December 22, 2011


The Really Awful Musicians. By John Manders. Clarion. $16.99.

I’ll Be Dead by the Time You Read This: The Existential Life of Animals. By Romeo Alaeff. Plume. $10.

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans. By Kadir Nelson. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $19.99.

     There are words aplenty in these three books, but it is their pictures that are their main draw: all three authors are primarily artists, and all build their books upon visualizations that are designed not only to pull readers in but also to leave a lasting impression in a way that goes well beyond the texts. The most amusing of the books is The Really Awful Musicians, which takes its cues partly from “The Bremen Town Musicians” of the Brothers Grimm and partly from the development of musical notation in the eighth century, at the court of Charlemagne. John Manders unites these disparate themes through vibrant and often hilarious art: he was the first president of the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators and has illustrated more than 30 children’s books. The story is thin, but the pictures make it a rollicking one. The tale is about a king who becomes so fed up with the awful sounds of the royal musicians that he feeds them to the royal crocodiles, which look a lot like Captain Hook’s nemesis in the Disney version of Peter Pan. The king decides to have mimes at his court instead – and keep the crocodiles well fed on any other musicians in the kingdom. This poses a quandary for Piffaro the piper, Espresso the lutenist, Serena the tiny and quiet harpist, Fortissimo the sackbut player and Lugubrio of the contrabass recorder. Meeting along the road and riding on a cart pulled by a horse called – what else? – Charlemagne, the musicians create an infernal din until the horse can stand it no longer and invents musical notation to help everyone play harmoniously. The king overhears the musicians playing elegantly together (the horse is the conductor), changes his mind about music, and everyone lives happily ever after – except the mimes, who get fed to the crocodiles (offstage). A tale filled with charm and a certain amount of historical accuracy to go with its fairy-tale elements, The Really Awful Musicians is enlivened throughout by wonderfully cartoony drawings that nevertheless portray the old musical instruments accurately. Manders’ artistry extends to the text, too: the sound of each instrument is shown in a different type style and assigned different words, from the “deedlediddledoodle” of the mandolin (which comes out in a long string of “notes” and wraps around the pages) to the “woompoompoomp” of the sackbut (with the words getting larger and bolder as Fortissimo blasts away). The whole book is a visual treat.

     “Treat” may be pushing it when it comes to describing I’ll Be Dead by the Time You Read This, but this book too combines human and animal elements in a work with serious overtones that are decidedly art-focused. Romeo Alaeff studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and has worked in animation for children’s TV shows; he also studied math and biomechanical engineering. He works in photography and other media as well as drawing, and many of the drawings in this book are based on his own animal photographs. What I’ll Be Dead by the Time You Read This does is juxtapose the carefully rendered animal pictures with comments made by humans, which Alaeff has jotted down over the years. The words are in themselves clichéd and generally about relationships: “You don’t love me as much as I love you,” “I don’t know how to let go,” “I just read your mind.” What makes the book interesting is Alaeff’s choice of particular creatures to go with particular words. A dodo says, “Life goes on.” An egg says, “I don’t want to wind up alone.” A goldfish remarks, “I’m afraid of dying.” A butterfly says, “I enjoy being the victim.” A scorpion comments, “No one thinks I’m funny.” The animals are not anthropomorphized in appearance: the text simply appears above or next to the realistic pictures. The results are often surprising, often amusing and sometimes puzzling. For example, a rhinoceros says, “I’ve really let myself go,” while on the next page, a spider comments, “I regret following my heart,” and a few pages later, a crab remarks, “I need to get out of my own way.” All the pictures are beautifully done and worth looking at again and again; the choice of texts is less successful, sometimes working very well but sometimes seeming merely capricious. I’ll Be Dead by the Time You Read This is of course not, despite its subtitle, about “the existential life of animals,” but about the generally superficial self-awareness of humans – to which Alaeff draws attention, often to very good effect, through his animal art.

     The art-focused subject is at least equally serious in Kadir Nelson’s Heart and Soul. An oversize, beautifully produced work packed with photography-like oil paintings, the book encapsulates the African-American experience through short chapters such as “Abolition,” “Cowboys and Indians,” “Black Innovation” and “Jim Crow’s A-Dying.” The stories told here are familiar ones; it is the paintings that are special: Nelson has won Caldecott and Coretta Scott King awards, been exhibited internationally, and is the cover artist for the posthumous Michael Jackson album, Michael. The narration, by an invented grandmother-like figure, has a singsong quality that some will find authentic and others cloying, as in this discussion of the bus boycott, led by Martin Luther King Jr., that followed the jailing of Rosa Parks: “Dr. King knew that if black folks held to the boycott and did not fight back with violence but with a peaceful protest, they would be victorious. …Without any shouting, shooting, fighting, or fussing, black folks had won a major battle for equality through nonviolent demonstrations. Glory, hallelujah! Oh, how we celebrated all over the country! It was a sweet and wonderful victory. There would be setbacks and victories to come in the very near future, but we savored this one for quite some time, honey.” Whatever readers may think of the prose, they will be captivated, and drawn into the story, by the art. The palpably atmospheric picture of a young woman teaching her father to read at the start of the chapter called “Reconstruction,” the hagiographic portraits of Booker T. Washington and Joe Louis Barrow, the two-page spreads of a Big Band and of strikers – these and Nelson’s other portrayals of events in the lives of African-Americans make this history come alive in ways that the words themselves do not. Heart and Soul is a book into which Nelson has clearly poured his heart and soul, which shine through his portrayals of events of the distant and not-so-distant past.

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