Book News

Profiles In Awesomeness: David Gardner

Illustrator extraordinaire David Gardner and I have been pals ever since our book Sarah Gives Thanks was first published in 2012.

Remember her?

He and I live about 1,000 miles apart, so we’ve never met face to face, but we are friends nonetheless—often emailing, occasionally phoning, and annually exchanging Christmas cards.

Perhaps most awesomely, we send each other our latest children’s books.

One of David’s more recent efforts is a picture book biography of the great songwriter Irving Berlin. I highly recommend it. Leslie Kimmelman’s story is fantastic and, as always, David’s illustrations are a sight to behold.

Take a look!

Berlin as a young man singing in a saloon…

Berlin composing songs to improve wartime morale…

And look at this amazing page depicting the exhilarating hubbub of the Lower East Side!

Isn’t it cool?

Wait. Hold on.

That last illustration…

I think I…

I think I saw something…

GASP!

I have been immortalized!

Thank you so much, David!

And keep your eyes peeled, my friend. Someday, when you least expect it, I shall return the favor!

Essays/Book Reviews, On Writing

Street Scenes

The place could use a coat of paint. Otherwise, it’s perfect.

There was a certain magic to Sesame Street in the 1970s that doesn’t quite exist anymore. I came to this realization after borrowing Sesame Street Old School DVDs from the library and revisiting the street I remembered from my childhood. It was a very different place, to say the least.

For one thing, there were hardly any Muppets on the street itself. Yes, Bert and Ernie lived in the basement apartment at 123 – but they were rarely seen outside of it. Herry Monster would show up and occasionally wreak havoc. But really, the only regulars on the street were Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and, later, Snuffleupagus.

This is a far cry from the Sesame Street of today which frequently plays host to large roving gangs of Muppets, often led by Elmo and his loyal posse: Zoe, Abby, Baby Bear, Rosita, and Telly. Big Bird, Oscar, and Snuffy are there too, of course, and other Muppets can be found hanging out apartment windows.

Basically Muppets have taken over the neighborhood. It is a rare episode to see more than one or two actual human beings take on a significant role in any of the “street stories.”

It’s like a fuzzy, adorable West Side Story

This is a far cry from the street of the 1970s. Adults were everywhere then. They laughed and joked with each other. They did things as a group. It wasn’t unusual to see Maria, Luis, Bob, Gordon, Susan, and David – all young, fun loving, and outgoing – hanging out on the stoop chewing the fat. The friendships between them felt genuine – kind of like what you might see in a real neighborhood. Even the fact that Mr. Hooper was rarely a part of these coffee cloches felt right; he was of a different generation and had a store to run.

The physical characteristics of the street itself also changed over time. Today’s street reflects the slow but steady gentrification of the neighborhood. Sesame Street is now as sunny, bright, and colorful as the many, many Muppets who reside there. It is a beautiful place to be sure, but, like the Muppets, the street doesn’t feel quite genuine. The buildings are too crisp and pristine. It feels a bit too fantastic to be a part of this world.

The street of the 1970s looked lived on. The colors were muted to the point of dingy; the color palette leaned heavily toward, grays, olives, and browns. Fixtures were worn, maybe a little bent or rusty. The buildings were speckled with those mysterious black stains that always seem to find their way on to most every structure that’s more than a few years old. It was a clean street by 1970s standards, but 1970s standards weren’t all that clean. New York was an armpit back then and Sesame sort of fit into that environment.

And this is what made the Sesame Street of my childhood so magical: The place looked ordinary enough to be real.

In fact, almost every kid in my kindergarten class thought they knew where Sesame Street was; any visit to New York offered up dozens of potential sightings.

I, too, was one of the true believers. When I was young, my parents took me to the Bronx Zoo. As soon as we crossed the George Washington Bridge, I had my eyes out the window. I checked the street signs, looked for that familiar stoop, and got giddy enough to do a car dance whenever I found a location that came sort of close. I never did spot that friendly, seven-foot-tall canary, but the delightful possibility that I might was always just around the next corner.