• Posted on September 27, 2014

Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum

Everything has a story. So opens the extraordinary new book Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum by first time author/illustrator Zack Rock, and yes, as the whimsical title implies, not only does this museum itself have a story, every single object within the walls of this old schoolhouse has its own eccentric life. And if you happen to be the curator of this museum, you’d better know how to tell a story. No problem. Homer Henry Hudson is your man, or should I say, dog.

Homer Henry Hudson's Curio Museum coverHomer, an old bulldog, is like one of the curio items in his museum: worn around the edges, perhaps a little out of place, full of quirk, and resonant with history. He may have a cloudy eye, but his vision is clear, and his taste for adventure knows no bounds. You see, everything in the museum has been discovered, collected, and/or presented to Homer over his long life as an explorer, and over time, the items have become totems – the material representation of past adventures. His first discovery, a Conatusaurus Skull (#0001) ‘no bigger than a chicken and as rubbish at flying’, found in the soil of his family’s farm, awakens an ‘unquenchable curiosity’ about the world and sets Homer on a life-long quest to uncover, to put it mildly, the unusual.

Ostensibly, Homer’s job is to keep the museum presentable for the visitors, and to ‘sit quiet as a curio’ while they explore the exhibits. Each item is accompanied by a description and a personal note as to its provenance. There are thousands of objects in the museum, but it is always his hope that the visitors will gravitate toward the few ‘favourite bits and bobs’ that have become emblematic of his travels. Some are stand-alone objects, like the Radial Tide Diviner (#0023), a device used by soothsayers on Calypso Island to ‘predict the future based on tidal pattern.’ Unfortunately for the Calypsoian civilization, the entire island slipped into the Ionian Sea after an earthquake in 487BC. “Shame the device never warned the soothsayers that their island sat on a massive fault line,” writes Homer.

Homer Henry Hudson Radial Tide Diviner

The Manneken Mort

The Manneken Mort

Other objects provide a through-line from one part of Homer’s life to another. A young girl who gives the explorer a  Nóttlandian Stuffed Animal (#1981) in gratitude for plucking her out of the rebels’ grasp makes an appearance later in the book when she presents Homer with the Manneken Mort of King Ingmar (#3415) –  a parting gift from her deceased father King Ingmar for saving his daughter’s life. A Manneken Mort is a figure made of fabric bands, each band representing one story in a Nóttlandian’s life. When a person passes away, friends and family gather, and as as each story is recited, another band is added. Like the discovery of the Conatusaurus Skull, upon seeing the Manneken Mort, Henry’s wanderlust is stirred. Has his last band been woven? More importantly, does his explorer’s hat still fit?

Zack Rock’s sepia-infused illustrations in Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum are little masterpieces of humour, imagination, and of course, gobsmacking beauty. Anyone who has ever picked up a watercolour brush will understand how little control one has over the medium, and given the complexity of Rock’s illustrations, it’s no surprise that he does a significant amount of planning before brush hits paper. “Usually I make a small, loose(ish) thumbnail sketch of the scene, just to get the composition down. Once that’s resolved, I do a larger, more detailed final sketch. That gets blown up on Photoshop and printed out so I can transfer it over to watercolour paper using a lightbox. If I have any hesitation about the colours, I do a quick digital mock-up in Photoshop before the painting begins. After that there’s no turning back; I’m walking the tightrope with only my brush for balance.”

Homer Henry Hudson Temple Montepaz Choir Finch

There is a completeness of vision to Rock’s Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum that is cinematic, like a Terry Gilliam film. It is a very particular and artistically playful world, matched in tone and style by Rock’s equally playful word choices. One could spend days with this book and still find visual and narrative treasures anew, like a portrait of Kafka (with antennae) tucked into the corner of a wall, or Homer’s amusing description of how he collected an ornate stone head: “I charged my plane toward the hidden city like a bull…though I lack provisions, I rammed ahead. Though I flew through a porridge of fog, I rammed ahead. And then I rammed a head.” Brilliant.

Homer Henry Hudson bottle

Though a bulldog, Homer Henry Hudson is the embodiment of that most human of qualities – the desire to find meaning in life, even in the of smallest objects and the most seemingly unimportant events.

“Look around. Look closer. That bit of cloud may be the first puff of a newborn volcano. Those tree bark scratches may be an obscure secret code. That discarded rock might once have been, or may someday be, the cornerstone of a great kingdom. Everything has a story.”

Homer Henry Hudson hat fitsThe old bulldog’s declaration at the beginning of the book invites us in to the world of an ‘eccentric explorer extraordinaire’, but by the end of the book, it takes on a deeper resonance. A call to be mindful, to seek out stories, and most importantly, to be the story – to keep adding those bands to our own Manneken Morts, regardless of our age, or breed.

According to his website, Zack Rock is a writer, illustrator, and ‘cardigan enthusiast.’ Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rock spent most of his childhood in California, a state not particularly synonymous with cardigan weather. He received his Master’s in Children’s Book Illustration from the Cambridge School of Art in Cambridge, England – suspected source of his love for light, buttoned sweaters. His work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, video games, comic books, and on album covers. Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum is his first picture book, but I have it on good authority that others may be in the queue.

Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum (Creative Editions, 2014) by Zack Rock

Homer Henry Hudson end page

  • Posted on August 22, 2014

Shelf Landings

Funny…I honestly expected to have few, if any, books for my next Shelf Landings post. And where did they come from anyway? It’s a familiar feeling – the one where I think I can’t possibly be gobsmacked by one more book. Surely the well of creativity and invention has been sucked dry. Nope. That well is infinite. (Too bad my pockets aren’t as deep.) Nevertheless, it was and IS my intention to make Shelf Landings brief and frequent, a quick post whenever a new book wanders into my life, but as the kids say, #epicfail. Ah well, I tried. Here are the books that have smacked me in the gob this last month.

Wild Things coverWild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (Candlewick Press, 2014) arrived a week ago, and it looks…delicious. Written by fellow bloggers Julie Danielson, Betsy Bird, and the late Peter Sieruta, the book “offers untold (and often very amusing) stories behind many beloved children’s books and their creators and is a bracing antidote to the sentimentality that often surrounds the genre.” Oh wow! I couldn’t be more excited. As a former bookseller and life-long collector of children’s books, I am frustrated by the “fluffy bunny” dreck served to children on a daily basis, but like these three authors, I am also uplifted by the beauty and intelligence of a well-crafted children’s book. Wild Things promises to be an elucidating and wickedly fun read.

The Slug and the Rat covers

Newly published this month, The Slug and The Rat (Tundra Books, 2014) join their ‘Disgusting Critters’ brethren, The Fly and The Worm in this crazy wonderful series by Elise Gravel. I cannot say enough about this Canadian author/illustrator, and her funny, gorgeously illustrated, and yes, educational books. I plan to get down and dirty with these disgusting critters and write a longer review at a later date, but for now, I will leave you with the covers. Gotta admit though…I have a hard time finding rats or even slugs disgusting, especially when Gravel makes them so darned affable.

God Got a Dog coverGod Got a Dog (Beach Lane, 2013) is the just the sweetest collection of poetically arranged prose and exquisite art! I bought in on the spot when I saw the word ‘dog’ and the name ‘Marla Frazee.’ (And of course, author Cynthia Rylant is no slouch.) God Got a Dog is a dreamy, beautiful book that belongs in everyone’s library. Each page is an ode to some ordinary aspect of human life, like taking a bath, or…getting arrested. I am particularly fond of ‘God Woke Up’, where God is seen sitting under an apple tree in his pajamas, drinking coffee, quietly pondering the beauty around him –

“The birds were singing and He was at peace. Buddha told Him it could be this way, but He’d never really believed it until now. Life really was easier, sitting under a tree.”

God Got a Dog 2 tree

I am a HUGE fan of Marla Frazee’s illustration and cannot imagine a lovelier compliment to her art than the charming, evocative words of Cynthia Rylant. Protagonist notwithstanding, God Got a Dog is reverent, but not overtly religious. Most wonderfully, God is imagined as a man and as a woman, old, young, white, black, and as a lover of dogs. In pondering what it is to be human, imperfections and all, God Got a Dog is itself, a rare, perfect creation.

Henry's Freedom Box coverI have a fascination with the American Civil War. No surprise, as I am a white Canadian of the female persuasion. Seriously, I have no idea where this comes from, but I suspect it has something to do with Ken Burns and an early reading of Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter, a superb novel about abolitionist John Brown. Incidentally, I recently finished the fabulous The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, which is also about Brown’s sordid activities preceding (and precipitating) the Civil War, but written from the point of view of a young black boy.

There is no shortage of books about the Civil War and the history of slavery in the United States, and more than a few of these are written for children. One day I will do an overview of these books, but for now, I was pleased to find Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad (Scholastic Press) on the shelves of my local bookstore while I was still reading The Good Lord Bird. The picture book has been around since 2007, becoming a Caldecott Honor book the following year. No wonder – it’s beautiful. Ellen Levine’s biographical narrative of Henry Brown’s life from a young age (slaves were not allowed to know their birthdays) to adulthood is both inspiring and heartbreaking. Henry Brown was born a slave in Virginia, but later, when his own family is sold, he arranges his freedom by having himself mailed to awaiting abolitionist activists in Philadelphia, via the Underground Railroad. It is harrowing, but in Levine’s hands, it also reads like an adventure story (with a happyish ending.)

Henry's Freedom Box detail

I love Kadir Nelson’s illustration on the cover depicting a young Henry ‘Box’ Brown, at that point still a slave, staring intently at the viewer. In this illustration especially, Nelson truly captures the self-possession and determination Brown must have possessed to embark on such a desperate, dangerous journey. Inspired by a lithograph of Henry ‘Box’ Brown by Samuel Rowse (created as a fundraiser in 1850 for the anti-slavery movement), Nelson uses crosshatched pencil lines, with applications of watercolour and oil to achieve the original feel of the lithograph. The illustrations are stunning, and like Levine’s words, deeply intimate.

Not a day goes by when I am often lurking about the Brain Pickings blog, which is a good place to feed your book lust, if you have one. Back in April I Drawn to Drawing coverread a post about John Vernon Lord, a British illustrator, and his illustrations for a special edition of Through the Looking-Glass. I love pen & ink illustration, having dabbled in it myself, and his work just BLEW MY MIND. A copy of Through the Looking-Glass proved too hard to find, and too expensive, so I ordered a copy of Drawn to Drawing: John Vernon Lord (Nobrow Press, 2014), a newly published, visual biography of his creative output over the last 50 years. It’s splendid! Makes me want to unpack my pens…so I can stab myself in the neck with them. I mean, why bother?

Henry Hudson's Curio Museum coverA longer review of Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum (Creative Editions, 2014) by Zack Rock will follow, but I cannot resist posting a small teaser. Incredibly, this is Rock’s first picture book, but it is, like one of the curio objects in Homer Henry Hudson’s museum, a treasure; revelatory, full of quirk, and exquisitely beautiful. That Homer Henry Hudson just happens to be a bulldog is but one of the many delightful oddities to be found within the pages of this book. Can’t wait to dive in paws first.

A book like The Forever Flowers (Creative Editions, 2014) elicits two responses: the first, damn. The second, double damn. Forever Flowers II coverMichael J Rosen and Sonja Danowski have created something very special with The Forever Flowers. A young grouse clings to summer, as manifested in the petals of a forever flower – the first to appear, the last to disappear – which she keeps in a small packet around her neck. The extra weight draws her down to a pond, and she misses the migration. Taken in by a kindly spaniel and his companion, the bird impatiently awaits the return of spring. There is more to it, much more, but I will reserve my thoughts until I can write a fuller review. But for now…damn.

The Mockingbird Next Door coverI’ve just finished re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and was struck anew by the brilliance of the story, and by extension – Harper Lee. I am very much looking forward to reading The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee (The Penguin Press, 2014), a new biography of sorts, written by Marja Mills. In some metaphysical twist of fate, Mills was given Lees’ blessing to move next door to the notoriously media shy author (who lives with her sister Alice Finch Lee), and was, over the span of several years, privy to the daily minutiae of Ms. Lee’s life. A timely publication, as I am not yet ready to leave Maycomb.

Lastly, I picked up Krazy Kat & The Art of George Herriman (Craig Yoe, Abrams, 2011) because I have immense respect for the history of comic art, and I Krazy Kat coverwanted to read the the essay by Bill Watterson. I’m not sure if this constitutes a good enough reason to purchase the book, especially as I am only peripherally aware of George Herriman via my other cartoonist obsessions (McDonnell, Watterson, etc.,), but, as it turns out, Krazy Kat is as lovely as it is interesting. Most definitely a book to be lingered over.

That’s it! For now. Stay tuned…