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It’s Monday what are you reading and Nonfiction Monday: Marcus, Juster, Steinberg, Willems

We are once again very happy to join the meme hosted by Jen and Kellee from Teach Mentor Texts (and brainchild of Sheila at BookJourney). I am also interweaving my post with Nonfiction Monday, hosted this week by none other than the beautiful Tara from a Teaching Life.

Funny Business

This is the third book of Leonard S. Marcus that I am featuring here for Nonfiction Monday (click the links for my post on Show Me A Story and A Caldecott Celebration). Leonard has this intuitive ability to draw out the voices and the narratives from illustrious authors and artists, that it almost seems like second-nature to him. In contrast to the first two books I read, this one focused on humorists in children’s literature. Thus, the conversations revolved around the authors’ conceptions of laughter, humor, and comic tragedies – among others.

There were thirteen authors interviewed for this book, namely: Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Sharon Creech, Christopher Paul Curtis, Anne Fine, Daniel Handler, Carl Hiaasen, Norton Juster, Dick King-Smith, Hilary McKay, Daniel Pinkwater, Louis Sachar, and Jon Scieszka.

LEMONY SNICKET! aka Daniel Handler. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

The conversations would unfailingly begin with Leonard asking these authors how they were like as children. As an academic, I can’t help but think how these fascinating interviews are veritable goldmine to a wide-eyed, frenzied researcher once the narratives are coded and qualitatively-analyzed on recurring themes and subthemes. There are parallels and divergences with a few authors sharing that they were extremely shy and reclusive as kids, while others were gregarious and known as the class clown. Others were straight-A students while a few struggled in school and were their teachers’ headache as they pipe in with witty one-liners [or elaborate yarns of ludicrous tales] – all in perfect pitch, cadence, and timing – everything is about the delivery in the dreaded-comedic act.

Judy Blume. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.
Beverly Cleary. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

After a discussion on childhood, school life, and bits and pieces about family relationships – Leonard would then ask specific questions pertaining to the author’s body of works. The reader is also regaled by actual manuscript pages from most of the authors’ celebrated books, complete with their notes in the margin, corrections, and edits. Correspondences with their editors are also included in some of the conversations.

I think Leonard’s gift is his expansive knowledge of all these authors’ publications and his prodigious memory in recollecting fragments from the authors’ novels and interweaving it skillfully with pieces from their life that Leonard knows about. Leonard also asks the authors about their work routine, their thoughts about humor and its being edged in darkness, and what the best part of being a writer is.

Some of the responses that stood out for me are the following:

Sharon Creech. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Conversation with Sharon Creech (p. 44)

Q [Leonard]: What do you think of Mark Twain’s remark, ‘The secret source of Humor… is not joy but sorrow’?

A [Sharon Creech]: Hmm. I wonder whether he was referring to the writer (writing humor) or the reader (who perceives it)? I do think humor is stronger or more potent when it is juxtaposed with sorrow. I’m not a fan of jokesters or one-liners or farce. Instead, I am drawn to humor that arises out of sorrow or fear, or exists alongside them. It is also a useful technique to employ comic relief after serious passages, and using humor contrapuntally with seriousness arises naturally out of who I am. I worry a lot, but it is instinctive to counter the worry with humor. It is the primary way I cope with the chaos around me: to look at the absurdity in the wretchedness and slant it slightly, to puncture the absurd through humor. Otherwise, I feel as if I’d dissolve into the abyss of worry and fear.

I also enjoyed reading about Jon Scieszka’s take on humor and mathematics of all things (pp. 200-201):

Absolute Favorite Author of all Times, Jon Scieszka. Click on the image to be taken to the websource – Jon’s website.

I later noticed that mathematicians tend to be good joke tellers, and I think that’s because humor is mathematical. A joke will often start out as an expected progression. It takes you through the progression to a certain point, but then instead of going for the conclusion it’s been leading up to, the joke will jump off to the side or make some surprise leap. It’s all about expectation, and you have to have the mathematical talent to get there.

I was also amazed by Norton Juster’s creative process and how he makes his characters come to life in his novels (p. 136):

Norton Juster. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

The other thing I do when I’m starting a story is to write a lot of conversations between characters, ninety percent of which never end up in the book. But it’s through these conversations that I get to know them. I have filing cabinets filled with these notes and conversations, all of them written with number 2 yellow pencils. I don’t use a computer or even type – just endless scribbled notes.

Would I love to have a glimpse of those unpublished notes! When asked what advice they would give to aspiring writers, they all said the same thing: Read, read, read. I would recommend this book to librarians, teachers, kidlit enthusiasts, and virtually anyone whose passion includes humor, the science and art of writing, and children’s literature.

The Passport by Saul Steinberg

I borrowed this book from our library after reading Leonard Marcus’ Show Me a StoryMost of the illustrators he interviewed in the book mentioned Saul Steinberg as their hero, Peter Sis being one of them. I was ecstatic to find a copy of The Passport lying unloved in our library. It’s wordless art at its finest. I am floored at how Steinberg manages to communicate an entire world with just a few lines and strokes. His genius in illustrated non-sequiturs, I believe, is unparalleled.

I just love the vintage feel of this page.

As I ooh and aah over one page, I am bowled over again by the next page and the next – and I simply … drown in the artwork. There are sociopolitical layers on top of travesties of wealth, the celebration of absurdities, and the unexpectedness of mixed media intersecting in bizarre-yet-brilliant ways.

As I was surfing the net about this book, I chanced upon this post by Cairo that provides an incisive analysis of this classic piece. Too bad I couldn’t find any more of Steinberg’s books even in our public libraries.

Currently Reading

I have just finished reading The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth and I have to say that it is, by far, one of the most brilliant books I have EVER read. And the incredible annotations have only served to increase the entire narrative’s appeal to me – it is just geeky to the nth level, and hands down, brilliant – I know I already said that, but it bears repeating. I am hoping to review the book in the coming weeks.

I believe that this is also one of my greatest discoveries this year. It provides an insight into the mind of Mo Willems who traveled the world for a year in 1990. And no, he didn’t just get a lousy tee-shirt to show for it after his journey. He was disciplined enough to draw one cartoon a day, documenting his insights – from the profane to the inconsequential, from the ridiculous to the profound – finding joy in the hopelessly mundane and the peculiar oddities in each of the cities that he visited, hence this book. I hope I get to be as disciplined as he was in jotting down my own insights and observations each day. I just received this beautiful Paulo Coelho 2013 planner as a gift from a kindred, which I believe is perfect for this project of mine. We shall see how that journey goes.

Gift from a beautiful friend who knows my heart. Thank you, Missy!

How about you, dear friends, what have you been reading this week?

22 comments on “It’s Monday what are you reading and Nonfiction Monday: Marcus, Juster, Steinberg, Willems

  1. Myra, this is such an interesting collection of books that you are featuring this week. I am especially intrigued by The Passport.


  2. You have some gorgeous pics here! Have a super week!


  3. Well, Myra, I love The Phantom Tollbooth, have read it as a read aloud several times through the years, & see that the annotations must be fascinating. I looked up Saul Steinberg on Amazon; his books appear to be rare & very expensive if you still want a new one. Wow, now to see if our library has any! And the Mo Willems book is quite a find, & your goal of a reflection a day is interesting & admirable. I hope you share once in a while about it. Have a great week!


  4. I agree with the observation that mathematicians are good joke tellers. Looks like a great list of books. I’m adding the Mo Willems / Dave Barry book to my wishlist.

    My favorite book this week was Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George. Please come see what I’m reading now.


  5. AWESOME! I have to get the Mo Willems book! 🙂


  6. The book of interviews looks fabulous! I like what Sharon Creech said about humor.

    Thanks for sharing…and enjoy!



  7. Thank you for a peek into Funny Business and the author interviews. Mathematicians as good joke tellers . . Makes sense!


  8. What a literary treasure trove here, Myra! I was just given the Phantom Tollbooth as a gift, now I need to dive into it…it does sound awesome. And, I think my prospects for a better new year will be much improved with a day planner that looks as beautiful as yours!


  9. Amy @ Hope Is the Word

    An annotated Phantom Tollbooth? Get out! :-). I love Marcus’ books, too–will be on the lookout for that one!


  10. My daughter’s 4th/5th grade teacher just announced she’ll be reading them The Phantom Toll Booth. It is one of the few teacher read alouds I remember. The language is so marvelous.

    Your Funny Business would be great to pair with Guys Read: Funny Business (edited, of course by Sciezka!).


  11. Many of these look fabulous. I plan on looking for the Phantom Tollbooth, the Willems and the ones by Marcus. Thanks!


  12. Passport looks fantastic! Love stuff like this. I have the Mo Willems on my shelf of books to read — just haven’t taken the time to read it. I’ll rectify this soon. I did read a graphic novel this past weekend by Doug TenNapel, Cardboard. I love his illustration style. The like the story element of cardboard coming to life but some of the other themes are pretty predictable. Still I liked it lots. Thanks for your list, Myra.
    Apples with Many Seeds


  13. You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Rains. Ain’t that the truth?! I would love to read that one.

    Read read read seems like good advice for everyone, not just aspiring comic writers!


  14. What great books these are! Funny Business would be a book I would love to read since not only am I a writer but I read some of those authors growing up. And I have an audio book also named Funny Business but it’s author is Jon Scieszka. Since you mention he is one of your favorite authors, I am now wanting to read it.


  15. Holy moly, there are some great books here! I just saw the Mo Willems book yesterday at a bookstore. Looked interesting.


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