Magritte’s Marvelous Hat: Art Found in a Child’s Book

MagritteIn our eclectic town of educators, professionals and artists, a book that would be appreciated by young and mature alike is none other than a child’s picture book, Magritte’s Marvelous Hat by D.B. Johnson.

The surrealist, René Magritte (1898-1967) is known for painting odd depictions like produce and flowers masking faces, nature in unnatural states, a pipe that is “Not a Pipe,” and stoic men in black coats and bowler hats showering down on peaceful towns, to list a few. His art challenges the psyche to imagine the hidden and stretch beyond reality into dreams.

And Johnson’s tribute to Magritte is no different except it suits the taste of a younger audience. But whether or not you have children, this artistic piece would grace the shelves of any home.

It’s one reason I collect picture books, because in and of themselves, they are worthy and moving pieces of art. I don’t have a fancy home to hang works from great masters, let alone, the money to buy such pleasures. But for a reasonable cost of around $17, I can still have beauty where I dwell. But even if you do own a home filled with priceless paintings, picture books like Johnson’s is an endearing addition.

The book itself is gorgeous. The heavy matte pages are filled with soothing and stunning colors, uniquely curved corners and the occasional velum page that allows the story to twist into unexpected worlds.

Of course, there are nods to Magritte’s art on every page, but beyond that, Magritte’s Marvelous Hat has its own creative turns that beg for another viewing and reading in order to catch what was missed the time before. And in this way, it’s a continuous adventure trying to figure out what is happening on the magical pages of D.B. Johnson’s work.

In René Magritte’s own illuminating words, “Everything we see hides another thing… we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”

The things we notice are always just a part of the picture. There is always more. And in the very act of hiding it, do you realize there is an endless array to discover.

Magritte’s Marvelous Hat is a fantastic romp into the mind of a genius, a creator, a kid immortal. D.B. Johnson makes the journey enjoyable for both children and adults. And as an adult, I am thankful I can afford at least this bit of art amidst our humble home.

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Old Book for New Year: Discover Poetry

poetryTo ring in the new year I wanted to celebrate an older book with even older content: “A Poem for Every Day! An Anthology of 180 Poems…” By Susan Moger. There are many similar types of books, but this particular one is for kids in grades 3-5, so it’s perfect for me, a self-proclaimed poetry simpleton. I know, it’s a sad and embarrassing confession for a writer. But there you have it, raw honesty to encourage you to pick up poetry at any age.

Actually, I found this book years ago at a fair, hoping to explore it with my own kids (and the fact that this old lady gets to learn right alongside them, even better!) The book was meant for teachers; but as a parent, “teacher” is simply another hat we wear, so don’t be intimidated by the author’s guide for the intended audience. Rather, be empowered by it.

Last April during National Poetry Month, my boys and I opened this book to enjoy a new burst of words each day. It was not easy — maybe because I chose the time right after school to have “more school.” (Well, it seemed like a good hour at the time.)

“If at first you don’t succeed…” just stop. Take a break. Then try again and again. So for round 2, we will attempt impassioned poetry readings at bedtime. The constant procrastination attempts before sleep should work well for this. And doing a poem a day or every other day will take us well into April, as we join countrymen in celebrating crafty phrases.

As for the book itself, I like how it is divided: poems for patriots; poems about the living world; haiku; poems about people, places and things; poems about poetry and words; poems of beauty and magic; poems for fun. It’s organized so you can skip around, depending how you feel. Some are quite popular, like  “Casey at the Bat” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” while others are more obscure, at least to me. But all are a form of expression that can sometimes say profound things in simple ways. It’s a gift to behold.

So in this season, enjoy some good poetry, at any level, from any anthology. And hopefully, maybe quite by surprise, your kids (and you) will discover the magical and transforming power of words — before our eyes retire for the night, surrendering ourselves to rest  and allowing these lovely words to slip into our dreams.

Publisher: Scholastic 2006

Picture Book Review: Ferdinand is Still Fiercely Good

Some spoilers ahead.

One of my top 10 favorite picture books of all time is celebrating its 75th birthday! The Story of Ferdinand was written by Munro Leaf, beautifully and comically illustrated by Robert Lawson.

There is something endearing and timeless about this well-told story with a universally common theme. I know this, not because it was first published in 1936 and is still a best-seller, beloved by countless generations, but because kids (and adults) don’t tire of it. I know I want to read it over and again; and when I haven’t read it in a while, I itch for it and have to get my Ferdinand fix.

So if you happen to be one of a handful of people who have yet to read this delightful tale, here is the lowdown… Ferdinand is a bull who is different from his peers. The repeating phrase, “But not Ferdinand,” shows just how unique he is: he doesn’t run, jump or butt heads like all the others. He is wired differently, to enjoy other things. So when an untimely sting causes Ferdinand to act atypically, he is tagged as “Ferdinand the Fierce.” He is carried off to the bull fights, feared by all the bull fighters. But Ferdinand stays happily true to who he is. Others become frustrated in their desire for a good fight… but not Ferdinand.

And if you know this story and haven’t read it in a while, perhaps it’s time to pick it up again, share it with your kids, whether they’re 18 months or 18-years-old. See new ways to apply age-old truths. Find in Ferdinand: the environmentalist, nature-lover, peacemaker, a reflective soul, a big scary guy with a kind heart, one who appreciates the simple things in life, and an individual, secure in who he is. (And when you find more, please share.)

If nothing else, pick up the book at your local library to simply enjoy a good old-fashion story.

Happy reading to you! And happy birthday to my old friend, Ferdinand!

Later publications by Scholastic

Angel at School: Part 3

In parts 1 and 2 (Aug. 21 and Sept. 5 respectively) Freddy upgrades his name to Fred on the first day of his fifth grade year. The plan is for his last year in elementary school to be his best. But when he meets an unexpected helper and situations don’t go his way, can it still be the best year yet?

A week later, Omar confronted his friend, standing in a bush looking lost. “Freddy, I mean Fred, you better stop that. People are talking.” He held up a poster with “Fred for President” in blue, vandalized with a black sharpie, “crazy bacon-scented plant lover” inserted with a carrot after Fred’s name.

“I didn’t write that part in black.”

“Of course you didn’t, dork.”

“Let me explain… I, um, lost something… or, um, someone. And they said they’d help me with the election.”

“Yeah, you need help. But you ain’t gonna find it in that bush.”

Hanging upside down from a tree branch, Fred’s angel called out, “Get out of there; and get ready for your speech. You’re up in 10 minutes.”

“Where have you been? You said you’d help me!”

Omar jumped, “Whoa, what’s that?”

Fred’s angel landed upright in front of Omar and turned cordial. “Hello. My name is Derf, that’s ‘Fred’ backwards. I’m Fred’s angel. Now, if you’ll excuse us; we’re late.”

Derf began to coach Fred, “Just give your speech. I have it all under control. By the way, did you like what I wrote on your poster?”

“What? People think I’m crazy. And it’s all your fault”

Omar trailed behind, “What’s going on?”

Fred’s teacher, Mrs. Wandawho stepped right on top of Derf. As he disappeared, she scooted Fred onto the stage. Lights blinded him; silence numbed his ears. Fred even thought he heard crickets.

“Uhhhh…”

A heckler (that sounded oddly like his angel) interrupted the quiet, “What did the plants tell you to say?” The auditorium erupted in laughter.

Fred was not about to lose control. “Hey! Uhhhh, vote for me because… because I’m a plant whisperer. I have a green thumb; and I can make our campus beautiful.”

The crowd went silent again. Then from the same corner as the heckler, a gum ball flew through the air, missing Fred’s head by an inch. And then another was hurled at him from the other side. Before Fred knew it, the gum balls that were handed out by another candidate were being pelted at him. He was being booed off the stage.

Fred caught one in his mouth and chomped it down in size. The gum ball attack ceased as a collective gasp held the auditorium’s breath. Then one was thrown gently at his head and he caught it with his mouth, chomping that one. Then another. And another.

Soon it became a game of “catch the gum ball.” The mocking laughter turned into a fun cheering one. Kids started to count the number of gum balls entering Fred’s mouth. “sixteen, seventeen, eighteen…” Then the kids chanted “guru, guru, guru…” He was being pronounced “guru of gum.”

In the following week, Fred discovered that being “crazy” was a good thing in the musical theatre world. Though Fred wasn’t the lead, he had fun appearing and disappearing into smoke that surrounded a lamp. He even received personal pointers from Derf, “I know, it’s so cool to reappear, standing like this.”

And Fred was genuinely happy for Omar. “Congratulations for getting the lead.”

“Dude, don’t rub it in. You know I don’t want to even pretend to kiss Telly. Just my luck that she’s the princess.”

As Fred, the new class president, chewed on bacon that the cafeteria started selling, thanks to him, he walked through his handiwork: a beautiful campus with gardens of flowers, shrubs, and trees. And occasionally, he would hear a friendly echo through the trees, “This is your year so don’t you fear!”

Angel at School: Part 2

In part 1 (from Aug. 21): Freddy upgrades his name to Fred on the first day of his fifth grade year. His last year in elementary will be his best because he plans to rule the school as president, as lead in the school play, and as “Guru of Gum,” collecting the most gum comics in recent history. But when situations don’t go his way, can it still be the best year yet? The first of a string of unexpected glitches occurs in part 1: a small being crosses his path, uttering a phrase he doesn’t understand. “This is your year so don’t you fear…”

A rustling in the bushes next to the drinking fountain made Fred do a double take. “So that’s where the little guy disappeared into. Maybe he’s playing a trick on me?” He knew kindergarteners were small and sometimes behaved oddly, but this one seemed a bit ridiculous. “Hey little dude, come outta there. Where’s your mommy?”

“F-R-E-D!” came a small voice from the shrubs. Fred leaned in but couldn’t find a trace of anyone. He tried coaxing him out again. “Hey, buddy. How do you know my name? You must be smart. And what were you saying about this being my year so don’t fear? That’s kind of a weird thing to say. Please come out. I won’t hurt you.”

“I’m not a kid.”

Playing along, Fred continued, “That’s right. You’re not a kid. You’re a big boy. And big boys talk face to face.”

“I’m not a big boy either. I’m your angel friend.”

“You’re my what?”

“Remember when you were 4? We were friends. But when your dad had enough of your “imaginary friend,” he convinced you to grow up and I disappeared. Remember?”

“Uhhhh, I think I’m gonna be late. I better be going.” Fred rushed off to his new class. The words “angel friend” and “imaginary friend” kept turning in his mind. “Nah, that’s crazy. It can’t be. I’m not going crazy!”

“Of course you’re crazy, Freddy boy!” Omar jolted Fred into reality. “You had like 20 kickball home runs last year! Dude, that’s crazy! Just own it. Just say it, ‘I’m crazy good.’ Say it, Freddy!”

“It’s Fred.”

“Oh yeah, dude. ‘Fred,’ whatever. You’re crazy!”

Fred chuckled at Omar’s obsessive fascination with kickball skills. “Okay already. I’m craaaazy in kickball!”

And nodding in satisfaction, Omar said, “That’s right. Just own it, man.”

At recess, Fred could not get his mind off the “angel friend” who wasn’t imaginary. So he went back to the bush where he had his last conversation with the hidden boy. “Psssst. Little dude. Where are you?”

“Why you talking to a shrub?” The little boy was suddenly behind Fred. He jumped with a start and noticed, in fact, that the little boy was not a boy at all, but a little man creature with squinty eyes, hunched up shoulders, white hair, and an orange shirt with a grinning face upon it.

“You’re my angel friend?” Fred questioned cautiously.

“At your service! You’ve hit the jackpot. Only one in 175, 000 can see their angel after the age of 5.”

“Why me? …Why you?”

“All us angels talk about who needs us most, who’d be most accepting of us, who’d get the most from our services… And with you being a good guy and having lost your house over the summer, we thought you were a pretty good candidate.”

Then Fred’s angel looked offended, “And why me? You want an exchange already?”

“No. I just didn’t expect you to… to… look like this.”

“Oh, I get it. You’re expecting wings, a white gown, and maybe a halo over my head, right?”

“I can tell now; you are my imaginary friend! That’s so cool! Only, you’ve changed clothes.”

“Yeah, the big guy loosened up the rules since I last saw you. We can choose our own fashion now.”

“Wow, and you chose that shirt, huh?” Fred marveled at his old friend.

“Okay, enough about my excellent fashion sense… This is your year so don’t you fear!”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean: I’m like the writing on the wall, your own personal guide, your genie in bottle — only, I don’t grant wishes, I can’t produce money, and I don’t live in a bottle. I’ve always been around to help you; but now I get to use a little of my magic to make things go your way. That is… if you let me.”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

“Try me! Did I fail you when you were younger?”

Fred couldn’t remember a time when his “angel” sent him in the wrong direction. But it was so long ago and he couldn’t be sure of a lot of things.

“Alright, let’s try this. Your first task is to help me with winning the election. It’s next week.”

“Great! I love elections. They’re such character builders. Oops, gotta go.”

Telly appeared out of nowhere. “What about the election? And who are you talking to? You’re weird.”

“You know, I can say the same about you, too.” Fred walked toward the kickball field, throwing his hands in the air in frustration. His angel was gone, again.

Looking into the sky, Fred whispered, “How am I supposed to contact you? Can anyone else see you or hear you? What’s your name? God, are you playing a practical joke on me?”

Part 3 of 3 to be continued in 2 weeks.

Angel at School: Part 1

Kids brushed by Fred to the left and to the right, carelessly bumping against his shoulders. “Why is everyone in such a hurry? Fine, it’s the first day of school; but still – people, chill!” With his hand-me-down backpack and shoes from the year before, “because they still fit” according to his mother, Fred was not particularly ready for the new year, but that wasn’t going to stop him from having the best year yet.

His new shirt boldly declared, “I love bacon,” written in strips of bacon and eggs. It even smelled of bacon.

Omar Brown was clearly eager to be back; he had new shoes. ”Sup Freddy boy? You had a good summer?”

“It’s Fred,” Fred said with a serious, don’t-mess-with-me kind of look. But then he added a mischievous smile to assure Omar that they were still cool.

“Okay, okay. Why’d you change your name over the summer anyway?” Fred was in no mood to explain the nuances of growing up. Omar walked away, “Okay dude, whatever you want… Fred.“

Fred pulled out the school’s activity sheet. “Student Body Elections – next week.” Check. “Tryouts for ‘Aladdin Returns’ – in two weeks.” Check.

He was going to rule the school. He was a year older as of two weeks ago, finally 10. He was no longer “Freddy,” the kiddie old self. He was now “Fred,” the fantastic fifth grader, the top of the food chain, and the master of kickball.

His goals:

1. Be the school President.

2. Be the lead in the school play.

3. Collect the most bubble gum comics.

The later would give him the coveted and respected title of “Guru of Gum.” The school record was 784 comics from two years ago. Billy Park had chewed a lot of gum that year.

“Hey Freddy, nice shoes,” came an unmistakable shrill voice from behind. Telly Dell could turn a deliciously fun pizza party into a funeral with one sour comment.

“Thank you!” Fred was quick on his feet. “I decided to keep the shoes that made me ‘King Kickball’ last year.” Telly folded her arms in front of her chest and walked away in a huff. “… And it’s ‘Fred’ from now on. Thank you.”

Just then, a kindergartener whizzed by, whispering a scratchy, “F-R-E-D. Fred, Fred, Fred. This is your year so don’t you fear!” Or did an alien creature scamper across his path, he couldn’t tell? One moment he was there and the next, gone.

To be continued…