October 11, 2012


Eighth Grade Is Making Me Sick: Ginny Davis’s Year in Stuff. By Jennifer L. Holm. Illustrated by Elicia Castaldi. Random House. $15.99.

Mary Blair Treasury of Golden Books. Golden Books. $19.99.

      How visual styles do change!  Eighth Grade Is Making Me Sick is practically nothing but visuals – it is quite impossible to imagine the book without Elicia Castaldi’s fabulous assemblages of notes, lists, comic strips, schedules, food photos, worms, for-sale signs, bills, statues, poems and assorted whatnot, which do not illustrate the story but actually are the story. Of course, without the underlying narrative created by Jennifer L. Holm, best known for the Babymouse books, there would be nothing on which Castaldi could hang her cleverness.  Eighth Grade Is Making Me Sick is far more of a collaborative effort than are most books. It is far better done than most as well.  Every page is crammed with Ginny Davis’s “stuff,” apparently tossed here and there or pinned or left on a table or desk or the floor, all of it reflecting aspects of this eighth-grader’s complicated and highly unsettling circumstances. The events in Ginny’s life are enough to throw anyone of any age off center: for one thing, a move to a big new house that the family soon finds it cannot afford, because Ginny’s stepfather loses his job; and, for another, Ginny’s mom’s pregnancy, which results in Ginny’s older brother creating a very Babymouse-like comic that tries to decide which is worse, “Mom having a baby or Mom having SEX with Bob.”  The poems Ginny writes in school permeate the book, as do her to-do lists, which always remind her to “ignore horoscopes” but inevitably appear with something Pisces-related nearby.  The entire story is told with visual impact that is very much the style of the 21st century.  One page, for example, shows a toaster, jar of honey, bag of coffee, pear, cookie (one bite taken out of it), the Woodland Central Middle School Student Handbook, a note to parents and a list of important dates in the school year. There is no narrative (none is necessary) and no person visible: in the whole book, there is never a view of a whole person – just the occasional hand, Ginny’s legs as she stands on the bathroom scale, and a few other bits and pieces of people.  Holm and Castaldi manage to use this strictly visual technique with tremendous skill, dealing with genuinely upsetting events (including a medical diagnosis affecting Ginny, her big brother getting into trouble with the law, loss of the family’s big new house, and eventually a significant geographical relocation) in a way that ties them firmly to the real world and prevents them from becoming cloying.  The extraction of emotion and narrative from “stuff,” or rather the insertion of emotion and narrative into a book told entirely with visual props, makes Eighth Grade Is Making Me Sick into a tour de force as well as a darned good story – and one told very much in the “language” of our visually oriented time.

      The Mary Blair Treasury of Golden Books harks back to an earlier era – not that long ago chronologically, but seemingly ancient in its handling of pictures and their relationship to stories.  Blair (1911-1978) created a series of naïve, folk-art-like illustrations for children’s books and magazines and was also a significant contributor to the design of a decade of Disney animated films, from Saludos Amigos (1942) through Peter Pan (1953).  Today her pictures may appeal more to parents and grandparents, who will appreciate their nostalgic charm, than to children, who may find them cloying and soft-edged (the softness is quite deliberate).  The Mary Blair Treasury of Golden Books includes selections from The New Golden Song Book plus the four books Baby’s House by Gelolo McHugh (1950), I Can Fly by Ruth Krauss (1950), The Golden Book of Little Verses by Miriam Clark Potter (1953), and The Up and Down Book (1964; author not given).  For today’s kids, this is a (+++) collection at best, being written in a simplistic style that would now be found mostly in board books: “Come with us, puppy. We are going out. Good-by, living room.”  Blair’s art, for all its old-fashioned elements, stands up better than the texts, although art and words work well together in I Can Fly: “I can grab/ like a crab,” for instance, shows a little girl grabbing a ring in an old-style playground and pulling herself up, while on the facing page a stylized crab latches onto a fishing line with similar enthusiasm as a smiling fish watches (and there is no hint that the crab is going to be caught or hurt).  Blair is good at parallels: later in the same book, she shows the girl in a big barrel, her chin on her hand, while living “like a mole,” while on the facing page, a real mole looks out at her with its chin on its hand.  The various songs in the Mary Blair Treasury of Golden Books come with music, a throwback to a time when families would gather around the piano and have sing-alongs in the evening (or intended to do that, anyway).  This book as a whole does not really fit well into 21st-century sensibilities, although parents and grandparents with a yen for earlier times may enjoy reading from it to the youngest infants – and maybe even singing along to the songs.  By the time children are ready to read for themselves, though, it is unlikely that they will gravitate to either the words or the art in this treasury of a time that has passed.

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