Wednesday, February 29, 2012


ABOUT A WEEK BEFORE news broke that a new James Joyce picture book was to be published, I discovered (through this site) that my usually exhaustive research had somehow missed an English-language edition of James Joyce's only other picture book, The Cat and the Devil: the first UK edition, published by Faber and Faber in 1965, and illustrated by Gerald Rose.

Gerald Rose shot through the ranks of British children's illustrators when he won the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal with his third picture book, Old Winkle and the Seagulls (1960), so it is no surprise that he was handed the honor of illustrating Joyce's book five years later.

The book alternates between lush four-color paintings (which bring Maira Kalman's work to mind), and kinetic black and white line drawings.

Despite the appeal of Rose's bold colors, it is in his black and white illustrations that the book really feels in sync with Joyce's text. The visual jokes and the almost sketchy line work match Joyce's storytelling and the spirit in which the story was originally written.

I will always prefer the Richard Erdoes edition, which is more consistent in its composition, but it is hard to resist Rose's portrayal of Joyce as the devil (an idea suggested by Joyce himself in his postscript).

And this cat. Of all the editions, this is the best cat.

For more of the actual story The Cat and the Devil, refer back to my very first blog post, linked up above and again right here.

(In the interim between my finding out about this edition and getting my hands on it, one of my readers, Simon Sterg over at Yahoo! 360, also alerted me of my oversight.)

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


FOR UMBERTO ECO AND EUGENIO CARMI'S FIRST PICTURE BOOK, The Bomb and the General, they tackled the Cold War arms race. For their second, The Three Astronauts, also released in 1966, they turned to the Space Race. It had been only five years since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in April of 1961, and the Cold War battle between the USA and the USSR to be the first nation to conquer space was still very present, with both nations setting sights for the moon. Like Eco and Carmi's first book, The Three Astronauts preaches pacifism, but with more of a focus on multiculturalism. It takes the same storybook tone as The Bomb and the General, trying to cast the Space Race in the language of fable.


"And once upon a time there was Mars."

The people of Earth want to explore Mars. They send up rockets that fall back to the ground. Then they send up rockets that go out into space. Then they send up a dog in a rocket, "but the dogs couldn't talk, and the only message they sent was 'bow wow.'" So they finally send up a man.

"One fine morning three rockets took off from three different places on Earth," an American, a Russian, and a Chinese. They all want to be the first person to set foot on Mars, and none of them liked one another.

"Since all three of them were very smart, they landed on Mars at almost the same time." They get out to explore the alien landscape, but "They looked at each other distrustfully. And each kept his distance."

Then in the dead of night, afraid and alone, they each utter their word for "Mommy," which sounds almost the same in each of their languages. So they realize they're all feeling the same thing, and choose to camp together, singing songs and learning about one another.

First thing in the morning, a Martian shows up, and he's so scary looking that all three humans band together, and point their "atomic disintegrators" at him, ready to kill him. He, for his part, finds the humans to be "horrible creatures."

Then a baby bird falls from its nest, and the astronauts and the Martian all pause, and shed a tear for such a heartbreaking sight. The Martian picks up the bird and tries to shelter it, and the humans realize he's feeling the same thing they are, and they go over and shake his hands and all of them decide to return to Earth together.

"And so the visitors realized that on Earth, and on other planets, too, each one has his ways, and it's simply a matter of reaching an understanding."

WHILE THE SUBJECT IN THE THREE ASTRONAUTS feels somewhat dated, its message is not, which is why the Family Opera Initiative is currently developing an opera based on the book. A composer from each of the three countries--America, Russia, and China--is composing music, with words by American poet Nikki Giovanni. (They're looking for donations, so do click through.)

In my post on The Bomb and the General, I went into some depth raising the question, what does Eco's text say about Eco's concept of children's literature, without offering any kind of answer. It's not often that you get an answer from the artist himself, but Eugenio Carmi sat for an interview in conjunction with the opera, which provides insight into the way in which the book was created, and how he and Eco thought about children's literature.

Coming soon: Umberto Eco and Eugenio Carmi's The Gnomes of Gnu.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Friday, February 10, 2012


SEVENTY-SIX YEARS AFTER IT WAS WRITTEN, and forty-eight years after the publication in picture book form of his first children's book (We Too Were Children's first blog post ever), James Joyce has another children's book out: The Cats of Copenhagen.

If you have €300-€1200 that is.

Like his first children's book, The Cat and the Devil, The Cats of Copenhagen was written in a letter to James Joyce's grandson Stephen while Joyce was living in Denmark and his grandson in Paris. Unlike The Cat and the Devil, which originally appeared in Joyce's collected letters, The Cats of Copenhagen has not been previously published in any form. This new edition was made possible, according to the publisher Ithys Press, when James Joyce's works entered the public domain in Europe on January 1, 2012. That position has sparked some controversy, however, as the owner of the letter, the Zurich James Joyce Foundation, claims that it has yet to be determined if unpublished works are also in the public domain.

The Ithys Press edition is to be published in limited edition of 200 copies: 26 lettered, 170 numbered, and 4 Hors Commerce.

Here's hoping a popular edition will be published soon.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


WHEN I FIRST STARTED WE TOO WERE CHILDREN, MR. BARRIE, one of the things I hoped to examine was the way in which an author accustomed to writing for adults conceived of writing for children. Why? Because, as many authors included on the blog have noted, childhood reading is often the reading that is most influential on a writer (or on any individual). Consequently, if a writer who is aware of the importance of childhood reading writes what he hopes will be an influential text for the next generation, how does what he includes in that text reveal what he thinks is most important to literature?

This question takes on new meaning when it comes to the works of Umberto Eco, an author who so understands the influence of childhood reading that he wrote an entire novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005), in which the main character seeks to define his very identity from the books and comic books of his youth. Eco, most famous for his novel In the Name of the Rose (1980), first rose to prominence in academic circles as a Medievalist, philosopher, and semiotician.

Semiotics is the study of signs and their meanings. This includes the way in which words signify actual objects. For example, we call an apple by the word "apple," but a physical apple does not actually contain the word "apple." How then, does the word "apple" relate to the physical object? In what way does the word "apple" cause people to relate to the object? And how does the word "apple" function in a variety of contexts? These questions are of special importance when dealing with children, because children are only just learning about the world, and a lot of that learning is done through language acquisition. So, to a baby, the object apple is simply an observable object. But through language acquisition, it acquires the sign "apple." And as the child ages, the sign "apple" also comes to encompass secondary contextual meanings, say New York City's nickname "The Big Apple," or the symbolic meaning of an apple in the Adam and Eve story. Since so much of this learning comes from books (think of all of the "My first word..." books, which are simply photographs of objects paired with the relevant word), a semiotician writing a children's book, would not only bring concerns of its literary impact, but also of its linguistic, semiotic impact as well.

Which brings us to Umberto Eco. Almost. Eco's major contribution to semiotics is in the application of semiotics to literature. Eco expostulated the theory of "open texts" and "closed texts." An "open text" is one that allows multiple interpretations. A "closed text" dictates one interpretation. It is a question of whether a whole sequence of signs, the words and sentences that make up a story, can have different meanings than the signs usually have. Children's books, picture books in particular, are usually "closed texts." They have a specific message that is dictated to the child, a moral or lesson a child is supposed to take away from the story. Despite the myriad of interpretations his adult novels invite, Eco's picture books are no exception. They preach peace, understanding, and environmentalism.

Are you still with me? It's almost story time. I promise. Let's just go back a paragraph for a moment.

Remember the "My first word..." books? Picture = word, right? Eco's books seem at first to almost take that approach. All the books are done in two page spreads. The page on the left contains nothing but text. The page on the right contains nothing but a picture. But the picture is often abstract (see the "atom" in the spread on the left). These books don't teach words. They are highly representational. But the books' messages are closed, dictated, and even the abstract images contribute to that effect.

How? For that I must direct you to the article by Maria Truglio, Wise Gnomes, Nervous Astronauts, and a Very Bad General: The Children's Books of Umberto Eco and Eugenio Carmi, in Children's Literature, Volume 36, 2008, which is where I got pretty much all of my much watered-down version. Basically, while the illustrations Carmi uses are abstract, they contain their own recurring symbols--follow those little atom circles up above and the general to the right as we go forward. Those symbols then reiterate the story, reinforcing its message.

And of my original question, what do all of these concerns reveal about Eco's idea of literature? I'll let you decide.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN ITALIAN IN 1966, The Bomb and the General is the first of Eco and Carmi's three picture books. Revised and reissued in 1988, the books received English translations (by William Weaver, the translator of most of Eco's novels), which Truglio notes in her essay, are sometimes interpretations of the original text in a way.

"Once upon a time there was an atom."

"And once upon a time there was a bad general who wore a uniform covered with gold braid."

Atoms are the building blocks of the world. "Mom is made of atoms. Milk is made of atoms." And when all of the atoms are in harmony, then life is good.

But when atoms are broken, "A terrifying explosion takes place! This is atomic death."

Well, the atom had been put in a bomb, and the general had a lot of bombs. "'When I have lots and lots,' he said, 'I'll start a beautiful war!'"

"How can you help but become bad when you have all of those bombs within reach?"

The atom, along with his fellow atoms, don't want to blow up the world and cause death and destruction. So they sneak out of the bombs, which are in the attic, and hang out in the cellar.

Finally, goaded by his financial backers, the general does declare war. He loads the bombs onto airplanes and starts dropping them.

The people begin to run around in a panic. "But where could they find refuge?"

But the bombs sans atoms, don't explode, and everyone is happy, and they realize life is better without war. They decide to never make war again.

"And what about the general?" He becomes a doorman at a hotel "to make use of his uniform with all the braid." Everyone treats him as a lowly menial, even people who once had to obey him, and the general is embarrassed. "Because now he was of no importance at all."

TO SEE MORE OF THE BOMB AND THE GENERAL, check out my Flickr set here. And anyone who wants to correct my discussion on semiotics or to extend it, please do. I am by no means an expert.

Coming soon: Umberto Eco and Eugenio Carmi's Three Astronauts.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.