Today I have the pleasure of reviewing two marvelous non-fiction books that Candlewick sent here. I chose these from the publisher’s new releases list because the topics–Charlie Chaplin and Central Park–are fascinating. The skilled creators of these books have brought to life both the man who portrayed the Little Tramp and New York City’s brilliant oasis, each of which has given joy to so many people.
Smile! : How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and cry)
By Gary Goglio and illustrated by Ed Young
“Before I am involved with a project I must be moved, and as I try something exciting, I grow. It is my purpose to stimulate growth in the reader as an active participant as well,” Young explains. “I feel the story has to be exciting, and a moving experience for a child.” (Ed Young’s website)
Charlie Chaplin’s childhood seesawed between struggles with dire poverty and his love of entertaining. Author Gary Golio portrays the “little slip of a boy” as a role-player in his own life, writing the text in the short dynamic lines of the placards in a silent film. The book designer chose Pabst Oldstyle as the font to reinforce this impression. It seems an accurate one.
Charlie first began entertaining audiences about the age of five when his mother lost her voice during a performance and he leapt from the wings to sing and dance in her stead. Later, with his clog dancing and comedy acts he earned a meager keep between stints for himself and his half-brother at workhouses for the poor. His parents were entertainers, however his father was a non-entity in Charlie’s life. His mother encouraged Charlie’s talents, read him plays nightly, and regaled him with her own stories about everyday people, however she suffered bouts of sickness that left her incapable of caring for her boys for months at a time. She was eventually committed to an insane asylum.
The grim aspects of Chaplin’s childhood are touched on lightly and counterbalanced with accounts of his early theatrical successes, first as Billy the Pageboy in a Sherlock Holmes play, then in silent films and by the age of sixteen, movie work in California and New York City.
One day in a prop room Charlie found, “Some baggy old pants / A tiny topcoat / Beat-up shoes (too big) / And a black bowler hat. / The makings of a tramp.” He remembered someone from his early years – Rummy Binks, a destitute man with baggy clothing and turned out feet, a crooked cane and a wobbly walk. Charlie had made his mother laugh with his funny portrayal of Rummy, although it also made her sad. Charlie became this character so representative of the ironies of his life, and that of many others, and thus gained worldwide fame.
Ed Young’s collage and ink art for this book is as raw and creative, as poignant and demonstrative, as Charlie Chaplin would have wanted. On the bottom corner of many right hand pages is a silhouette of The Tramp. The first is quite small as if it is the bud of an idea in Charlie’s mind, and they grow larger as this persona grows on him. On the final pages is a vignetted photo of the “real” Tramp. Mr. Young’s torn paper and cut fabric collages range from the neutral tones and black background of Charlie and his older brother Sydney living in one small room with only one bed, to a reminiscence of a wealthier time done with happier colors and touches of white. Some collages pour across the gutter as double page spreads and the black backgrounds and playbill-like callouts are stylistically akin to those in the silent films Chaplin would perform in until one year before his death.
There are slapstick elements and theatrical set design aspects and patterns as if of costume fabrics. Charlie’s lifelong desire became to make people laugh in spite of sadness. That is evident throughout every page of this book. His story is fleshed-out with an afterword, facts, a list of resources, and selected books and movies.
One surprise is the cover. The design of the dust jacket is fabulous. The face evoked as black and white collage against a background in paper bag tan, the spotlight with the silhouette of The Tramp, and the colorful typography of the word Smile! (which is the only aspect that is varnished, really making it pop) combine to make a gorgeously melodramatic image. Remove that dust jacket and the actual cover of the book focuses only on raw theatrical emotion–a saturated color collage with a black and white rectangle styled as if the title is for a silent film. Which better represents this story of Charlie Chaplin’s unconventional life? You decide.
A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park
By Ashley Benham Yazdani
Ashley Benham Yazdani’s debut picture book A Green Place to Be is a delightful exploration of the origins of Central Park. Her delicate and lively watercolors show inclusive crowds savoring the park as it is now, and then her story plows right into a narrative of what was there before.
By 1858 developers of the growing city had stripped the central land of trees leaving this two and a half mile long, half mile wide landscape swampy and barren except for the small villages located within. It is to Yazdani’s credit that she makes clear at the beginning of the story that the free blacks and Irish immigrants who had bought land and settled in these villages were forced to sell their property to the city in order to make room for the park.
The author includes other elements of human drama. When architect Calvert Vaux instigated the idea of a contest to design the park, he joined forces with Frederick Law Olmstead who was more intimately acquainted with the terrain. They teamed up to work on a ten foot, two inch long by two foot, three inch wide drawing, in scale with the proposed green common. “Each path and rock and plant was carefully placed and drawn. When friends came to call, they were asked to add some grass to the drawings.” Readers will wish they could have helped too. Well, Frederick and Calvert worked so long on it and added so much detail that they missed the deadline!
But wait…a page turn later shows them arriving after dark, where they see that there is one light still on. The janitor. He submitted the precious drawing for them. Although they were the last to submit, their design won.
Then came the hard part…
Using explosives and drainage pipes, moving vast amounts of rock and soil, the two designers reconfigured the land. Always they thought about the people who would use the parkland. Space was made for diverse activities. All the paths but one curved and roadways were subterranean to let people walk without being bothered by carriages.
There is a delightful spread showing moonlit skaters on the Lake, the first part of the park to be completed.
The author uses her delicate watercolors to show children in period costume enjoying the Children’s District including the Dairy, where parents could get milk for their babies. Also shown are a few of the other figures important in developing the park. These include Emma Stebbins, sculptor of The Angel of the Waters, the first public sculpture in New York City by a woman. The text mentions her partner who was ill and perhaps the inspiration for the angel. Ignatz Anton Pilát was the Austrian born gardener who followed the designers’ ideas for plantings and Jacob Wrey Mould created stone pagodas, band shells, and a castle. He and Calvert also created thirty-four lovely stone bridges and arches, each one amazingly different. Throughout the tale it is obvious that Frederick and Calvert wanted an outstanding park for everyone to enjoy.
A Green Place to Be is a thoroughly engaging, charmingly illustrated story about “A park [that] would be a green gift to everyone.” The book ends with four pages of information and fun facts that add detail, even about the park’s grey squirrels. Twenty-two of them scamper through the pages of the book. Will the reader find them all?
This picture book is a comprehensive account designed for children, so of course it cannot and should not include everything significant about this 843 acre park. In mid-January I walked the length of Central Park entering at the Strangers Gate (W106th St.) and ending at the Merchant’s Gate at Columbus Circle. Twenty named gates honor the different people of New York who might use the park. There is a Girl’s Gate, a Farmer’s Gate, a Boy’s Gate, and so on. The next time I visit I will pay closer attention to the bridges and arches so well illustrated in A Green Place to Be!
As the book points out, Olmstead and Vaux’s landscape designs were genuinely for all of us.
many thanks for photography by Egils Zarins