Sunday, September 11, 2016

61 Books: #45

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–44 are below this post.

45. Matthew Burgess, Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings, with illustrations by Kris DiGiacomo (2015) (9/11/16)
This report goes hand-in-hand with my previous one (see immediately below), where I wondered if maybe I'm just not a fan of biography picture-books. Turns out I can make no such generalization, for although I didn't care for that other one, about Albert Einstein, I thought this one about e. e. cummings was topnotch.

Compare and contrast: the previous one tackles weighty scientific topics (largely by skirting them), which perhaps isn't the appropriate subject matter for a picture book, while this one treats us to words, the dance of language, the joy of observation and expression. When it comes to presenting the people behind the science or words, the first book picks out quirky characteristics that (seem to) want us to say, "Awwwww, how cute!"—as a way to "humanize" a genius?—whereas this one treats us to significant biographical details: Cummings's adult home at 4 Patchin Place in New York City, where he lived for 38 years until his death in 1962 ("when asked why, he would reply: 'because here's friendly, unscientific, private, human' "); his family growing up, his teachers, how they encouraged his imagination; his first poems, first publications; his stint as an ambulance driver in France during WWI; his relationship with his common-law wife, Marion (granted, his third, but she was with him for almost 30 years: not every fact is relevant). Details such as these add up to an understanding of the man.

And then, of course, there are his poems, a few of which are included—of course. (Click on the elephant to see this spread nice and big.)

I did not mention the illustrations of the previous book, which are cartoonish, cute. The illustrations of Enormous Smallness are more mature, combining fun elements —some reminded me of Maurice Sendak—with elegant graphic design. I was delighted to find the Krazy Kat comics Cummings covered his college dorm walls with represented, his childhood treehouse, and his first poem, which "flew out of his mouth when he was only three: 'Oh, my little / birdie, Oh / with his little / toe, toe toe!' "

So no: I'm not averse to biography picture-books. This book made me well up with tears on occasion, it was so lovely. The other one mostly made me mad. In short, an author must choose her or his subject very carefully. E. E. Cummings was a good choice. And in able hands.

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