the page.) Rowling doesn't romanticize the days before she sold a kajillion books, but level-headedly draws upon her early experiences during and after graduating from college to draw a couple lessons that probably are especially important for her privileged and successful-thus-far Harvard audience, but are important for any young person moving on to a new stage in life.  The book design by Chip Kidd, featuring illustrations that complement the text, is also a plus.  [Watch hereAmazon]

 Make Good Art cover

Make Good Art cover

Book: Neil Gaiman's "Make Good Art" Speech

Author: Neil Gaiman 

Thesis: Make good art.

OK for high schoolers?:  Sure.

Comments:  OK, there's more to it than that ("Make good art"), but there's nothing else particularly pithy to say as he has a list of items ("First of all: When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing.  This is great.").  Gaiman gave this speech to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2012, and while there's nothing I would disagree with in terms of the content (it dances on the edge between "what to do" and "how to be"), there's also nothing that is all that memorable either.  Except for the book design, which is also by Chip Kidd, and boy, is it memorable, but mostly for being actively unreadable.  It's hard to describe it other than the font size, organization, and even type to some extent changes from page to page, making it difficult to read.  In the context of Gaiman's words, Kidd's design choices feel true to Gaiman's spirit, but it's an off-putting experience.  [Watch hereAmazon]

 Make Your Bed book cover

Make Your Bed book cover

BookMake Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life... and Maybe the World

Author: Admiral William H. McRaven

Thesis: Make your bed (and 9 other things)

OK for high schoolers?:  Sure.

Comments:  Making your bed is the first of 10 items the retired admiral (who until this month served as chancellor of the University of Texas system) lists.  The book is based on the commencement speech McRaven gave in May 2014 to the University of Texas at Austin.  That speech is reprinted at the back of the book, and in its brevity I think it is more persuasive.  (It may be more persuasive still if you watch the original speech, which Admiral McRaven gave in his Navy uniform.)  In the expanded form, McRaven provides additional stories from his military days, and while there's no doubt that the lessons McRaven learned while in SEAL training aided him well and are generally worth sharing and hearing, they're not all "small" (e.g., "Dare Greatly," "Stand Up to the Bullies").  Also, one of the key stories in the book is McRaven's retelling of a horrific skydiving accident he suffered, which led me to cringe -- probably not a response a gift-giver is seeking.  There is most definitely an audience for this book, but I read this the same time I read Lauren Graham's book below and I thought that the Venn diagram overlap for those two books was virtually nil.  [Watch here, Amazon]

 If This Isn't Nice, What Is? cover

If This Isn't Nice, What Is? cover

Book:  If This Isn't Nice, What Is?

Author:  Kurt Vonnegut

Thesis:  Too many to summarize

OK for high schoolers?:  Only for the most literary-obsessed ones.

Comments:  Vonnegut is probably the most well-regarded author on this list, but the speeches collected here, while letting his warm, humanist values shine, feel barely edited -- they are the ones which feel most like a speech, not a tightly-written essay.  They are predominantly comments and observations on the world around him rather than guidance to the listener.  And some of the advice that does make it through -- the title comes from a comment by his Uncle Alex, who would often pause to appreciate the small moments by saying "If This Isn't Nice, What Is?" -- is frankly diminished in book form by being repeated in multiple speeches.  Vonnegut is an essential author to read, but I don't think this particular book makes for the best gift to most graduates.  [Amazon]

 10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker... cover

10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker... cover

Book:  10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Ever Said

Author:  Charles Wheelan

Thesis:  Don't do everything just because a path has been set up for you.

OK for high schoolers?:  Yes.. maybe.. parts?

Comments:  Wheelan delivered a brief speech at Darmouth College's 2011 Class Day (the day before graduation).  His speech was titled "Five Things...," so this book is an expanded experience in multiple ways.  This book might be the worst offender, as it were, of providing good advice at the wrong time.  "Take time off," reads item #7, and he suggests taking a year off before going to a new job post-college (or college post-high school).  Mid-May or early June is a lousy time to hear such advice, useful as it may be.  Some of the advice (Number 6.5: "Read obituaries") is quirkier than you'll typically read in these sorts of things -- the book title isn't entirely wrong.  This isn't my favorite book on the list, but among the more "do"-oriented books here, it's probably the most useful in getting the reader to think.  [Amazon]

 You Are Not Special cover

You Are Not Special cover

Book:  You Are Not Special

Author: David McCullough, Jr.

Thesis:  You don't need to be perfect.

OK for high schoolers?:  Yes, of course (see below)

Comments:  Of all the books here, one of just two that grew out of a high school graduation speech.  David McCullough, Jr., a high school teacher and son of well-known author David McCullough, gave the commencement speech at the school at which he teaches (Wellesley High School in Massachusetts) in 2012.  For some unknown reason, the speech went viral (I guess it's always a little unknown why things go viral).  Two years later he published a full-length book inspired by his speech (found here at the very end of the book).  I found the ideas (more "do" than "be" in nature) perfectly reasonable -- do things for the satisfaction it brings not to impress others, the achievement rat race is exactly that, work hard -- but the format hard to read.  I found the text a little rambling, and the audience seemed to shift from high schoolers to teachers to parents, and the blanket assumptions he makes based on a career of teaching to overachieving families of suburban Boston and Hawaii's rich may sound entirely foreign to other parts of the country.  (If you are, however, in one of those types of areas, there may even be some value to reading this book before your graduation day.)  The strongest parts of the book, frankly, are where McCullough is simply talking about teaching.  It's not a great graduation book, but there's a very interesting book about teaching trying to escape.  [Watch here, Amazon]

 What Now? cover

What Now? cover

BookWhat Now?

Author: Ann Patchett

Thesis:  "What now was never what you think it's going to be..."

OK for high schoolers?:  Yes

Comments:  There are a lot of warm texts in this list, but to me this is the warmest on the list in terms of love and understanding floating off of the page.  The book is a slightly expanded version of her 2006 commencement speech at her alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College.  The speech and book recounts Patchett's less-than-direct route from being in high school and wanting to be a writer to becoming a writer.  All that time, she's constantly being asked (or asking herself), "What now?," but she suggests that staying in the present moment -- staring, listening -- is more important than keeping the eyes on the (next) prize.  She is clear-eyed but generous in her understanding of her younger self.  Chip Kidd designed this book as well, with lots of pictures of paths of one sort or another (we'll put this in the successful design category, making him 2-1 here).   Also, the postscript on how she jettisoned her original speech and the value of giving the speech is worth the price of the book.  [Amazon]

 Now Go Out There (and get curious) cover

Now Go Out There (and get curious) cover

BookNow Go Out There (and Get Curious)

Author: Mary Karr

Thesis:  Understanding what scares you will help you see the entire world through clearer eyes.

OK for high schoolers?:  Yes, though Mary Karr's life, which she shares a little bit of here, is not for the faint of heart.

Comments:  Mary Carr, Syracuse professor and best-selling memoirist and novelist, delivered this speech at Syracuse's 2015 commencement, a couple years after her fellow Syracuse professor and best-selling short story write and novelist George Saunders spoke to the graduating class.  (She dedicates this book to him.)  Karr makes very clear that life can be difficult and that we're all scared or worried or afflicted in one way or another.  ("Don't make the mistake of comparing your twisted-up insides to people's blow-dried outsides," says Karr.)  The speech takes a little while to get to the inspirational part, but once it does (along with art by Gregg Kulick that changes, almost imperceptibly at first, from page to page), it builds to a satisfying cumulative impact.  Her empathy is a fierce and powerful force.  [Watch here, Amazon]

 In Conclusion, Don't Worry About It cover

In Conclusion, Don't Worry About It cover

Book:  In Conclusion, Don't Worry About It

Author:  Lauren Graham

Thesis:  Find joy in what you do, not in the end result

OK for high schoolers?:  Most definitely.

Comments: The actress Lauren Graham gave the high school graduation address to her alma mater Langley High School in 2017, and unlike most of these speeches, I don't think it went viral at all.  But this new (2018) book, what appears to be a slightly enhanced and polished version of the speech featuring the occasional doodle from Graham herself, will be, for many readers, a pleasant gift.  It's a nice gift particularly for the high schoolers who are ready to Make Things Happen.  Because Graham's thesis, that it's important to find joy in what you're doing, and not in the trappings of fame that may accrue, is important to hear when you're 18.  Not everyone gets to be Lorelei Gilmore on a much-loved TV show -- in fact, only Graham got to be Lorelai Gilmore, and even she says, "the 'success' parts of life look good to others, but best parts are actually the simple, daily experiences."   [Watch here (sort of), Amazon]

 Congratulations by the way cover

Congratulations by the way cover

Book:  Congratulations, by the way

Author:  George Saunders

Thesis:  Be kind.

OK for high schoolers?:  Yes

Comments: "Accomplishment is unreliable," Saunders says in his 2013 commencement speech at Syracuse, and in this brief volume, he builds a brief but eloquent case for a focus on being kind as something that continues to provide (internal) benefits throughout life in a way that trying to be successful doesn't always.  (See statement above re: accomplishment.)  Saunders begins the speech with an anecdote about a failure of kindness from him in seventh grade that he clearly still thinks about, and it's probably the single most powerful personal anecdote in this entire collection of many personal anecdotes.  Chelsea Cardinal's art has echoes that of Gregg Kulick's for Mary Karr's book (or, rather, the other way around, since this book was published first), and it's probably the best match of text and art in this list of books.  This is a moving book, and I like it very much.  [Watch here, Amazon]

 This Is Water cover

This Is Water cover

Book:  This Is Water

Author:  David Foster Wallace

Thesis:  You get to decide what has meaning, and what doesn't.

OK for high schoolers?:  Yes, though I think the points will matter more to a college crowd.

Comments:  And so we come to really the ur-text for this whole small genre of books, the book that essentially kicked off the modern 20th century rush (comparatively speaking) of books based on graduation speeches.  (It's sort of like how people made music for kids before Raffi came along, but Singable Songs for the Very Young literally created the kids music category in stores.)  The popularity of Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College may be due in part to Wallace's cult status as author, including fans trying to reconcile the fact that he talks about how to live a life that's not soul-killing with the fact that he committed suicide.  (Note: I'm not saying in any way that's a worthwhile question or makes Wallace's words any less valuable.)

But for me, someone who really is pretty neutral on Wallace as an author, the speech works precisely because it doesn't talk a lot about success or life hacks.  It talks about how life can be difficult and routine at various points, and how you choose to look at life is, Wallace argues, the very point of the education that his audience is completing.  This is the book I've thought most about since first reading, and I think that most recipients, if they keep the book as they move throughout their lives and the country, will find re-reading it most worthwhile.  [Listen here, Amazon]

 How To Worry Less About Money cover

How To Worry Less About Money cover

Book:  How To Worry Less About Money

Author:  John Armstrong

Thesis:  Spend less time worrying about money, more time figuring out what we need

OK for high schoolers?:  Yes, though given its writing style and topic, college graduates will probably be a more receptive audience

Comments:  I had thought about including Dr. Seuss' Oh, The Places You'll Go! as a bonus book on this list, as a book that's often given at graduations.  But I've never actually read the thing.  So instead my bonus book is this book, part of a series from The School of Life, a London-based group dedicated to building emotional intelligence.  Their main series of books take a philosophical approach to "How To" questions, providing not so much self-help as self-maintenance.  The books, which are of generally, if variably, good quality, are essentially philosophy books grappling with issues of direct relevance in fairly down-to-earth language.

This book might be my favorite of the half-dozen or so I've read, mostly because it builds its case slowly and steadily until you realize that money problems aren't really problems about money, they're problems with lack of clarity of what someone really wants from life.  And while there are parts that seem like they're written for a 45-year-old suburban London resident whose million-pound flat isn't as nice as his co-worker's two-million-pound flat, I think there's enough in here about more universal concerns that I think a 22-year-old trying to figure out how to do what she loves while earning enough money to go through life would find it useful.  It doesn't provide "the answer," but helps the reader a little bit in figuring out the answer for themselves. [Amazon]

Review: The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra / Jubilee!

Two books, two very different celebrations of two very different men from Candlewick Press.  Or how very different were they?

JubileeAliciaPotterMattTavares.jpg

Jubilee! features the subtitle One Man's Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace, and from that wordy subtitle you may not be surprised that the book focuses on a story from the last part of the nineteenth century, when florid descriptions ruled the day.  Author Alicia Potter recounts the story of Irish-born bandleader Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, creator of the National Peace Jubilee in 1869, which he conceived of to celebrate the return of peace at the end of the Civil War.

I was completely unaware of Gilmore and his Jubilee, and so I found that Potter does a good job of maintaining narrative tension in the story.  If you, too, are unfamiliar, after reading the story you might wonder why, as it involved the construction of a building (the Temple of Peace) which stood 500 feet long, 300 feet wide, and 100 feet tall at its highest point.  Or you might be amazed that a concert featuring a thousand musicians (including a hundred firemen hammering time on anvils) and ten thousand singers has faded from historical view.  Potter's text is accompanied by clear, detailed illustrations from Matt Tavares, who nicely captures both the small-scale scenes (Gilmore, awake at night from worry about whether the concert will come off) and the very large-scale scenes.

Jubilee! will be most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 9 (the text itself is probably more for kids in 2nd grade on up, but the pictures make it appropriate for reading to those younger than that).  While the Jubilee itself was a celebration of peace, this book is a celebration of grand plans and the ability of music to capture the imaginations of tens of thousands of people.

TheCosmobiographyOfSunRaChrisRaschka.jpg

America has long been a nation of immigrants who've fully embraced, and been embraced by, their new country -- see Gilmore, above -- but does that apply to those who visit from other planets?  Two-time Caldecott Medal winner Chris Raschka's new book The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra captures in impressionistic illustrations the life of Herman P. "Sunny" Blount.  If you know Blount, you probably know him as Sun Ra, the musician and poet (among other things) who claimed that he was from Saturn.

As Raschka writes in the start of the book, "No one comes from Saturn.  And yet.  If he did come from Saturn, it would explain so much."  The story Raschka tells is of a person who fully embraced life and the many opportunities in America.  He played piano, leading his own ensemble before leaving high school, and was one of the first musicians to use electronic keyboards.  His band, the Arkestra, made its own clothes.

If it seems like Ra was a little out of the mainstream, you'd be right, and Rashka's text celebrates that "follow your own drummer" path without glossing over the difficulties (one of my favorite lines in the book: "One disadvantage of coming from Saturn, though, was that Sun Ra could never really understand or care too much about money.  The New York landlords, on the other hand, did, and kicked the Arkestra out…").  Raschka's watercolor and ink illustrations contain riots of color and feel true to life even if they aren't completely faithful to "real life."  This artistic choice is perfect for Sun Ra, known for his eclectic jazz compositions.

The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra will appeal most to readers ages 6 through 10.  It's not a huge book, dimensions-wise, and the swirls of color rather than precise drawings may make this book better enjoyed side-by-side than shared with a classroom of kids for optimal appreciation.

Both these books celebrate musical heroes whose names will be unfamiliar to kids and probably their parents.  In their own distinct ways, they honor the memories of these two visionaries.  Recommended.

Note: I received copies of both books for possible review.

Free Comic Book Day 2014 Recommendations

The annual celebration of comic book nerdery that is Free Comic Book Day is (again) tomorrow, and if I know anything about comic books, it's that I know virtually nothing about comic books.  We've been going for 3, maybe 4, years now, but that's usually my only visit every year.  (The store we visit tends to offer one free book per person, more if you buy other comics, which is what we usually do.)

So as I planned my visit with Miss Mary Mack and Little Boy Blue to our local participating comic book store, I realized that I needed some expert guidance.

And once I compiled that guidance, I thought that maybe it'd be of interest to you.

First, what I'm writing below is just a compilation of roundups from the following sites; if you have time to just read one, I'd read Glen Weldon's annual roundup for NPR:

NPR

Nerdist.com

USA Today

Bleeding Cool

GeekMom

Wired

io9

IGN

Loser City

But I'll just state the obvious -- you should go read those links to get a better sense of the titles.

The links below are to the Free Comic Book Day page for the book.  I've noted recommendations from the links above, though I should note that the Bleeding Cool (BC) recommendations are my interpretations of their comments -- they don't specifically recommend titles.  I've marked titles that appear to be appropriate for kids -- at least those under 13 -- with a (K).  And not every title will be available at every store (and, even if it is, it might not be by the time you get there...).

Enjoy, and have fun!


2000 AD SPECIAL - BC, Wired, io9, LC

ADV OF JELLABY (K) - NPR, USAT, BC, GM, Wired

ALL ROCKET RACCOON (K) - NPR, USAT, BC, GM, IGN, LC

ALL YOU NEED IS KILL TERRA FORMARS - Nerdist, BC

ARCHIE DIGEST #1 (K)

ARMOR HUNTERS SPECIAL - IGN

ATOMIC ROBO & FRIENDS - NPR, BC, LC someone else I forget so many lists...

BLEEDING COOL MAGAZINE

BONGO FREE-FOR-ALL (K) - NPR, Nerdist, GM

BUCK ROGERS (K) - NPR, BC, LC

CBLDF PRESENTS RAISING A READER (K) - NPR, BC, io9

COURTNEY CRUMRIN #1 (K) - NPR, BC, Wired

DEFEND COMICS - NPR, Wired, io9, LC

DC THE NEW 52 FUTURES END SPEC ED - USAT, io9, IGN

DH AVATAR HELLBOY JUICE SQUEEZERS (K) - NPR, BC, Wired, io9

DH PROJECT BLACK SKY (NET) (MR) - NPR, BC, Wired, io9

ENTROPY - USAT

EPIC #0 (K?) - NPR, USAT

FINDING GOSSAMYR WAY O/T BLADESLINGER (K?) - BC, io9

FUBAR ACE OF SPADES (NET) (MR) - USAT, BC

GIANT-SIZE 4-COMIC BUNDLE

GRAPHIX SPOTLIGHT DUMBEST IDEA EVER (K)

GRIMM FAIRY TALES #0

GUARDIANS OF GALAXY - USAT, Nerdist, BC, GM, io9, IGN

HATTER M FAR FROM WONDER (K?) - NPR, USAT

HELLO KITTY SURPRISE (K) - BC, GM, IGN

HIP HOP FAMILY TREE TWO-IN-ONE (Net) (MR) - NPR, Nerdist, BC, Wired, io9, LC (non-fiction)

INTRINSIC VOL 2 - USAT

IPSO FACTO (NET) (MR)

KABOOM SUMMER BLAST (K) - NPR, Nerdist, BC, GM, IGN, LC   Adventure Time!

LES MISERABLES FALL OF FANTINE (K?) - GM

MAGIC WIND

MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS (K) - GM

MOUSE GUARD LABYRINTH RUST HC - BC, Wired

OVERSTREET COMIC BOOK MARKETPLACE

PREVIEWSWORLD SPECTACULAR

RISE OF THE MAGI (K) - NPR, BC, io9

SCAM CROSSWORDS #0

SCRATCH 9 (K) - USAT

SHERWOOD TX BOONDOCK SAINTS DOUBLE FEAT - USAT, BC

SHOWA HISTORY OF JAPAN - NPR, Nerdist, BC, io9 (non-fiction)

SKYWARD & MIDNIGHT TIGER (K) - GM

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG MEGA MAN FLIPBOOK #1 (K) - GM, IGN

SPONGEBOB FREESTYLE FUNNIES (K) - BC, GM, Wired

STEAM WARS - NPR, BC

STREET FIGHTER #0 (K) - BC

TEEN TITANS GO #1 SPEC ED (K) - NPR, BC, GM, LC

THE SMURFS (K) - GM

THE TICK (K) - NPR, BC, GM, LC

TOP SHELF KIDS CLUB (K) - NPR, BC, GM, io9

TRANSFORMERS VS GI JOE (K) - USAT, Wired, io9, IGN

UBER THE FIRST CYCLE (NET) (MR) - USAT, io9

VALIANT UNIVERSE HANDBOOK

V-WARS (Net) (MR)

WALT DISNEY SCROOGE DONALD DUCK GRAVITY (K) - NPR, BC, GM, io9

WORLDS OF ASPEN

ZOMBIE TRAMP & EHMM THEORY (NET) (MR)

Review: Books from The Secret Mountain

The Canadian company The Secret Mountain has published a lot of CD/book sets the past few years.  Once every three or four months, it seems, the company releases a hardcover book accompanied by a full CD of music.  At this point, they are nearly the equal of the Putumayo Kids label in terms of their ongoing release of music from around the world (at least from an American's perspective), even if the depth of their catalogue isn't yet near that of Putumayo.

Let's take a look at some recent releases to see if any might be right for your family.

Let's start with the least-recent production, The Fabulous Song.  The book (written by Don Gillmor and illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay) was actually first published in 1996.  It concerns one Frederic Pipkin, a young boy who does not take to instruments of any kind but eventually finds his own way to bring music into the world.  It is my favorite of the books here, but the music by Michelle Campagne and Davy Gallant is my least favorite of the CDs here.  The songs have a bit of pop-musical sound to them, but unlike most musicals, the songs only comment on the action without really ever moving the action along itself, and while I happen to like my share of musicals, there are no distinguishing songs here.  (More details here.)

Next up is Chicken Joe Forgets Something Important, a sequel from Trout Fishing in America to their previous Secret Mountain book, My Name Is Chicken Joe.  Frankly, I didn't give this book and CD enough attention when it first came out last fall, because when I gave it another spin recently, I was surprised (and pleased) at how well-done the songs are.  As a CD, I liked it more than what was in part a greatest hits album on the first book.  The songs have some connection to the story, but each stands alone without the other.  The story itself (the title pretty much says it all) is slight, but Stephane Jorisch returns to give the story his "happy Ralph Steadman" illustrations.  As a set (and definitely for the CD alone), I would definitely give this book the edge over Fabulous Song and I would recommend the CD by itself as well. (Details)

Moving on to more Putumayo-ish turf, Secret Mountain last fall released Songs from the Baobab.  The book itself was a massive success overseas when it was first released a decade ago, selling more than 100,000 copies.  Now the set featuring African lullabies and nursery rhymes compiled by Chantal Grosleziat comes to North America.  The book itself features evocative illustrations by Elodie Nouhen and a line or two of translated text from each song on a page or two.  (More detailed liner notes follow these fully illustrated pages.)  I am certainly no expert in the renditions, but they sounded lovely to my ears.  I would say the songs tend more toward the lullaby end of the spectrum.  (Details)

For those of you looking for a sprightlier musical trip somewhere outside of America, the latest set from the label, Songs in the Shade of the Flamboyant Tree, should fit the bill.  This collection of French Creole lullabies and nursery rhymes is more on the nursery rhyme end of the spectrum.  The songs were compiled again by Chantal Grosleziat, but illustrator Laurent Corvaisier uses a brighter, more vibrant palette (befitting the music).  I recommend both this and its African cousin -- your preference for calmer versus more active songs (and pictures) should guide your choice.  (Details)

There you go -- four sets, at least three worth further exploration.

Maurice Sendak: An Appreciation

The news came, as it often does for me these days, via Facebook, as a trickle of comments and "RIP"s became a flood.  As you might expect, my friends on Facebook are a fairly musical and culturally attuned group; as with Dick Clark and the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch before him, news of Maurie Sendak's death was met with a combination of sadness and appreciation, NPR links and YouTube embeds.  Amberly was the first of many to link to the excellent New York Times obituary, which noted that the 83-year-old Sendak died Tuesday of complications from a stroke.

***

We have exactly three Maurice Sendak books around our house.  They are three different editions of the same book, Where the Wild Things Are.  The only other book in our house we have three copies of is the Bible, and even though we go to church on a regular basis, I think we probably read Sendak's book more.  But it's also clear that we're not some huge Sendak obsessives.  While we have the excellent DVD collection of animated stories (affiliate link), we've never seen the Spike Jonze live-action movie.  Why, then, do I feel the need to write an appreciation for an illustrator whose presence could be attributed to the power of his publishing house than anything else?

Well, first off, it's a great book and while Sendak's illustrations and his stories could be argued to have opened the door to a much broader range of literature for kids, the door hasn't been busted off the hinge quite yet.  Where the Wild Things Are would still be considered different and unusual (and great) even if it were released today, 49 years after it was originally released.

But more importantly, I think Sendak's career is illustrative of the power of sticking to your muse.  There's no Return to Where the Wild Things Are or a spin-off featuring the bakers from In the Night Kitchen.  Instead there are operas and music books and whatever else struck his fancy.  Yes, he hit it lucky in how Where the Wild Things Are struck such a chord with readers and critics -- no massive success like that can be solely attributed to its creator.  But that was after twelve years of illustrating books, both of others and of his own.  And even after that blazing success, he continued following his own path, lighting up the imaginations of children and children-at-heart.

I would never suggest that a goal for one's life is to get an obituary in the New York Times.  I would suggest, however, that hearing that creative spark inside you, listening to the world around you, and focusing on those things are what let you make that dent upon the universe, what draws an appreciative world to say "thanks."  There are many worse ways to live a life.

Two videos to finish this off.  First, a five-minute interview by the Tate Museum with Sendak from a couple years ago.  I can't emphasize how impressive Sendak is in this interview and how well it ties into this appreciation.  His comment on sequel to Wild Things is priceless.

TateShots: Maurice Sendak from Tate on Vimeo.

Second, this is a kids music blog.  Can't go without the music.  From Carole King's adaptation of Sendak's "Nutshell Gang" books:

Carole King - "Alligators All Around" [YouTube]

The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore: The Short Film

MorrisLessmore.jpgI rarely stray from the subject of kids music here at Zooglobble, so when I do, you can rest assured it's with good reason. This is good reason. Before it was an acclaimed iPad app (or at least simultaneously), The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore was also a short animated film co-directed by author William Joyce (The Guardians of Childhood series and much more) and Brandon Oldenburg. To say too much would ruin the joy that's found within the roughly fifteen-minute movie, but it celebrates stories and books and movies and includes both goofy slapstick and tugged heartstrings. I'm not surprised that it picked up an Academy Award nomination for Animated Short Film. It is worthy of Pixar's short film work, which is no small praise from these quarters. I've embedded it below, but it would be doing a disservice to the movie if you didn't go here and watch it full screen, or, even better, watch on your TV via Roku or Apple TV.