Why We Broke Up, or Remembering the Onion Shirt

why_we_broke_upWhen I heard that Daniel Handler, of Lemony Snicket fame, had written a young adult novel with a romantic bent, I’ll admit I was intrigued. My children adore the Series of Unfortunate Events books and I love, love, love listening to any and all interviews with him, particularly his Fresh Air interview from 2004. Daniel Handler is one of those rare authors and people who isn’t at all ashamed of his intellect. Of his predisposition to odd references and awkward jokes. He is like one of those kids in high school who (like me) could quote the entire script of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and not think that was odd at all. In fact, he (like I) probably wore it as a badge of honor. His books are filled with references to little-known books and long-forgotten movies, as if the entire book were colored in sepia like a beautiful vintage photograph. And he’s hilarious. One of my favorite all-time tidbits from his book When Did you See Her Last (part of his All the Wrong Questions series) is when he introduces the name of the local grocery store and it is, wait for it, Partial Foods. Handler has a gift for this…for trundling along in his mysterious, occasionally rambling way, and then inserting a little treasure like Partial Foods into the text to really emphasize his quirky awesomeness.

But a young adult romance? About breaking up? I guess I could somewhat picture it, given some of the more sentimental moments and themes in Unfortunate Events, but I had to find out for myself if he could pull it off. And pull it off in a book told from the point of view of a teenage girl. Enter Why We Broke Up. And enter my amazement.

What could read as a schmaltzy, overdone, we-broke-up-and-I’m-crying-while-listening-to-The-Cure tome, surprises with its sweetness. Its realness. Its ability to quickly undo the reader with a lyrical and almost scientific analysis of the aftermath of a break-up. In the book, the main character Min writes a lengthy letter to Ed, her now ex-boyfriend, using artifacts from their relationship to tell the tale. She has delivered a box filled with these items (as many of us have done) on his doorstep and is now cataloging them for us in great detail. I will say that one of my favorite things about this book is Maire Kalman and her gorgeous illustrations which are strewn throughout the book like little gifts.  From a toy truck rescued from the beach, to a movie ticket stub, to two caps from bottles of Scarpia’s Bitter Ale, these relics from their relationship tell a tale that is both heartbreakingly familiar and entirely new. It’s an old story of teenage love, but one that is infused with a new freshness.

On the negative side, for the parents out there, there is some language in the book. The F word. The S word. And one of the biggest bones to pick I have with the book is that Handler allows Min’s ex-boyfriend to throw around the other F word as a derogatory reference to homosexuality. I hate that about the book and honestly don’t think it was necessary to go there. Perhaps Handler’s proving a point, by characterizing Ed in a way that the reader will be suspicious of from the get go, but I just can’t read the careless tossing of that word into a book as anything other than disrespectful and tasteless. It is a point of contention between Min and Ed, but I think there might have been better ways to set up that dynamic that this.

And sometimes the wordiness is a bit much. Handler can run away with himself (a trait I have found in his other books as well), but if you’re willing to just keep reading you’ll find some of the most beautiful nuggets. Moments like “The days were all day every day, get a grade, take a note, put something on, put somebody down, cut open a frog and see if it’s like this picture of a frog cut open. But at night, the nights were you, finally on the phone with you. Ed, my happy thing, the best part.” Handler gets it. He gets the pain of a break-up, particularly as an adolescent and his Min, in her poetic and self-deprecating way, manages to make even this almost 40 year old, feel that pain again.

We’ve all been broken up with and we’ve probably all been the breaker as well. And, while neither side is particularly delicious, being on the receiving end of the end is nothing I would want to live through again. It’s long diary entries and being told my shirt smelled like onions so I might as well just leave now. (True story.) And only someone as talented as Daniel Handler could take me there again, and can show young people just at the introduction of such events, how it is done and how beautifully it can be handled.

In the end it’s worth reading. It’s an honest account of a very intelligent girl who is grieving something that may not have been altogether beautiful in the first place. But that hindsight, as we all know, doesn’t come until much later. And even then, perhaps some of us wouldn’t necessarily change a thing.

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A Splash of Red, or The Best Art Book Around

13642600I have an amazing, clever, wonderful friend who often sends me books. Not just ordinary books. Gorgeous, beautiful, life-altering books. This is the sort of friend that everyone should be lucky enough to have and I adore her to pieces. One of the books she sent me recently was the most surprising, delightful book I had seen in some time. A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet (swoon swoon swoon) is honestly, in my humble opinion, one of, if not THE, best art books around. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mr. Pippin, he was and remains an absolute American treasure. An artist known best for his simple and stunning paintings of American life, Mr. Pippin has quickly become one of my favorite artists. I taught my Museum Masters students about him last week and they were fascinated by this man who overcame huge obstacles in his life and yet still stayed true to his artistic soul. Wounded severely while fighting in the trenches in World War I, Mr. Pippin lost almost all mobility in his right hand – his “drawing” hand. And for many years, he figured his days of creating artwork were over. That is, until he took his right hand in his left and taught himself to paint, holding one hand in the other. Bryant’s words and Sweet’s gorgeous drawings bring this humble and extraordinary man to life for children and adults. Interspersed through the book are quotes from Mr. Pippin himself. Quotes like “If a man knows nothing but hard times, he will paint them, for her must be true to himself” and (my students’ favorite) “Pictures just come to my mind and I tell my heart to go ahead.”  This is an inspiring, at times heartbreaking, groundbreaking book that should belong on the shelves of every child and adult the world over. Please take a moment and get to know Horace Pippin through the eyes of Bryant and Sweet. They have done him proud.

On a Beam of Light, or The Genius Without Socks

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 beam-of-light-feature-600x442Our elementary school librarian is wonderful for many reasons, not the least of which is her immaculate taste in books. So, when I was looking for a children’s book about Albert Einstein to read to my history students, I went directly to her. And, like always, she never ceases to amaze me. This time, her treasured eye turned me onto Jennifer Berne’s lovely 2013 book, On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein. I must admit, what first caught my eye was the name of the illustrator, Vladimir Radunksy, who is one of my all-time favorites. (If you’re not familiar with the wonder of Radunsky, please take a peek at An Edward Lear Alphabet and I Love You Dude – two of his best illustrated works.) So, you have a fabulous illustrator, an equally fabulous author (Jennifer Berne of Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau fame), and a fascinating subject…Add it all together and you’ve got an equation more brilliant than e=mc2. The book details Einstein’s childhood, as a quiet, rather introverted, yet deeply intellectual child who, for years, didn’t say a word. Legend has it his first words were “This soup is too hot!” And when asked by his parents why he didn’t speak before then, he responded, “Everything was fine until now.” With a wonderful attention to quiet details, like his favorite compass and his distaste for socks, On a Beam of Light captures the brilliance of this man while simultaneously making him accessible to a new generation of fans. And it doesn’t pander to children. It doesn’t dumb down the story of this man. Rather, it holds itself up to the standard that Albert himself might demand. And our children are better for it. For to read a special book like this is a gift all itself.