The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations

Any fans of kidlit need to see this documentary…

Back in October 2011, I contributed to a Kickstarter campaign by filmmaker Hannah Jayanti, who wanted to create an original documentary to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, a children’s classic written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer. I’ve written about The Phantom Tollbooth at considerable length in the past (here and here and here), largely because I think it’s one of the most profound books I’ve ever read. As a kid, it hit me like a ton of bricks and, when I found out that I was going to be a father, the very first thing I ever bought for my yet-to-be-born daughter was her very own copy of The Phantom Tollbooth. So, understandably, I was more than a little interested in seeing a documentary about the origins of the book and the creative duo that brought it to life.

A few hours ago, I just finished watching the finished product, Jayanti‘s charming and perceptive The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations, and, let me tell you, the title is apt. The documentary exceeded any expectations I could’ve had for the project and, I’ll be honest, as a bit of a Tollbooth fanboy, my expectations were probably set unreasonably high to begin with. Even if you’re not a card-carrying devotee of Milo and his adventures beyond the tollbooth, this is just a really great film. Anyone interested in art, creativity, learning, or the power of words should see this movie.

Jayanti‘s visual palette and design sense are as precise and whimsical as the men who created The Phantom Tollbooth, and the handcrafted feel of the film itself is wonderful vehicle for conveying the story of the book’s creation. (The animated sequences, narrated by David Hyde Pierce, are particularly delightful.) The documentary interviews Juster and Feiffer extensively, both together and separately, and, through their interactions, you can still see how these two men, bursting with creativity, could come together to create such a literary classic. In addition to the creation of the book, Beyond Expectations also explores the histories of the creators, the personal and cultural impact of The Phantom Tollbooth, the importance of both education and failure (which I don’t think gets enough attention as an educational tool), and how Norton’s approach to learning positively impacted the lives of his daughter and granddaughter.

The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations

I love the look of this film…

I think it’s impossible to come away from watching The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations without an overwhelming sense of affection for Juster, Feiffer, and the world they created in The Phantom Tollbooth. And, personally, I just couldn’t be happier that this film not only got made, but got made so well.

If you’d like to see The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations, it’s available now for instant streaming and HD DRM-free downloads HERE. (You can also pre-order the DVD.) To find out more about the project, you can visit the film’s official website HERE. There’s a lot of great content on the official site, including information on the creators, production videos, and a video that profiles Norton and Juster’s latest literary collaboration, The Odious Ogre.

Seek this documentary out, folks. It’s worth your time.

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Emily's First 100 Days of School

One, one animated adaptation of the book… a-ha-ha…

Scholastic’s Weston Woods has a long tradition of making animated adaptations of classic works of children’s literature. Most are excellent – I’m a fan of their version of William Steig’s Pete’s a Pizza and their Mo Willems Pigeon videos – though a few are little questionable. (See one of my very first posts – “Dad, We Watched a Movie at School Today about an Old Lady Who Kills Children”.)

Their adaptation of Rosemary WellsEmily’s First 100 Days of School, however, is one of the good ones and should give any interested parties a nice idea of what the book is all about. Take a look and enjoy.

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The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

A story as progressive as “The Country Bunny” is a perfect fit for PBS…

I always look to see if there’s any accompanying video content available whenever I make a book recommendation – an author interview, a book trailer, etc. – and I found a real gem while looking for video related to The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes this week.

Apparently, during the late ’70s and early ’80s, Nebraska Public Television and the Nebraska Department of Education developed a children’s show to promote reading called Once Upon a Time. The show revolved around a witch who loved stories so much that she locked Marion the Librarian in her tower until (to quote the theme song) “the witch is happy / And lets Marion go away.” So the show mostly involves Marion reading stories to kids each week from the witch’s tower- it’s like a mash-up of old locally-produced children’s shows (like Bozo the Clown and Mister Dress-Up) and the old PBS classic Reading Rainbow.

(There was an oddball Canadian kids’ show about reading – the weirdly sci-fi Read All About It – that I adored, even though its floating-head main villain, Duneedon, terrified me when I was younger.)

Once Upon a Time

This is how we got kids to read in the ’70s and ’80s…

Once Upon a Time is low-budget and a bit cheesy, but the 33 episodes are so earnest and charming that it’s hard not to feel a lot of affection for the show. I would’ve LOVED it as a kid. Plus Marion the Librarian read lots of really great books, including The Country Bunny, Make Way For Ducklings, Madeline’s Rescue, Horton Hatches The Egg, Stone Soup, and more. So, if you’re interested in checking out a nicely nostalgic public TV take on Du Bose Heyward’s The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, here you go:


Art & Max by David Wiesner

Take a look at how David Wiesner got started on “Art & Max”

Here’s a very cool video with David Wiesner, creator of Art & Max, one of my favorite picture books about art, talking about the origins of the book and how playing with different art media inspired his lovely, lizard-filled story about the creative process. The video not only offers up some interesting insights into how Wiesner works, but it also shows you some of the earliest images that Wiesner created during the book’s evolution. (Fun fact – In the early stages, Art was a bear, not a lizard.)


The American Library Association announced the winners of their major 2013 book awards on Monday, and the award that always catches my attention is the Caldecott Medal, named in honor of nineteenth-century illustrator Randolph Caldecott. The award is presented to “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children” from the past year, and former winners include such Building a Library favorites as A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka, A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Erin and Philip Stead, Flotsam by David Wiesner, and many, many more. This year, the 2013 Caldecott Medal was awarded to This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen.

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

That fish totally stole that hat and now he’s being rewarded?

I couldn’t be happier about this selection. I wrote a glowing review of Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back last year, and This Is Not My Hat continues the hat-swapping fun. It’s a hysterical read and absolutely gorgeous to look at. The ALA also named five Caldecott Honor Books for 2013Creepy Carrots!, illustrated by Peter Brown (artist of the great The Purple Kangaroo and Children Make Terrible Pets), written by Aaron Reynolds; Extra Yarn, illustrated by Jon Klassen (winning a Medal and an Honor Citation.. nice), written by Mac Barnett (author of the hilarious Chloe and the Lion); Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger; One Cool Friend, illustrated by David Small (creator of one of our favorite books ever, Imogene’s Antlers), written by Toni Buzzeo; and Sleep Like a Tiger, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Mary Logue.

We’ve read This Is Not My Hat, Creepy Carrots!, and Extra Yarn so far and definitely recommend them. We’re hoping to snag the rest soon, but I’m sure that, following the award announcements, their library hold lists exploded. BUT, if you’d like to sample this year’s Caldecott books before you get in line at the library, I put together this collection of book trailers and videos for all of the 2013 Caldecott honorees. First up, let’s take a look at the book trailer for the 2013 Caldecott Medal winner This Is Not My Hat.

Next, Peter Brown talks about how The Twilight Zone inspired his artwork for Creepy Carrots.

This fan-produced book trailer for Extra Yarn gives you a very cool, very thorough look at Jon Klassen’s fantastic artwork. [read the rest of the post…]


Nursery Rhyme Comics

This book could not be more popular in our household…

Back in May, I wrote a positively glowing review of Nursery Rhyme Comics, a 2011 collection of “50 timeless rhymes from 50 celebrated cartoonists” that my daughter instantly adored. Seriously. She LOVED IT. It became the book my daughter talked about endlessly, the book that she wanted to check out every single time we visited the library.

To give you a full picture of her unbridled affection for Nursery Rhyme Comics, here’s a telling excerpt from my original review:

Do you want to know how much [my daughter] loved it? The next day, after I had to read her the whole anthology AGAIN, she asked me, “Do you think Santa will bring me this book for Christmas if I ask him?” For those of you without kids, just FYI, that’s maybe the single greatest endorsement ANY kids’ book can EVER have. That’s like a movie winning 12 Oscars and making a billion dollars at the box office.

That’s right. She asked for it from SANTA. That’s a big deal for a kid. And that happened back in May and, right before Christmas, my daughter asked me again – she remembered – and she asked, “Do you think Santa is going to bring me my own copy of Nursery Rhyme Comics?”

C’mon, parents, how could Santa say no to that? With that in mind, I present this quick video of our 2012 Christmas morning. (The “He” my daughter keeps referring to in the video is, of course, Santa.) So, thanks, First Second Books and Chris Duffy (editor of Nursery Rhyme Comics), as you can see, you guys – and St. Nick – really made my daughter’s Christmas.


Happy Holidays from Krusty the Clown

It’s always good to remember the reason for the season – our sponsors.

I’m never sure what holidays people celebrate, so, at this time of the year, I always swipe a line from my personal favorite spiritual leader, Krusty the Clown, and declare, “Have a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Kwazy Kwanza, a Tip-Top Tet, and a solemn, dignified Ramadan.” And, if I missed your preferred celebration, I truly do apologize. As 2012 grinds down to halt, I mostly just hope that all parents, kids, and everyone in between are healthy, happy, and have some great reading material at their disposal.

And, if you are celebrating Christmas today, I hope your morning is more like this:

And less like this:

Happy Holidays!


Giants Beware

Q: Who would in a showdown – Claudette or Merida from “Brave”? A: The audience.

First Second Books published Giants Beware!, our favorite kid’s book of 2012, and no one can fault them for failing to create some great promotional material for Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado‘s sublime graphic novel. I mentioned the book’s great downloadable activity kit in my review, but First Second also created two very cool book trailers for Giants Beware as well.

The first trailer is a dynamic movie trailer-esque preview of the book – the video is a montage of music and images that really sells how Claudette’s adventures read like a blockbuster animated movie.

The second trailer is interesting. It’s less of a trailer and more of a look behind the scenes at the creation of the book. Basically, it’s a three-and-a-half minute, real-time video of Rafael Rosado digitally inking a page from Giants Beware. There’s no commentary or narration, just some accompanying music as we look over Rosado’s shoulder while he works. While there’s a part of me that really would’ve enjoyed hearing Rosado talk more about his creative process, I found myself really sucked in by the video and this look into his studio. (You will either find this video fascinating or dead boring – fair warning.) Enjoy.


When I Grow Up book trailer

We open on a tracking shot of a publishing executive giving Weird Al a million dollars to make the best book trailer ever….

While I was still reveling in my excellent recent purchases at a holiday book sale, I decided to go online and see if any of the titles I bought had book trailers available. Although, I should note right off the bat that, even though they’re growing in popularity, book trailers can be pretty hit or miss. Sometimes, they do a great job of stoking your interest in a title by using exciting, cinematic imagery or offering interesting insights from the authors. And, other times, they look like half-assed junior high AV projects that a student threw together in an hour in lieu of turning in an English paper.

Fortunately, three of the books I purchased this week – Along a Long Road by Frank Viva, The Trouble with Chickens by Doreen Cronin and Kevin Cornell, and When I Grow Up by Al Yankovic and Wes Hargis – all had very decent, very well-produced book trailers available, which I thought I’d pass along.

For starters, the trailer for Along a Long Road does a cool job of showing off Viva’s rich, stylish artwork and making it clear that the illustrations really were created as a single 35-foot-long piece of art (which still blows my mind).

Next, we’ve got the trailer for Doreen Cronin‘s The Trouble with Chickens. I will admit – when Cronin came on screen in a trenchcoat and fedora, I was worried that I was going to spend two minutes being really embarrassed for one of my favorite children’s authors. Fortunately, the cheese factor was gloriously low in this trailer. Instead, we get some solid interview time with Cronin where she really goes into detail about the crime noir inspirations behind the book. (She likens J.J. Tully the dog to Humphrey Bogart, which just made me love her all the more.)

And, finally, we get the trailer for When I Grow Up. This trailer is mostly just excerpts of Al Yankovic reading from the book, accompanied by slightly animated versions of Wes Hargis’ artwork, but I think that was a great choice for this preview. Weird Al has such a distinct and downright wacky reading voice that he’s a great ambassador for the book. If I was a kid and I heard Al’s narration on this trailer, I’d want to read the book ASAP.

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Bink & Gollie: Two For One

Having a best friend is awesome…

In my last post, I waxed on and on about Bink & Gollie: Two For One by Kate DiCamillo, Alison McGhee, and Tony Fucile, even though, pretty early in the article, I commented, “How can I possibly convey the depth of the warmth and humor in Bink & Gollie in a simple blog post?” (And yet I still tried. Was it passion or hubris? You be the judge…) So, for the sake of argument, let’s just assume that I failed in my attempt to really convey how endearing the two Bink & Gollie books are and you, as the skeptical blog lurker, need more empirical evidence to sell you on my recommendation. You need more evidence? No problem.

Below are two videos that, I think, do a nice job of showing off the quirky charms of Bink & Gollie. The first is a book trailer for the original Bink & Gollie, put together by Candlewick Press. The second video is a very cool, very home movie-esque clip of illustrator Tony Fucile reading Bink & Gollie to a group of children at a bookstore. It is not the most professionally-produced video ever, but I actually find it charming as hell. The camera moves all over the place, kids interrupt and ask questions, and Fucile does his best to read the story and explain his illustrations with unflappable good humor. The shaky-cam nature of the video and the iffy sound might make it hard for some to watch, but I find it to be a wonderfully real glimpse of a creator really connecting with his target audience. If these videos can’t sell you on Bink & Gollie, I don’t know what can.