February 25, 2010


Imagination and Innovation: The Story of Weston Woods. By John Cech. Scholastic. $50.

Nothing but the Truth: A Documentary Novel. By Avi. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Anyone who has ever oohed and aahed at the animated flights of fancy based on works by Maurice Sendak, William Steig, Mo Willems, Jane Yolen and many other top children’s authors has almost certainly been oohing and aahing at the work of Weston Woods, the leading producer of films adapted from children’s picture books. Named for the house where founder Morton Schindel started it – a home in the woods of Weston, Connecticut – the studio started producing animated films more than 50 years ago: the first public screening of its productions occurred in 1956 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Imagination and Innovation is a particularly apt title for a book about Weston Woods, because those two words have been hallmarks of the studio’s work from its inception. John Cech’s book gives plenty of examples. Just one: to animate Harold’s Fairy Tale by Crockett Johnson – one of those marvelous stories of Harold and his purple crayon – “Harold’s pictures had to be first drawn in their entirety. Animation cels of Harold drawing were then photographed in reverse order, with the purple line being erased from the background at regular intervals.” This is pre-computer animation, the same type of painstakingly detailed work made famous by Walt Disney Studios during its founder’s lifetime. But Weston Woods is by no means a relic of the past, although Schindel remains highly aware of history – one of the many photos in this book shows his collection of 19th century magic-lantern projectors, precursors of modern film projection equipment. Despite its start in a small Connecticut town, this was, almost from the start, a genuinely international organization, frequently filming in Turkey, Poland and what was then Czechoslovakia – even the Soviet Union before its collapse. Weston Woods was eventually sold to Scholastic (in 1996), so it is scarcely a surprise that Scholastic would put out a book about the studio’s history. Yet Cech – Professor of English at the University of Florida and a onetime member of the advisory board of the Weston Woods Foundation – makes this not a self-serving tome but a child-centric one. It is packed with stills and storyboards from Weston Woods productions, some of which will likely be familiar to 21st century kids although many will not. There are stories here about Weston Woods’ puppeteers and animators, its packaging and distribution innovations, and the many authors and storytellers with whom the studio has worked over a period of decades. Imagination and Innovation is a book written for adults, showing how children’s literature – from the well known to the unknown – can be brought effectively to life outside the pages of books. And Cech’s book has plenty in it for kids, too, thanks to the numerous fascinating illustrations and the stories about productions based on books that kids can still read and enjoy today – such as the studio’s very first film adaptation, Millions of Cats.

     Avi’s self-described “documentary novel,” Nothing but the Truth – now available in paperback – connects fiction with the real world in a different way. It is a story that didn’t happen but that closely tracks so many other stories that did happen that it seems as if it could have happened. It’s filled with misunderstandings, media misinterpretations, things being blown out of proportion, and a plethora of less-than-honorable occurrences that ultimately victimize those who are the most well-meaning. A cautionary tale? Not really – Avi is too good a writer to make the book so one-dimensional – but this is certainly a novel to make readers think. It starts with a would-be high-school track star named Philip Malloy, a bit of a smart aleck, trying to get himself thrown out of an English class he dislikes (and in which he is not doing well, thereby rendering himself ineligible for the track team) by humming along while the tune of The Star-Spangled Banner is played as part of the school’s morning routine. Disciplined by the rather old-fashioned but well-liked (and tenured) teacher, Margaret Narwin, Philip soon finds his “cause” – he didn’t know he had one – taken up by everyone from his parents to the news media. The result is a cause célèbre involving a student’s right to sing the national anthem if he so desires. Never mind that that is not what Philip wants – the story quickly spins out of his control, and everybody’s. Some elements of Avi’s book, originally published in 1991, are outdated – no one sends telegrams of complaint anymore – but since American society has become increasingly litigious and people’s sociopolitical positions have hardened to the point of calcification, the underlying themes of Nothing but the Truth hit even closer to home today than they did nearly two decades ago. Avi has a longstanding habit of respecting his readers’ intelligence, and the eventual outcome of this novel does so with considerable irony. No one gets what he or she wants: Philip does not get onto the track team (for very logical reasons, explained by the coach); Ms. Narwin becomes a victim; the school district gets considerable unwanted attention, reflected in very realistic worries about funding; Philip’s parents are dissatisfied with the way things turn out; even the reporter following the story finds that the news cycle has, inopportunely for him, moved on to other issues. The nation and its anthem survive, apparently unscathed, but there is plenty of life wreckage to go around. And there is a final twist to the story that is worthy of O. Henry – further evidence, if any should be needed, of Avi’s ability to twist things in ways that surprise as well as illuminate. The new paperback edition of Nothing but the Truth includes some useful civics questions and some suggestions for “think pieces” to explore the book further – fine additions that, one would hope, will encourage forward-looking teachers to assign this novel (which deservedly was a Newbery Honor book) and discuss it fully, frankly and with the thoughtfulness it deserves.

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