Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Good and the Bad -- Sorry, for today there's no "ugly"

First the Good: Dizzy. And no, I'm not talking about myself although I can understand the mistake.

Dizzy by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Sean Qualls is a picture book biography of jazz great Dizzy Gillespie. This book pulls no (literal) punches about Dizzy's early childhood and its abusive nature, which the young trumpeter channeled into his music.

He liked to clown around and to go his own way, earning him the nickname "Dizzy". Although he started as a trumpeter in a swing band (and worked for Cab Calloway), his improvisations ran further afield until he got fired from that gig. In late-night meetings with other jazz musicians, Dizzy invented "Bebop," a style of jazz to be listened to (not for dance).

The text has a nice poetic feel to it. The drawings move from Dizzy as a small child to a larger-than-life icon. A great complement to, say, Jazz ABZ by Wynton Marsalis or Chris Raschka's John Coltrane's Giant Steps or Charlie Parker Played BeBop.

"And now for something completely different."

I confess to picking this one up because of its sparkly pink cover and the use of the name "Sassafras", which is inherently fun to say (and spell). Also, one of the co-author/illustrators is Dena Fishbein, of Dena Designs, one of my favorite producers of cool invitations. The other is Lynn Hirshfield, one of the folks behind the über-clever Wishbone series for PBS, who's been friends with Dena forever. (It says as much inside the back jacket.)

Sassafras: The True Confessions of a Poodle Princess has a few things going for it as a book. Pink sparkly cover? Check. Catchy title? Check. Excellent story? Well . . . let's just say you can't have everything. The main character is Sassafras, a street urchin rescued by a kind dogcatcher. The story is told from first person point of view by the dog, who has a major attitude. Two problems, off the top of my head -- (1) highly anthropomorphic dog (who wears clothes and converses with humans, evidently), yet who sometimes is depicted as very dog-like, resulting in inconsistencies; (2) the dog is really pompous and self-absorbed. As in "not particularly likeable," even when she falls from grace and is presumably taught a lesson -- otherwise, she wouldn't have the haughty tone she does in telling her story from start to finish.

I'd have to agree with the first person who reviewed it for Amazon, saying "if you're a fan of Dena's artwork this book will not disappoint you." But if you're truly a fan of good stories, this one won't make you overly happy. Although hey -- I could be wrong. Lots of mothers of pretty pink princesses appear to disagree with me.

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