Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Claws That Catch

Leave it to artist Christopher Myers to remind us that not all children’s books are merely the “products of wild imaginations and unfettered flights of fancy,” as they are often made out to be. “{M}y books are, more often than not, products of painstaking research,” he writes in the closing author’s note of Jabberwocky, Myers’ re-imagining of the classic nonsense verse by Lewis Carroll, published last year by Jump at the Sun/Hyperion.

And leave it to Myers to present us with another example of a picture book that appeals to teens. Myers takes this legendary poem---written over one hundred and thirty years ago and published in Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There by Carroll, the pen name for the Reverend Charles Dodgson---and sets it on the basketball court in a contemporary, inner-city setting: “The slithy toves” who “did gyre and gimble in the wabe” are jump-ropers, looking over their shoulder to see the Jabberwock’s entrance onto the basketball court. He’s a basketball behemoth, a cyclopean man with seven fingers, looming on the court, ready for a face-off. “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!”

In Myers’ world of monsters on the court, “the claws that catch” take on an entirely---and most ominous---new meaning, at least for the young boy who has decided to take on the Jabberwock. His “vorpal sword in hand”? His tennis shoes. The “tumtum tree” he rested by, standing a while in thought? The metal fence surrounding the court. “The vorpal blade” going “snicker-snack”? The slam-dunk that defeats the towering Jabberwock. And the “galumphing” of the victor, as he heads back with the Jabberwock’s head? The thumping of the basketball as the young boy dribbles away from the game, triumphant.

Myers’ vibrant, shimmering art work is stunning. It is a bold palette he uses (dark blacks, deep reds, bright yellows), an electric heat emanating off these players, dripping off the Jabberwock in the dramatic “jaws that bite” image. Even the large, stocky, multi-colored text yells with its own magnetic energy. Myers’ many instances of toying with perspective in the book, as evidenced on the book’s very cover, manage to be both playful and terrifying at the same time, what with the seven-fingered basketball monster with “eyes of flame,” burbling and whiffling through “the tulgey wood.”

Kirkus Reviews wrote, “{t}he choice of setting is brilliant, allowing the reader to join the artist in seeing the heroic possibilities in play.” And for those curious as to why exactly Myers did choose this setting, there is a “short note on the origins of this book” closing the tale. Evidently, Charles Dodgson had an interest in “sport as a moral battleground,” Myers writes. Myers also describes stumbling upon the word “ollamalitzli” in the margin of one of Dodgson’s many diaries at the British Library:

“It refers to an ancient Mesoamerican game of religious and ritual significance played by several cultures, including the Olmecs and Aztecs. The object of the game was to manipulate a rubber ball though a stone hoop affixed high on a wall. Dodgson surely had read about the game, much the same way that James Naismith, ‘inventor’ of basketball, had read about it, in one of the many missionary journals that were popular in that day, especially among doctors of divinity (which both men were). Clearly, a basic familiarity with this nascent form of basketball is central to understanding the work.”

This title, published last Fall, is hardly brand-new, but if you haven't seen it yet, it’s more than worth a look, especially for those interested in the work of contemporary artists, as well as those interested in classic poetry revisited in striking ways. Publishers Weekly wrote, “{w}hile the merit of imposing a narrative logic on a work celebrated for its nonsense remains debatable,” this is still a one-on-one game on the basketball court to be celebrated. O frabjous day!

{Quoted excerpts from JABBERWOCKY: THE CLASSIC POEM FROM LEWIS CARROLL'S THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS, AND WHAT ALICE FOUND THERE, reimagined and illustrated by Christopher Myers © 2007, published by Jump at the Sun/Hyperion. All rights reserved.}

ADDENDUM: Here's a quick addendum, since---as Monica pointed out in the comments section---URLs cannot be posted in comments.

I want to briefly link to the New York Times letter-to-the-editor and response from Myers of which Monica spoke. It is here. Registration should be required to read, but it is free.

Back to your regularly scheduled reading . . .


Monica Edinger said...

The note about finding "ollamalitzli" in the diary is tongue-in-cheek fiction as a Carrollian and then Chris noted in letters to the New York Times. Noted Chris, "... I wrote the author's note in a particularly nonsensical mood, in keeping with the spirit of whimsy found both in Carroll's original poem and in his varied and inconsistent explanations thereof..." Blogger doesn't like URLs, but if you do a search at the Times book section for "Jabberwocky Myers" you'll get the review and the letters.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Well, I had no idea, Monica. Someone else has since pointed this out to me, too. Thanks for the information. I will try to find more info and read further.

Literaticat said...

Well, to be fair, there IS a mesoamerican game of basketball that was played with a natural rubber ball and a stone hoop. The Aztecs called it Tlachtli, and if you lost, they'd behead you.

So I don't blame you for believing it... truth is stranger than fiction.

Jenn L.
Not Your Mother's Book Club

MrsE said...

Myers' version is also a favourite of mine. Another great graphic interpretation of Jabberwocky is by done by illustrator Stephane Jorische. You can get a feel for it by checking out the cover on Amazon.

Little Willow said...

Good pick, Jules. Charles Dodgson rules.